Friday, March 3, 2017

There’s such a cowardice in euphemism

This isn’t a very long or substantive post.  It won’t make any new arguments, and it won’t refute arguments made by anyone else.  I’m just writing to call attention to something which angers me, in the hopes the reader will start to notice it too:   just   how   many   euphemisms statists use to justify the violence of the state.

The central insight of libertarianism is that all governance is violence.  Most people recognize on a fundamental level that violence is normally bad.  If everyone recognized that all government is violent, justifying government would be much more difficult, and the case for a smaller government would be much easier to make.  Accordingly, making the case for a bigger state usually requires you to conceal or downplay the violence inherent in what you propose – sometimes, even from yourself.  This is why statists find euphemisms so appealing: they make state solutions presentable in polite company.

The military may be the clearest example of this, and as an officer I’m exposed to even more of these euphemisms than the average American.  At the tactical level, the heart of what we do is kill people – let’s be real here – but we rarely use that word.  We prefer to say we “eliminated the target(s),” thereby abstracting the verb and dehumanizing the subject. We don’t even say we shoot people, we’re just “engaging” the enemy.  Engage! what a harmless sounding word! If we don’t kill enough people, we go back to “mop-up” the area.   If we accidentally kill the wrong person, that’s just “collateral damage.” If we torture someone, we’re just using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or even “physical persuasion.”  And don’t worry, that isn’t a war crime – it’s just “extralegal.”

On the operational level, the folks being tortured are often unlawfully imprisoned outside the US without due process of law, but we don’t like to put it that way either; they’re merely “under protective custody” at an “offshore internment facility.” On a strategic level, we don’t like the sound of “killing foreign leaders who oppose us”, so we just call it “regime change.”  In Vietnam, our napalm was merely a “defoliant” – the casual reader would never know we were dropping fire-bombs on areas rife with civilians.  When Cambodian children are blown up each year by the remnants of our carpet-bombing campaign, we frown at the tragedy of “incontinent ordnance.”  Even bureaucratically, the entire “Department of Defense” does hardly a thing that directly defends American citizens.  It originally had a more honest title: the Department of War.

Domestically, ICE agents don’t kidnap fathers from their children, they merely deport undocumented aliens.  DEA agents don’t kick down your door and shoot your dog in the middle of the night - they just investigate leads of potential illicit substance distributors.  Policemen don’t kill black people, they just neutralize perceived threats with lethal force.  TSA agents don’t molest you and steal your shampoo, they simply look for contraband and remove it.  It’s all sterilized.  The more technical the jargon, the easier it is to stomach.

Taxation, of course, is the biggest example, as it underlies everything the government does.  Hardly a day goes by without politicians saying something to the effect of “it’s high time we ask all Americans to pay their fair share.” Of course, there’s no ASKING about it: taxes don’t work that way.  What they mean is that if you don’t pay, they’ll steal your money, and then your car, and then your home, and then your family’s possessions, eventually throw you in jail. Furthermore, what share qualifies as fair (and why) is never specified; all the speaker means by it is “more.”  All of this relies on conceptions of consent so abstract that they don’t hold water in any other linguistic context.  Statists roll their eyes at the famous “taxation is theft” meme, when really we should roll our eyes to call it anything else.

This is all related to a separate problem I’ve described before on this blog: people’s unwillingness to enforce what they endorse.  I’ve been lamenting it for years, but a few weeks ago a comedian I follow named Jeremy McClellan articulated it more precisely than I ever have.  In economics, he noted, there’s a difference between people’s stated preferences and people’s revealed preferences.  Jeremy calls this the difference between his Netflix queue (which is full of documentaries about bees he told himself he wants to watch someday) and his Netflix history (which is full of re-watched old episodes of The Office or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).  In all walks of life, what we SAY we want is different from what our ACTIONS INDICATE we really want.  Studies have proven this time and again.

Politics is no different, and that’s what makes the state so dangerous.  By normalizing and concealing and dividing up the culpability for violence, politics becomes the outlet for our stated preferences: our preachy virtue signaling on how other people ought to live their lives.  So long as the dirty work of making it so is left to someone else, we’re all too happy to VOICE our support for coercing disfavored groups into abidance by our principles.  But when it comes time to walk the walk, our actions speak louder than our words.  Our revealed preferences – as shown in our market decisions, or in our day-to-day interactions with practitioners of those same disfavored activities – are much kinder and more peaceful than our stated preferences would indicate.  The portion of people who’ll vote to deport undocumented immigrants or lock up pot smokers is vastly larger than the portion who will actually try to detain those people themselves.

Euphemisms are a reaction to this dichotomy: a way for people to pretend what they say is in line with how they act.  They enable doublethink on the part of speaker and audience alike.  In cases where saying something plainly would offend our nobler sensibilities, euphemisms shroud the ugly truth of the speaker’s idea for long enough that it doesn’t initially raise any moral red flags, enabling us to believe two contradictory things at the same time without realizing it (or at least, without admitting it to others).

When the FDA bans an untested but promising AIDS drug, or the DEA bans an untested but pleasant recreational drug, or a taxi regulator bans Uber, or the school board bans homeschooling, or Congress bans discrimination, or some licensing bureau bans certain hair stylists, or a mayor bans untaxed cigarettes, or Evangelical senators ban abortion or prostitution, the advocates of those bans rarely focus their advocacy on what should happen to people who do it anyway.  They prefer to dwell on how great society could allegedly be were those taboo activities to simply vanish – to lure us with the fantasy that with the stroke of a pen, the people who formerly practiced such activities will instantly cease and desist.  It’s inconvenient for them to acknowledge that some will resist their moral imperialism, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront the question of just how to deal with such people.

The state can only persist for so long as it’s advocates are spared that confrontation.  Lots of people might think X is bad and wish fewer people did it, but far fewer typically think it’s bad enough to warrant imprisonment, and fewer still would be willing to enforce that penalty themselves.  If the state did not exist, plenty of people would take it upon themselves to help the poor, or research drug safety, or do any of the other important tasks that we tragically hand over to unaccountable bureaucrats today.  But hardly anyone would take it upon themselves to start wars, deport immigrants, ban Muslims, arrest pot-smokers, shut-down businesses or steal, because we are more tolerant in person than we are behind the ballot box.

The first step to realizing that is to be honest with yourself about what it is you are saying.  There are times when violence is justifiable.  Smart people can disagree about what those circumstances are, and if you have a well-thought out opinion on that which differs from mine I totally respect that.  I will debate you in good faith and take your arguments seriously – there are no easy answers in philosophy.  All I ask is that you at least allow the debate to take place by acknowledging that the tradeoff exists.  Don’t cower behind comforting platitudes or numbing technical argot to convince yourself government is all hunky-dory patriotic sunshine and rainbows.  Being wrong is forgivable; being a coward is insufferable.

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