A shrewd choice of words can make barbarism seem like social utility.
by Ravindra-svarupa dasa
In Politics and the English Language, an essay published in 1946, George Orwell showed how political writing and speech, which, he said, are “largely the defense of the indefensible,” corrupt language through wordiness, hackneyed expressions, vagueness, ambiguity, and euphemisms. The intent of the writer or speaker, Orwell said, is to conceal what he is actually saying—even from himself. For example: “Defense-less villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
Orwell’s essayhas become famous, but that did not inhibit American officials from using these very euphemisms during the Vietnam War.
More recently, the American public was given a dramatization of Orwell’s lesson in the widely-viewed television show Holocaust. A leading character in the story was one Eric Dorf, a bright young lawyer who rose to prominence in the S.S. chiefly because of his talent for manufacturing euphemisms. Dorf named the ghettos in which Jews were confined “Autonomous Jewish Territories”; the removal of Jews to death camps he called “resettlement” and “relocation”; the murder of Jews en masse he named “special handling.” Thus Dorf provided the S.S. a way to talk about their activities without making themselves and their listeners unduly conscious of what they were actually doing.
“Political language,” wrote Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” But neither Orwell’s essay nor the popularization of his lesson in Holocaust seems to have deterred people from using political language. It continues to fulfill a great need. One particular contemporary American instance is very revealing.
The political issue here is abortion. But abortion is an ugly and brutal word because what it names is ugly and brutal. A billboard advertising ABORTION in yard-high letters would shock our sensibilities. But we are not made needlessly conscious of the service offered when we read PREGNANCY TERMINATION. Here is political language at its finest. A clumsy cluster of polysyllables is substituted for a short, direct word. The new expression slyly sidesteps the fact that a life is ended by suggesting only that a pregnancy is. The phrase, to use Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and coveringup all the details.”
Moreover, when the mother comes to have her pregnancy terminated—that is, her fetus aborted—she never hears that anything so crude and offensive as the killing of a child will take place. Rather, she hears that the tissue will be removed, an expression that puts the operation comfortably on the level of the cutting out of an ingrown toenail or the lifting off of a wart.
Obviously some anonymous Eric Dorf has been diligently at work, doing a necessary service.
The very fact that proabortionists take refuge in political language is itself a strong argument against their case. There would be no need for euphemism if there were nothing to hide. The transparency of the deception only shows how desperate people are to become unconscious of their acts. Although at heart they recognize the self-deception, they carry on the ruse, for the clarity of consciousness would be unbearable.
Orwell saw that when language is corrupted, thought is corrupted, consciousness is corrupted—people are corrupted. To improve language is to improve human beings. Yet the appearance of political language among abortion advocates especially shows how difficult the problem is. For most proabortionists are liberals and, as such, claim to be sensitive to the kind of language needed for the totalitarian bureaucratization of evil. They, above all, listened to Orwell. Yet they are sadly susceptible to the same corruption. Pregnancy termination and removal of the tissue must be added to pacification, elimination of unreliable elements, and special handling as part of the particular contribution of our time to the corruption of human life.
I suspect, however, that an advocate of abortion would charge that my case is question-begging and assert that I must deal with tissues more substantive than language. Pregnancy termination and removal of the tissue, the proabortionist might say, are somewhat euphemistic, but they are more than that. The mother seeking an abortion has made a difficult choice, and much of her difficulty is due to her conditioning by a specious outlook that regards the fetus as a person and its destruction as homicide. This view is based on the unscientific idea that the fetus is a person by virtue of a “soul.” Calling the fetus “tissue” only emphasizes that tissue is all the fetus, in fact, is, and tissue is all that is destroyed. My argument presupposes that the fetus is a person, but that assumption is precisely what is in question.
Here, then, abortion is justified by a view of the world that (appealing to the authority of science) sees everything in existence, human beings included, as arising out of ultimately accidental combinations of blind and lifeless matter. Everyone is familiar with this position. As a justification for abortion, however, it has problems. According to this view, a fertilized ovum becomes a human being through a gradually increasing complexity in organic structure. Yet the point in this process at which the entity is complex enough to be called “human” is acknowledged to be arbitrary. Any number of different criteria can be picked for any number of reasons. Granting the principle that reduces human beings to complexities of matter, a strong case has been made that a child becomes human only well after birth—for example, when it has developed the neural connections associated with language. The point is that we decide, arbitrarily, whether or not we want to recognize some being as human. After all, the same reductionistic philosophy that decrees a fetus to be tissue also decrees you and I to be tissue. We are, all of us, nothing but tissue. But because we have chosen to kill the unborn child, we now make a point of calling it “tissue.” If we chose to kill others, we could classify them as “tissue” well. Are the mentally retarded “tissue Are the old and infirm “tissue”? Of course they are, and if we decide that it is too expensive and bothersome to take care them (or, in political language, that it involves “too high a social cost”), we will start calling them “tissue” and beg “terminating” them.
