This is the age of euphemy, and sophomores rule. Nobody can screw up the courage to say what he means, and even if he could he had better not. Political correctness has something to do with it, but mostly it’s an inability to confront reality, and the language reflects that. The evidence lies all about. There are no more dead-end streets, but streets with No Outlet. Traffic barriers have been replaced by “impact attenuators.” The dead have become the “deceased,” attended not in mortuaries but in “funeral homes.” The disabled have become the “differently abled.” Words, like money, are fungible. Who knew?
The politicians caught on early. Congress often tries to disguise the meaning of unpopular legislation by calling it something that’s it’s not. This enables congressmen too busy to read the legislation they’re about to enact to get a hint, and hints are usually enough, to what the legislation is all about. The crafty and the clever with words called legislation to nibble at the rights of free men “the Patriot Act.” Legislation wrecking health care was called the Affordable Care Act, which is turning out to be not very affordable for most Americans, with little thought for actual care.
Aliens who jump the line to get ahead of legal immigrants are no longer called what they are, illegal aliens, in bibliographies, the guides to the written word, at the Library of Congress. Sophomores at Dartmouth College petitioned the library to ban the term because it’s “racially charged,” and the librarians meekly surrendered. Another guardian of the language went down for the count. Even the sophomores at Dartmouth were surprised by what sophomore power had wrought. “We were surprised,” says a third-year sophomore sociology major. “‘Illegal alien’” is a dehumanizing, racially charged term. It’s about how we talk about things. The word ‘alien’ makes undocumented people seem far removed, [like an] extraterrestrial.” Bonnie and Clyde would understand. They didn’t like being called bank robbers, preferring “bank examiners.” Today they might call robbing banks merely “unauthorized withdrawals.”
The latest wordplay comes from the Department of Justice (some would say that the department itself is inaccurately named), which now shuns accurate descriptions of young criminals lest it hurt their feelings. In an earlier day teenage criminals were described as, well, teenage criminals. Some, like Michael Brown at Ferguson, Mo., who was slain when he tried to disarm a cop after he had robbed a convenience store, were even called “thugs.” Everyone knew what that meant. Young lives mattered, and punishment is necessary to protect everyone else, and it was the first step toward rehabilitation and a better life. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch now calls such young toughs and thugs “justice-involved youth.” Once upon a time the way to successful rehabilitation was to teach “justice-involved youth” how to get their lives together, not to spray perfume on the bad things they had done.
President Obama wants to make sure that certain lawbreakers do not suffer the stigma of “mislabeling,” and the crimes he considers particularly abhorrent are not necessarily murder, armed robbery, car theft or vandalism, but the production of methamphetamines, and domestic violence. A justice-involved youth should be careful to beat up his neighbor, not his girlfriend, and stick to heroin and coke and leave meth alone. Putting a clean label on a sordid crime, like putting lipstick on a razorback hog, does not alter reality. But it might make a thug feel better about himself on his way to a mark.