The Ethical Life of Euphemisms

13 October, 2020

Chi Luu looks at the impacts of euphemisms and indirect or coded language on perceptions of blame and responsibility, and their role in making unethical acts more acceptable.

There’s a certain safety in indirect language and other linguistic methods of preventing the mud of the unmentionable from sticking to clean-living folk, or what Judith T. Irvine, in her essay “Leaky Registers and Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorillas,” calls a kind of “linguistic cordon sanitaire.”

Passives can be used (by whom?) (such as “she was found dead from the gunfire,” “mistakes were made”), truncated to suppress the human agent until actions appear to simply happen, with no one responsible for them at all. There are other linguistic hedges, such as existential constructions (“there was a shooting”), or turning an active verb into an impersonal and important-sounding nominalization (such as “incarceration”). These are found in quite a lot of technical jargon, downplaying the impact of the very act itself. The research supports the fact that euphemisms and other indirect language can not only affect people’s perceptions of blame, it can also encourage unethical acts, because people tend to view actions as legal or appropriate when described euphemistically—presenting “bribes” as a “soft commission,” for example. Repetition of euphemisms can lead people to forget what ethical problems they once arose from, such as in phrases like “creative accounting” or “right-sizing,” which are wholly disconnected from any corporate illegality or ruthlessness.

As Orwell once said, “[…] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Though euphemisms and other linguistic hedges have their place in how we communicate, the repeated use of troubling euphemistic messaging, such as “officer-involved shooting,” does have an impact on whether perpetrators are ultimately held responsible for their crimes. Framing reports about crimes euphemistically, or omitting disagreeable information out of fear of offending, can certainly have an effect on how people understand the serious moral implications of a situation. It can also allow leaders to mindlessly act or to deliberately ignore ethical crimes while morally justifying their decisions based on more favorable semantics of a form of language that exists to hide the unpleasantly dark truths in human nature.

Jstor Daily, Chi Luu, 30 September 2020. Read the full article here.

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