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.

4 responses

  1. Jake, are you sure you didn’t embellish those conversations? If not, then I’m really surprised and impressed with those TSA agents’ patience with you! Either that, or they weren’t really listening at all. You’re giving a lot of credit to people who make less than teachers! ;)

    You raise interesting points here, well worth discussion, but I have to say I think you’re doing the very same thing you accuse the TSA of doing, the same things Orwell warned against. Was that intentional? The pat-down is neither “fondling” nor “molestation” nor “vaguely sexual” (as you well know). Unless you happen to run across a deviant TSA agent, it is none of these things. To use this kind of language is just throwing gasoline on the fire of public outrage, isn’t it? If you’re arguing (as Orwell did) that we ought to use more accurate and concrete language, with fewer half-veiled intentions to manipulate, then shouldn’t you be a little more careful yourself?

    And I don’t think “opt out” is euphemistic either. I think it’s pretty precise, actually. You imply that “opt out” is code for the pat-down, but I would argue the opposite. “Opt out” refers to what you don’t want to do (the x-ray); it refers to what you’re not choosing, not to what you are choosing. — “You have an option not to be x-rayed. What is your choice?” — “I opt out.” Sounds right to me.

    I don’t like what’s happening in air travel. I’m not defending the pat-down or the x-ray. And I think you are most definitely right to point out that government language is full of the worst kinds of abuses Orwell described. I just don’t happen to think you’ve nailed them here. Or if you have, then you’ve used the same hammer on yourself. Or — to paraphrase Orwell — perhaps you’ve hit yourself in the back of the head with a rubber mallet. :)


    • I suspect the TSA agents were more bored than anything else, which shouldn’t be surprising given the number of times they probably have to tell people to take off their shoes and belts every day.

      Anyhow, calling it molestation is overwrought, but there’s something of a purpose. George Lakoff gave a talk at the University of Arizona last semester in which he talked about political rhetoric and how he thinks Democrats spend too much time attempting to use “Enlightenment Reason,” or the idea that if you give people facts they’ll come to the “right” decision, while Republicans use irrational but persuasive narrative images in their arguments. This is obviously designed to make the left look good, but Lakoff’s point is that if Democrats want to win, they have to employ the kind of rhetorical flourishes that might not stand on facts. You can see this line of argument in some of his books; I don’t know if I totally buy the argument, but I do think it interesting. He elaborates on this in “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics” and “Don’t Think Of An Elephant!”

      (The implication, of course, is that people on the right are too dumb / emotional to use their brains to evaluate the claims being made to them. Ignore that part and focus instead on the positive, rather than normative, claims about how people process narratives and emotions into beliefs.)

      Anyhow: Lakoff’s point about narrative and language is that we construct one from the other. Change the language and you can change how people think about what they’re doing (Orwell saw this too). “Opt out” and “pat down” and “security checkpoint” and so forth create a narrative of security and stability instead of one involving hassle, privacy invasion, and the like.

      Or I may just be nailing myself with the rubber mallet, a possibility that should never be discounted.


  2. Pingback: How to keep your customers happy on planes: « The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: How to keep your customers happy on planes: « The Story's Story

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