Doublespeak: You Don’t Realise You’re Being Lied To

Unearthing the subtle art of lying in plain sight

Let’s pause for a minute and think about what the word “detox” actually means. The food industry has long been stamping ridiculous tags on their products, but arguably none as nebulous as the phrase “detox”.

Detoxification is a normal human process, and it happens all day, every day, without any particular food or fitness plan. We unavoidably come across toxins on a daily basis, from obvious culprits like tobacco and alcohol, to water pollutants and pesticides that made way into your dinner plate, and every single pill of Paracetamol you have ever taken in your life. Our body is equipped with organs and systems that can get rid of these toxins in a safe and timely manner.

And so “detox” is nothing more than making changes in the way one eats, drinks, and lives in order to remove as many identifiable toxins as one possibly can, like shifting to anti-inflammatory foods, going organic, and avoiding pollutants when one can. Most food companies, however, understand that there is a market for this — after all, it’s enticing to think that a pill can remove the ill effects of yesterday’s booze bonanza from your body — and so they slap the word “detox” on products that do anything remotely close to actually detoxing the body. As far as science is concerned, there is no better supplement to help detoxify your body than a good lifestyle.

The reason food companies do this is because they can. They don’t have to specify what exactly it is they are detoxing and most people don’t even bother looking up the convoluted chemical formulas and names they see on the packaging, and instead base their decision on whether or not it’s an item worth investing into from the product’s intricately misleading copywriting.

This is just one of many examples of Doublespeak contaminating the democratic construct of society. William Lutz, author of the book Doublespeak, defines it as “language designed to evade responsibility”. He elaborates that Doublespeak can make the unpleasant appear pleasant, the unattractive appear attractive, and is basically language designed to mislead, while pretending not to.

The concept of Doublespeak actually stems from George Orwell’s famous 1984 book, from which the word Orwellian also originates from. Orwell, whose real name is Eric Blair, had unique political views during Britain’s darkest days, and was interested in unraveling how the power of language manipulated our thoughts and actions.

“Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past” -Orwell, 1984

“Double-think” is a key concept in his book, defined as “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies”. For example in the book, and I’d have to advice for upcoming spoilers, the nation’s Ministry of Truth manufactured historical statistics and facts to support the propaganda. The military was named Ministry of Peace, and labour camps renamed to “Joycamps”. Political prisoners are detained and tortured in the Ministry of Love.

Power, in the book, grows not out of the “thought police”, or rule by terror. It grows out of the power of language.

Lutz however explains that Doublespeak is not always bad, as in the case of jargon or euphemisms — words generally used to avoid a distasteful reality, like calling a fat person big boned, or calling a jail a correctional facility, and saying a person ‘passed away’ instead of the cruder ‘died’. One could argue that it paves way for other more disruptive forms of Doublespeak, and some radicals do advocate removing the idea of jargon altogether, but it’s hard to overlook its benefits.

Doublespeak can actually become useful when one is obligated to communicate something without having to straight up lie, and when communicating the truth bluntly will not have the listener perceive the information in a way that one would like. Sometimes, we don’t want to hear words or news that are dished out in ways that are objectively too blunt or unembellished, and that’s why euphemisms are a vital part of society.

But Lutz then continues to say that there are times when we simply cannot tolerate the use of such language, especially on the topic of important public issues and national policies. Manipulating language in such instances can be terribly corrupting in a society and mislead all of us. This is one of the worst forms of Doublespeak, which Lutz categorises as gobbledygook or bureaucratese, and in its more common form, seen when a politician is asked to comment on something they do not want to comment on. Here’s a classic example of NASA’s Jesse Moore after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, when he was asked if the performance of the space shuttle programme had improved with each succeeding launch. He answered:

“I think our performance in terms of the liftoff performance and in terms of the orbital performance, we knew more about the envelope we were operating under, and we have been pretty accurately staying in that”. “And so I would say the performance has not by design drastically improved, I think we have been able to characterize the performance more as a function of our launch experience as opposed to it improving as a function of time.”

And he got away with it.

In 2015, a Texan mayor announced plans to combat obesity following an obesity epidemic within the state along with an update to the school nutrition policy that “included the repeal of certain prohibitions that restricted the use of fryers and sale of low-calorie beverages in Texas schools.” By low-calorie beverages, of course he means sodas, which are technically lower in calories compared to an average meal, but is that really a fair description of sodas?

