Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: