“Dishonour Descended” – May 17, 2009

Language has the power to connect, to reveal truths, but it also can disguise or obfuscate (I love that word) the truth. That is, those who have power can control language and thus create their own reality. I wrote a little about it last month. This entry at Daily Kos, The Joke’s on Us, explains how “waterboarding” entered into our vernacular just five years ago and why it should be called its more appropriate name, “water torture.”

The writer begins by describing how certain professions, “so challenging, so emotionally stressful,” require “a culture of biting black humor” to get through each day

Fire fighters who talk about “crispy critters” don’t do it because they fail to understand that the remains found in a smoldering house are someone’s friends, someone’s family. They do it exactly because they know these pitiful remains are all that’s left of living, breathing people, and if they don’t distance themselves emotionally from what they’re seeing, they won’t be able to do their jobs. If they don’t place a box around what they’re experiencing today, they won’t be able to work tomorrow — and tomorrow they just might save someone who can still be saved. Part of that box is language that seems cruel or dismissive to a casual observer.

The writer explains that “waterboarding” was a term created by torturers who needed to create a new name for an old technique. “Waterboarding” was darkly humorous because it likened the activity to surf boarding. It was an inside joke to people who knew and witnessed the horrible reality of torture.  But now, the media have adopted this term and its entered popular culture:

Rather than using the term “water torture,” they’re indulging in the dark humor of the people who watched men’s eyes go wide before the sopping towel was pressed against the face. For that there’s no reason, no reason at all. Because when it comes to matters like torture, the last thing the public needs is a media that’s trying to insert itself between Americans and the ugliness of our government’s actions. Giving us that kind of emotional out isn’t going to protect us, it just makes it easier for us to repeat this horrible era.

Saying “waterboarding” trivializes what we’ve done. It’s not a neutral term, it s dismissive term, created with the purpose of snickering at pain.

The term is “water torture.”

I’ve written this quote before, from J.M. Coetzee’s “Diary of a Bad Year”: “Dishonour descends upon one’s shoulders, and once it has descended, no amount of clever pleading will dispel it.” President Obama may wish to sweep the Bush administration’s torture program under the rug (this shameful, dishonorable age), and focus on the many daunting tasks at hand, but I don’t know that it’s possible. Everyone’s complicit – democrats, republicans alike. They let it happen. We elected them (and re-elected them), and they represent us: so we’re complicit too.

Is that why we say “waterboarding”? Not that we’re being dismissive of the reality, “snickering at the pain,” but that we too tortured?

It’s Sunday, so I’m headed to my grandmothers, laundry and vanilla bean in tow. We’ll wait for a call from my dad, who’s just returned from war-torn Uganda to corrupt Nairobi. My brothers and I joked about being able to insert “war-torn” in front of anywhere he goes. We’re allowed to joke that way because we’re on the inside: the fear is ours.

Previous: “Those Quirky Cues” | Next: “Like Peas and Carrots”

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