Edward Sapir in his 1929 essay “The Status of Linguistics as a Science”, describes language as a ‘guide to social reality’. He expanded that “human beings do not live in the objective world alone, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.” Orwell, in another essay published in 1946 titled “Politics and the English Language” wrote that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Frank Luntz in his book Words That Work showcases the idea that language works “not in what you say, but in what they hear”. “Focus on the words that cause people to change their mind, change their behaviour, and even change their attitude,” Luntz wrote. Take the gambling industry, for example, which had its outlook change drastically by a simple phrase change into the “gaming” industry, without actually changing internally. Luntz says:

“Gambling looks like what an old man with a crumbled racing form does at the track, or feels like the services provided by some seedy back-alley bookie in some smoke-filled room.

Gaming is what families do together at the Hollywood-themed MGM Grand, New York, New York, or one of the other family friendly resorts in Las Vegas”. Gambling is a vice, gaming is a choice.”

Plenty of other things we may come across in life work by the same foundational construct. A narrow majority of Americans support abolishing the so-called estate tax, which is a tax on the transfer of the estate of a deceased person, an idea that most Americans find unnecessary, if only they knew what it actually meant. A poll suggested that over 70% of Americans would abolish the same tax scheme when it was renamed to the “death tax”.

When the phrase “tax increase” started being rephrased to “revenue enhancement” sometime during the past decade, economist Larry Kudlow said that the reason it was done was “because there is no better way to sell economic policy than the euphemistic route.” In 1985, the MX missile — which could carry up to 10 reentry vehicles each armed with a 300-kiloton nuclear warhead — was renamed Peacekeeper, deliberately designed to make a nuclear missile sound nice.

Similarly, in 1989, the Kansas City government had set out certain plans to build a resource development park within the local neighbourhoods. Everyone was practically on board with the idea until someone asked what a resource development park was. It was a dump. The government was going to put a dump in the neighbourhood until someone asked what it meant. They deliberately invented that phrase to slip a dump into a neighbourhood without anyone noticing.

There is a certain financial appeal embedded through the concept of Doublespeak, which motivated the food and drug industry to jump in and board the bandwagon. In 1977, fish whole-seller Lee Lantz took the Patagonian Toothfish and renamed it to Chilean Sea Bass, and it took the market by storm. Nobody wants to have Toothfish for dinner, but an exotic breed of Sea Bass, now that’s certainly something else.

Besides the earlier example of sodas and “detox” teas, there is an ongoing debate on the ethical use of the phrase “sugar-free” on food labels. In 1989, when William Lutz was interviewed for his ideas on Doublespeak, he says that “sugar free simply means they haven’t added cane sugar or table sugar into it, they can still add sweeteners and call it sugar-free”. This is a classic example of Doublespeak, because noone’s lying — there is technically no ‘sugar’ in the product, not by the most commoner’s definition of the word ‘sugar’.

Lutz says that these kinds of labelling can be dangerous for the population at-risk, such as diabetics, who if unaware can be mislead into buying faux sugar-free products that can trigger severe, life-threatening repercussions. Thankfully now, the FDA has regulated “sugar-free” products such that they can only be legally slapped on with that tag if they contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, which on technical terms is still not cutting it.

Doublespeak occurs then, when words are used not to convey meaning, but to undermine it, corrupting the very ideas they refer to. However, the use of Doublespeak is somewhat encouraged by society in our everyday lives because from a young age, we understand that consequences exist. Just because someone uses Doublespeak doesn’t automatically mean they are a cheat, but when you don’t quite understand what is being spoken to you, a good advice would be to look beyond the facade and ask yourself: “what exactly is this person trying to say?”

Orwell’s 1984 forces us to question the core definition of reality and exposes us to the horrors that entail should the basis of liberal, democratic civilisation be breached. “Reality is not external. Reality exists not in the mind of the individual, which soon perishes, but in the mind of the party, which is collective, and immortal. What the party says is reality is real and how else can the party succeed in doing that, except by language. The party has taken control of language and has taken it away from the individual and that’s the power,” summarises Lutz.

Words have the power to shape thought. Language is the currency of politics, forming the basis of society from the most common everyday interactions to the highest of ideals. Orwell urged us to protect our language because ultimately, our ability to think and communicate clearly is what stands between us and a world where peace and freedom is slavery.

Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist. Receive weekly updates from me ⤵

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