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The Practice of Euphemism

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Powerful, generally undetected euphemistic processes in language give us a falsely optimistic model of the world.

The Origin of Euphemistic Distortions

The formation and use of euphemism is a powerful, inevitable process in human language. Every day, subjects must be discussed or alluded to that could cause discomfort in the parties to the conversation, detracting from both the informative purpose of the conversation and the (generally more important) social bonding function. To avoid the discomfort, taboo subjects are discussed in a circuitous manner, removed as much as possible from the disturbing aspect of the topic. Disturbing aspects are ignored, reframed, treated symbolically, or otherwise elided.

On the level of diction, words and phrases are found to bring to mind the relevant aspects of a topic, while minimizing the disturbing or irrelevant aspects. Metaphor and metonymy are common mechanisms for euphemism, but there are many such methods, with not just new euphemisms, but new euphemistic mechanisms, being invented all the time.

But euphemism does not only happen on the level of word choice. From micro- to macro-, from the foundational narrative/legend of a society to the way social relationships are cognized, human language users and language-using communities and even nature (via evolution) are acting on language to orient human thought in euphemistic directions. How our brains conceive of the world (including language) is not related to what’s actually important in a universal sense, but to what was important to organisms’ fitness goals in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. We do not perceive all wavelengths of light or sound, but only those that (a) were relevant to survival in the EEA and (b) for which a perceptive apparatus was evolutionarily available. (And we do not perceive things like X-rays at all.) Similarly, language does not give us a picture of what is, but only a picture of what was relevant to survival in the EEA.

Artists Explode Euphemism

The project of artists (and of phenomenology) is often to explode euphemistic ways of thinking. In “Dulce et Decorum est,” Wilfred Owen does so for the romantic idea of glorious death in combat. Patriotism and a euphemized conception of those fighting may be more comfortable and politically expedient for the folks back home, but here’s how it really is, says Owen, here is what is elided: the boy who doesn’t get his gas mask on in time, “guttering, choking, drowning,” “the white eyes writhing in his…hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,” at every jolt of the wagon they “flung him in,” the “blood/come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs.” Happy Memorial Day.

No Counter-Process

What does this tell us about the accuracy of the model of the world we have from language? Is our conception accurate? Too rosy? Too negative?

We might expect our visual picture of the world to be “too rosy” if we found that our instrument for detecting red light (eyes, brain) were set too high compared to the mechanism for detecting other kinds of light. Analogously, an understanding of the linguistic phenomenon of euphemism might lead us to suspect that our conception of the world may be too optimistic – unless, of course, there were a countervailing, dysphemistic process. However, a moment’s reflection shows us that the effect of any dysphemistic process is only a tiny fraction of that of euphemism, at best.

A main function of euphemism is to avoid social discomfort. The idea of suffering is always socially uncomfortable – we should expect it to be edited out. There is rarely any reason to add pain (or social awkwardness) to already-comfortable language – this is the task of the artist and the philosopher alone.

The Mistaken Notion of Pure Language

Less subtle thinkers than Wilfred Owen have hoped for a world of clean language, without euphemism. This is a mistaken hope.

All language has connotation as well as denotation – an emotional message as well as an informative one, even if that emotional message is one of blank neutrality. We do not think without emotion; in a practical sense, we are incapable of doing so. Without the swift functioning of our emotions, we are crippled at such “simple” cognitive tasks as making decisions (see, e.g., “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage,” by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40). Why should language not take advantage of this fast system of cognition whose output is chemicals?

Language “cleaned of its emotional message” is not purer or realer or truer language – it is systematically distorted language. Making a project of eradicating euphemism immediately begs the question of the objectively correct word or conception for a given thing or act. “Crack baby” or “drug-exposed infant”? “Crack baby” one might call politically incorrect, vernacular, plainspoken, suggesting that “drug-exposed infant” is the euphemism. The latter, though, is the term used by child welfare professionals (nurses, social workers) to indicate that a horrible violation happened to this innocent infant child, emphasizing the wrong done to the child. Can you hear the screams more from “crack baby” or “drug-exposed infant”? See the tubes and the shaking and the tiny hands? And which better expresses that the mother of said infant used drugs to ease her pain from having been viciously sexually abused during her childhood?

All words are euphemisms. All language is euphemism – selection of relevant, comfortable aspects, and elision of pangs of empathetic pain so far as possible.

“Rape” is a euphemism. “Prison” is a euphemism. Even “prison rape” is a euphemism. Words indicate concepts, but cannot ever express how bad these experiences are for those who suffer them.

Memento Mori. (Population and Reproduction: A Modern Euphemistic Process)

Check this out: the writer of discusses my article Living in the Epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care in his piece Porn and Not Being Cheery. It’s dope. NSFW!!! There are pictures of nekkid people OMG!

Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Mortality Salience

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Please read The _____ Must Go On for my most recent article (January 2011) on mortality salience and terror management theory as they relate to finding value in life.

One of the most awesomely dismissive responses I have gotten to my project has been to be told, by someone claiming to be a mental health worker, that people naturally fear death and unpleasant events like suicide, and one way they deal with their fear is to construct a philosophical system in which the fear is somehow accounted for rationally. While I commend the creativity of this method of refusing to consider my ideas, and while I certainly prefer it to outright abuse, I think the commenter has it backwards. Non-suicidal people fear death, and the reminder provided by the suicide that (a) death is inevitable and (b) life is not necessarily meaningful, pushes the non-suicidal person into a form of psychological reaction referred to by Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg as worldview defense.

