We Shouldn’t Use Private Conversations Against People

I’m thinking back to the leaked emails from the Sony hacking scandal.  I think in most cases what people say in their private communication, especially if it is in the form of a joke, even if it is a tasteless one, should not be used against them.  In a free society people need the freedom to express themselves in private, even if it is in a way that you might not like.

I worked at Panera Bread for the extensive period of one week.  I had gotten the job through a friend.  Our manager at the time was gay.  My friend and this manager got along great and would take the piss out of each other in a friendly way.  I remember at one smoke break the following lines being spoken:

Gay Manager:  Star Wars is a gay themed movie with many gay overtones.

My friend:  No it’s not.  They killed all of the homos before they went into space.

Now my right hand up to God, this was just two friends busting balls, as is so common in the North East where I’m from.  Everyone takes the piss out of everyone else.  The show Entourage had a funny season or two before it quickly descended into stupidity.  One thing they did get right though, was how people from the North East verbally fuck with each other all of the time.  It’s always with love, because you wouldn’t say those kinds of things to people you didn’t know.  Only with your friends would you be that openly cruel, unless you really did want to fight someone.

Now if you took my friend’s line out of context, it would be easy to misconstrue, especially if it was in writing.  So if you get part of a private conversation, and it is taken out of context, and again it is clearly in the form of a joke, even if it is bad taste, you just can’t possibly know the intention.  If the context is readily available that is a different matter, but that is really a much higher bar to clear.

Plus, if you make people afraid to express themselves or use certain kinds of language, then language becomes coded.  People start using euphemisms, which hides the intent of the language and makes it even harder to ascertain what is really going on.  I would much rather hear someone say we are going to bomb the shit out of men, women, and children, than hear the phrase tactical strike.  Regarding the first one, there is no illusion as to what is being done.  You can recognize it and deal with it however you see fit.  The second term is bureaucratic language that hides the cruelty of the act in meaningless safe sounding words.  Sure, many of us will know what they mean, but it will make it easier for some people to ignore what is going on.  Even if you do know what is going on it is not going to make as much of a visceral impact on those that are listening.  Words do matter.  Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.”

Politicians use euphemisms to hide their intent all of the time, to get away with things without lying.  It muddies the water.  Isn’t there already enough of that going on?

The Unknown Known and the Meaningless Language of Donald Rumsfeld


My last post featured John Oliver on drones.  In that video Oliver talks about a government memo in which the word imminent is robbed of all meaning.  Recently I watched the Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known, which is a documentary about Don Rumsfeld.  A better title would have been The Man Who Wasn’t There.  Rumsfeld talks in a bureaucratic language that robs everything of meaning.  He speaks almost entirely in euphemisms.  The more you watch of this movie, the less you know.

That does not mean that it is without value.  While you start the movie thinking it is going to be a movie trying to hold Rumsfeld accountable for the mistakes, namely the Iraq War, that he made while in government, it becomes that almost seems more to be about the manipulation of language.

Having just read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think but to compare Rumsfeld to Eichmann.  Now let me be clear, I am not comparing Rumsfeld’s crimes to Eichmann, or saying that they have an exact personality match.  However, both seemed to be characters in bureaucracies that used a kind of empty language that masked the horrible realities of their actions.  Both men also seem to be very shallow thinkers.

Rumsfeld, in this movie, rarely seems to reflect deeply on what he has done.  He has kept an amazing amount of records.  He dictated so many memos that he called them “snowflakes”.  He doesn’t seem to be consciously misleading Morris.  It is more that he answers the questions directly, but in a way that is devoid of any deeper meaning.  It is an interesting movie with an extremely frustrating subject.