We are back to language. It makes easier for us to kill people if we don’t think of them as such. By word magic, we make them less than human: “scum,” “gooks “pigs,” and, in this case, “tissue.” That we have a philosophical justification for this procedure only makes it worse. Certain Eric Dorf’s language was based on the philosophy that Jews were not human and killing them not murder—but only “special handling,” like disposing of unwanted warehouse stock.
The linguistic issue and the substantial issue really come to the same point: depersonalization. Historically, depersonalization began with nature. Before nature could be conquered and exploited, it had to be depersonalized. As long as nature was thought to be controlled by person forces, one had to placate and satisfy the through propitiation and sacrifice. The powers were stronger than men and easily offended; one had to be careful and subservient; at best, control was indirect and precarious. But the mechanistic view the world as nothing but structures of dead matter shoved about by unvarying impersonal forces made possible a technology for the direct human domination and control over nature.
This depersonalization, however, has already begun with Christianity, which banished the pagan gods and the myriad local spirits of woods and streams and mountains. Christianity recognized a single transcendent Deity entirely separate from His creation. Thus nature lost both its personal and its sacred character. In fact, with Christianity, the nonhuman part of creation became something of an anomaly; it had no significance in itself but was merely the backdrop for the central human drama of redemption. Humans alone had immortal souls, and all the excess of furious and intricate life that otherwise fills the world was an unintelligible addendum, meaningful only when it serve some human end. The world, thus depersonalized and desacralized, could now be regarded entirely as a thing, as a object for detached study and the mechanical manipulations of an impersonal, science.
There was some success in this endeavour, and naturally the question arose, Why should humanity itself be unique, categorically different from the rest of creation? If laws are universal and nature a unity, why shouldn’t human beings be subject to the same categories of explanation that cover everything else? And as for God—God was already seen as essentially disconnected from the creation, so transcendent that we can properly form no positive idea of Him at all, and the vision of the world as a field of impersonal forces operating according to unchangeable laws made Him even more remote and finally irrelevant. God went into eclipse, and humanity was no longer unique.
That human life itself is now becoming more and more impersonal and mechanistic is simply-the latest stage in this historical development. We depersonalized nature; we depersonalized God; now we are busy depersonalizing ourselves. The domination of the mechanistic and reductionistic view of the world in our culture insures that the process will continue. Although people continually complain about being treated as things, these same people fully accept a view of the world that makes them into things. This is why the nightmare vision of society turned into a numbered robotized collective enslaved to mindless routines by an inscrutable bureaucracy or a remote, omnipotent leader haunts us with such persistent force.It is genuinely prophetic, for the future is already in us. We have accepted all the conditions for it, and now we fearfully await the manifestation.
The establishment of abortion brings the nightmare closer to reality. We may fear the growing depersonalization of life, but to justify the killing of an unborn child because it is nothing but tissue is to advance that depersonalization one terrifying step further.
Depersonalization means the deadening of life, the transformation of what is vital into something inert and mechanical. It signifies a loss of consciousness. This is important to realize, because it brings to light the fact that no one can depersonalize others without at the same time depersonalizing himself. The people who make an unborn child less than human thereby make themselves less than human, and they unwittingly reveal this by adopting language that is designed to foster unconsciousness. Orwell himself particularly observed that a speaker of political language is more like a “dummy” than a live human being: he “has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine” and entered into “a reduced state of consciousness.” Reduction of consciousness precisely defines the regression of the human race.
A progressive human life is a continuing struggle against unconsciousness. Unconsciousness characterizes the dead, the inert to be fully alive is to be fully conscious. The enhancement of consciousness is the triumph of life over death, of spirit over matter. Depersonalization, unconsciousness, threatens everything of value human life can achieve. Yet we have for some time already been reduced in consciousness. The depersonalization of God and of nature were significant steps toward our own depersonalization; seeing God and nature as insentient is a function of our own reduced sentience.