Pyszdzynski, Solomon, and Greenberg wrote the compendium of sociological research into “terror management theory” (nothing to do with terrorism, it’s the psychological terror of death) called (misleadingly) In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The book reports on research that demonstrates that mortality salience – awareness of one’s eventual death – is highly likely to cause a person to engage in worldview defense – a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of death in which a person bolsters his or her worldview. This might mean intensifying connections with one’s in-group – patriotism and racial bigotry are commonly intensified – or being more willing to punish minor moral transgressions.

One of the first studies, for example, tracked the responses of municipal court judges to mortality salience. Judges were divided into two groups, each completing the same set of initial personality questionnaires, but with one group receiving a “mortality salience” trigger that was not given to the control group. The mortality salience condition judges were asked to respond to the following: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The judges were then presented with a hypothetical legal case involving a prostitution charge, created to appear similar to those the judges dealt with daily. Say the authors:

Our primary interest was in testing the hypothesis that the judges who were reminded of their mortality by the death-related questions would set an especially high bond for the alleged prostitute. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make such decisions rationally and uniformly. Also, we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because it is a crime that violates important moral convictions of most citizens in our culture.

Indeed, the judges in the mortality salience condition imposed an average bond of $455, compared to an average bond of $50 in the control group.

This 1989 study was only an early indicator of the “terror management” hypothesis that mortality salience triggers worldview defense. Dozens – over a hundred – later studies have since replicated, isolated, and explored the worldview defense response. The authors of the book are concerned, in particular, with the “mortality salience” condition presented to the United States by 9/11, and the “worldview defense” responses to it, including intensifying patriotism and nationalism, intensifying bigotry, and suppressing dissent – and, on the positive side of the “worldview defense” equation, increasing altruism and the quest for meaning.

Terror management research has major implications for the social treatment of suicide rights. The suicide, and in fact any discussion of suicide, must act as a mortality salience induction. This acts to intensify views already in place and to make the subject defend his worldview in other ways. “Suicide is wrong/selfish” has to be a widely held belief that we might expect to be intensified through mortality salience induction, and heaping scorn on those who advocate suicide rights, along with misguided “altruistic” attempts to artificially reduce suicide rates without reducing anyone’s suffering, would also be expected methods of worldview defense. The terror management theory does not bode well for the increased acceptance and availability of suicide in our current political system.

There is a note of hope from the terror management theory research, though – it’s that worldview defense acts to bolster the political views already held by the subject, whichever view the subject holds. Mortality salience-induced subjects who read essays about anti-flag-burning laws, for instance, were more likely than control subjects to favor writers who took the subject’s position – whichever position the subject initially held – and to react negatively to writers who took the opposite position. They didn’t just all heap scorn on the flag-hating hippies; apparently, mortality-induced flag-hating hippies were just as likely to heap scorn on the fascist flag worshippers.

Worldview defense may be inevitable (though psychological health and self-esteem seem to reduce the incidence and severity of worldview defense), but what matters is the initial position held by the subject. If more people began to confront the suffering experienced by would-be suicides and consider the possibility that suicide might not be selfish and wrong, the next time he or she heard about suicide and was thereby mortality-induced, the worldview that got defended might be one in which people should have the right to commit suicide.

Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2008 at 10:34 pm


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One of the most serious ethical reasons offered for preventing a suicide is that the suicide will one day be grateful – that is, that a person’s values change over time. The suicide might wish to die now – might value death, or an end to suffering or experience, above all else – but perhaps once rescued and medicated, or perhaps years from now, the person will value life again, and will be happy to have been saved. Today’s suicide could be tomorrow’s reformed suicide.

Some have modeled human existence as consisting of a set of successive selves, such that we might describe the different values, characteristics, and interests of a person at time t, compared to those of that “same” person at time t-sub-one. Is it permissible, then, for an outsider to forcibly intervene in a person’s action at time t, in the interests of protecting the interests of that person at time t-sub-one?

Certainly, I have heard reports of people attempting suicide, being “rescued,” and eventually being grateful and glad to be alive after the fact. It is often assumed that the status of being grateful in the future is a good reason to intervene with force. But the accident of whether someone at time t-sub-one is, in fact, grateful for the intervention at time t seems like a poor justification for intervening at time t. First, there is a problem with whether the outsider actually has better information than the person at time t. Second, as I alluded to in my earlier post on depressed cognition and value, there is a question as to whether this “better information” might not, in fact, be a different set of values held by the outsider and mentally imposed on the hypothetical person at t-sub-one. Third, even if the outsider really possesses better information than the actor at time t, “better information” is not a complete justification for forcibly intervening in the actions of another. (I know alcohol is bad for you; please hand over that pitcher of Pliny the Elder, thank you very much, it’s for your own good. Give me those garlic fries, too. Very high in fat.) And why would it be appropriate to force the person at time t to suffer unbearably for the benefit of the person at time t-sub-one?

My proposition has two parts: first, those who would forcibly intervene to prevent a suicide are unlikely to have better information than the suicide about his future values; second, even if outsiders have better information than the suicide and can somehow prove that the suicide will be happy in a few years’ time, that still does not justify forcing the person to remain alive.

Written by Sister Y

June 2, 2008 at 9:36 pm