Rahm Emmanuel and the Iron Law of Euphemism

A good democratic citizen should be reluctant to give offense and slow to take offense.

What the right wing loves to mock as “politically correct speech” is simply the application of the principle that groups of people, especially those whose social status is marginal, should not be referred to by demeaning names. Sarah Palin, for example, the mother of a developmentally disabled child, objects to the use of “retarded” as an insult. (At least, she objects to it when Rahm Emmanuel does it.) And she’s right to do so. Whether she also objects to “illegitimate” or the older “bastard” as ways of referring to the grandson born to her unmarried daughter is not, so far as I know, on the record, but if she does object she has some work to do with some of her fellow wingnuts. She seems to have no problem calling children brought to this country, through no fault of their own, before they were old enough to speak “illegal aliens.”

The entirely praiseworthy effort to be polite is not without its ironies, all relating to what J.K. Galbraith called the Iron Law of Euphemism. Even a neutral-sounding label will soon become pejorative if attached to an unpleasant reality or a despised group. Recall that the Hoover Administration introduced “temporary depression of economic activity” as a less-scary substitute for “crash” or “panic.”

In the case of developmental disability, the clinical terms “idiot,” “moron,” and “cretin” were introduced in the 19th Century to replace the demeaning ordinary-language “natural fool” or “dummy” (which latter served also to label those whose hearing impairment made it hard for them to learn to speak). Later, physicians who didn’t want to tell parents that their children were “idiots” started to tell them that those children were “slow learners,” or, more fomally, “educationally retarded.” It took some years for “RE-tard” to gather its insulting potency.

If Rahmbo had called an idea “idiotic” or “moronic,” (or, for that matter, “lame” or “crazy”) no one would have thought twice about it.

As my teacher Mark Moore likes to say, a good democratic citizen should be reluctant to give offense and slow to take offense.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Rahm Emmanuel and the Iron Law of Euphemism”

  1. Have to agree on this – offensive language is one of the few things that doesn't offend me about this stupid, corrupt, corporate snake who has managed to be wrong about absolutely every position he's ever taken – from globalization to privatization to the 50 state strategy to the Blue Dog caucus. But I don't care what takes him down – just make him go away. I hope he gets caught for cheating on his taxes or having sex with his pet ferret – anything will do. If I had to sum up why I voted for and contributed the maximum to Obama over Hillary it was because I hate Rahm Emanuel. (So I know a lot about being wrong).

  2. I am not so sure that "retarded", in and of itself, is offensive. I have a 14 year old son who has autism. When we were seeking services for him, we had to certify, under penalty of perjury, that he was "mentally retarded." Indeed, the program itself is called Community Access Program for Developmentally Disabled and Mentally Retarded persons. My dictionary defines "retarded" as "slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress."

    What is offensive is using the word as an insult instead of a description.

  3. I try to be politically correct. Since a black dude saved my ass in the Nam, I have called two people "nigger" to their face.

    Both times of extreme tension. A police informer pulled a knife on me and I pulled out a pistol and said, "We are in Phoenix.You are a nigger criminal with a long rap sheet, I am white and totally clean with the law. If I kill you they will give me a medal. Ditch the knife and get out of town."

    Second time, I was in Phoenix immediately after Obama's election. Late, dark and I am extremely paranoid. Someone was walking behind me. I move slow because I am physically handicapped. I stopped and turned around and said, "I am not comfortable with anyone walking behind me." He said something like "You people always assume that blacks are bad." Paused and laughed and "Obama won" with a black power salute. I said, "You niggers are getting way too uppity." He and I were eye to eye and we both cracked up at the same time." Took him to a bar and explained why I was paranoid. Why I had no personal animosity toward anyone, that all of my enemies were dead except Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. Nice guy, we went to the jazz concert that I was headed for. During changeover he complained that he had never heard that kind of music before. He liked it but hadn't heard it. Gave him some live venues to check out and a couple of names to check on Youtube using the public computers and headphones. Nice dude. I lived in Phoenix for a while and it made east Texas look liberal.

  4. "Illegal alien is an insult?"

    Not really, which is why "undocumented alien" isn't really a euphemism. It's more a case of doublespeak, intended to promote talking and thinking about illegal immigration without acknowledging the "illegal" part.

  5. Googling '"Iron Law of Euphemism" -rahm' only gets me a few hits, none of which suggest the origin of the phrase. Anybody got a pointer to that?

    The couple of hits that I did find suggest a somewhat different meaning for the phrase than what's implied here. MK is talking about what Steven Pinker calls the "euphemism treadmill," while the Iron Law of Euphemism seems to be pointed more at substitutions like "negative patient care outcome" for "the patient died."

  6. I'm not sure if "illegal aliens" is offensive. But I think the term "illegals" sure is. It seems to illustrate nicely the view that the crime of being here illegally is something warranting an objectification of one's humanity. We obviously don't have names for people who jay-walk, owe back taxes, etc.

    The arguments for the social/economic costs of illegal immigration are objectively zero-sum, at least enough in my mind to see it as little more than a nuisance, yet one that deteriorates rapidly into folks displaying nativist racism of the oldest and ugliest sort. Of course this is never admitted, as it is most likely located in the unconscious, an area of the racism spectrum most difficult to identify and describe. But high levels of correlation between behaviors of admitted racists and immigrant-bashers provides a good deal of evidence for its expression.

    The difficulty with race seems often that the very people most inclined to hold racist views are those least familiar with the social theory behind its growth. The mechanisms for the expression of "hate" are largely still difficult to pin down – genetic predispositions vs. social normative behavior. But at the very least we have amassed an incredible amount of data on racism throughout history, especially that of the American experience and minority groups. But when one brings up the possibility of racist expression occurring conservatives get very defensive and respond in a way that makes one wonder just how familiar they are with the area of study.

  7. You know, you are probably right that not a significant number of people would've been upset over a theoretical usage of the terms "crazy" or "lame" but, even those two words are starting to gain traction as offensive words. "Crazy" because it can be offensive to people with a mental illness and "lame" because it can be offensive to people with physical disabilities. I don't agree with the supposed offesnive of those two words, but I have definitely heard of those two words as being a 'no-no' in the p.c. sense.

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