Before we can do anything about depersonalization, we have to understand its cause. Depersonalization is necessary for us to dominate and enjoy others. When I, a conscious subject, recognize another as a conscious subject like myself, the kinds of relationships we have are what we call personal, based on a mutual respect for each other’s subjectivity. If, however, I set out to dominate another in order to use that person as an instrument for my own enjoyment, then I change him or her into an object, a mere means. The person becomes merely a tool to be manipulated and controlled. I do not consider that the other has significance for himself, and thus I lose the consciousness of the other as a person. For example, a factory owner interested only in profit will not really consider his employees humans as such; they are merely tools of labor, factors in an economic equation, usable commodities. In a similar way, women are exploited by men when men regard them only as objects for enjoyment, mere instruments. The exploiter of workers or of women depersonalizes them, but in the process he has depersonalized himself, for he has become unconscious. Thus incapacitated, he is unable to experience personal relations and has emptied his own life of significance.
Thus, the drive to satisfy human appetites causes depersonalization and unconsciousness. All human relations in which this drive is a factor are to that extent corrupted, and the would-be enjoyer, his consciousness diminished, becomes deprived of the only real source of happiness: genuinely personal relations, which alone enhance consciousness and life itself.
For this reason, we must accept the hard but unavoidable conclusion that depersonalization and unconsciousness can be eliminated only by eliminating the desire to enjoy others. Since this desire is so deeply rooted, its eradication would seem to require a very fundamental kind of human reformation. This may seem radical but it should not be surprising. We have seen how the steady encroachment of depersonalization and unconsciousness into our lives—exemplified in our acceptance of abortion—is a function of a long-established, fundamental view of the world. Constitutional amendments, legislation, and similar superficial measures are not going to change that. Rather, the impersonal, mechanistic view of the world must be abandoned. But that will happen only if we can become free from the desire to make others instruments to our own enjoyment.
The only vision of the world I know of that is fully personal, that sees both God and all fellow living beings as irreducibly conscious and personal, is taught by Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita and elaborated further in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. According to this view, not just humans—and human fetuses—are souls: all living beings are souls: The soul is a minute but eternal spiritual entity with consciousness as its essential characteristic. Souls animate bodies of matter; they are the living force. Thus, there is no living creature without significance for itself. A person who has become fully conscious by following the directions of the Bhagavad-gita sees this, and he will not exploit any creature for his enjoyment. His love is unrestricted and unimpeded.
A conscious person will not kill even animals (much less very young humans) for his pleasure or convenience. Certainly the unconsciousness and brutality that allows us to erect factories of death for animals lay the groundwork for our treating humans in the same way.
The idea that life is the property of souls is derisively referred to by mechanistic thinkers as “vitalism” or “animism.” They assert that there is no evidence for souls. Yet it has been a singular failure of materialistic science to demonstrate how out of a world composed of nothing but matter something arises that experiences matter. Moreover, the ability to apprehend souls is not possessed by everyone—it is not, in particular, possessed by those who have become unconscious because of their exploitative mentality. A society whose ideal is to reduce everything to exploitable objects will not produce many people conscious enough to see what is living and personal. That society will advance only into the increasing obscurity of unconsciousness and impersonality.
Yet it is possible to counteract this corruption of our experience, this brutalization of consciousness that annihilates our ability to enter into personal relations and condemns us to an absurd, insipid existence in a lifeless, soulless world. We do not have to be victims of the politics of unconsciousness.
According to the Bhagavad-gita, the desire to control and enjoy others is not natural in us. Desire itself is the symptom of life; desire is natural, but in its original state that desire is manifest as unrestricted love for God, Krsna, the Supreme Person—and through Him, for all other persons that come from Him and are part of Him. Only in our unconscious state have we forgotten the real object of our love and allowed our love to be transformed into lust, into the desire to exploit others for our selfish purposes. This transformation can be reversed.
The practical method that reconverts lust into love, unconsciousness into consciousness, is called bhakti-yoga. This yoga redirects the use of the senses from dominating and enjoying others to serving Krsna, who is the natural master of the senses. In the course of that devotional service, all the potentialities of the soul become manifest. We experience the true pleasure of full consciousness, of life without limitation or qualification. This advancement into complete consciousness and unimpeded personal relations is aim of human life.
Even though consciousness is a live option, the future for human society still looks bleak. The acceptance of abortion is a great victory for the politics of unconsciousness. Still, unlike the millions innocent children it has ruthlessly destroyed, we do not have to become its hapless victims. We do not have to succumb this monstrous negation of life. We still accept the invitation of Krsna and rejoin the world of the living.