Talking Right—About Torture

2006 September was a tough month for president George W. Bush.


Back in 2004, one of the Guantanamo detainees, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, had filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the military commission convened to try him was illegal. By 2006, his case had made its way up to the United States Supreme Court, and in 2006 May, the Supreme Court agreed, holding that President Bush did not have authority to set up the war crimes tribunals and finding the special military commissions illegal under both military law and the Geneva Convention.

So Bush went to Congress to get the authority he needed: a new law. A law that would

A law called the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

Everything was going along nicely until John McCain balked at the torture part.

John McCain was a

and was tortured by the North Vietnamese while in captivity.

So when John McCain said that maybe the United States government shouldn't torture people, he had some credibility on the subject, and having Bush attack him directly, as a coward, a traitor, a liberal, or "soft on terrorism" didn't seem like a good idea.


Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist—he studies the way people speak and use language. If you listen to NPR, you've probably heard some of his commentaries. He has a new book: Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show

Broadly, his thesis is that over the last half-century, conservatives have captured the language of political discourse in the United States. They've turned words to their own advantage, changing the meaning of some, and exploiting the shifting meaning of others. They've manipulated language so that, for example, liberal has become a term of derision, and only Republicans can have values.

And it's worked. The Republicans now control much of the federal government, and "values voters" were cited as a deciding factor in the 2004 elections.

Talking Right

I enjoyed Nunberg's book. It displays considerable scholarship, and research, and insight. But it turns out that linguistic analysis isn't that hard to do. If you read his book, and you keep an ear out, you can play along at home.

I discovered this one Saturday afternoon in 2006 September. I was listening to our local talk radio station, WTKK Boston. I didn't get the host's name, but it was likely Monica Crowley—it sounded like her, and she has that time slot.

Since the Republicans couldn't attack McCain directly, they left it to others to sell torture to the American people, and Crowley had risen to the challenge. Torture is a tough sell, even for talk radio, and Crowley was exceptionally strident that day—an edge of desperation perhaps breaking through her usual smug self-assurance.

I was curious to see how Crowley would do this: what arguments she would make in favor of torture. I listened, and I heard, and—what do you know—she engaged in just the kind of linguistic manipulation that Nunberg describes in his book.

us and them

First, she didn't attack McCain either. Attacking McCain would have made the whole issue much too specific, too focused, too personal. McCain was tortured; now he opposes torture. Attacking him by name asks the listener to take the side of his torturer—ultimately, it asks the listener to be his torturer.

Instead, she directed her attacks at those opposed to the Military Commissions Act. Conveniently unnamed, those opposed could be maligned with impunity—their judgment questioned; their motives impeached. Most usefully, those opposed are clearly them, in contrast to John McCain, who just might be one of us.

straw man

Next, Crowley argued that the terrorists and insurgents who are attacking us and killing our people don't care whether we use torture or not. That even if we don't torture people, the terrorists will keep on killing, and it is foolish of us to think otherwise.

There aren't any linguistic tricks here; this is just an ordinary straw man argument. No one thinks or argues that if we would just stop torturing people then the terrorists would stop attacking us. Terrorists were attacking us before Bush established torture as a policy of the United States government, and terrorists will doubtless continue attacking us after Bush and his policies are gone.

The practical reasons to refrain from torture are

feeling better

But, as I said, torture is a hard sell. Even after you've cast your opponents as them, even after you've knocked down the straw man argument that you put in their mouth, it's still hard to convince Americans that there is something fundamentally wrong with being opposed to torture.

So Crowley didn't stop there. She got right inside the heads of her opponents, and explained why they are so opposed to torture. These people are opposed to torture, she explained, because opposing torture makes them feel better. They're unhappy because they're stuck fighting a war that they don't want to be in, and it makes them feel better to be able to say that we don't torture people.

This was the core of her attack, and she stuck the knife in and twisted it. It's hard to convey in writing the scorn that dripped off of her voice as she made this argument; her sneering, sarcastic tone; the utter contempt that she expressed for those who opposed, just so that they could feel better.

It's a brilliant tactic. I don't know if this stuff comes to her naturally, or if she has consultants who research it and focus test it before she takes it on the air. In any case, it is based on a linguistic sleight-of-hand.

In one sense, the only reason that anyone does anything is that it makes them feel better

In that sense, feel better is essentially a synonym for want, and saying that someone does something because it makes them feel better is close to a tautology.

But Crowley takes feel better and twists it, with scorn and contempt, to suggest that there is something unworthy, misguided, frivolous, or naive about this particular desire of some Americans to make themselves feel better by not torturing people. The linguistic sleight works because feel better expresses a spectrum of meanings in our language, from the tautological, described above, to physical conditions ("You'll feel better when you've had some rest"), to ethical judgments ("I feel better about myself when I treat others fairly.") to the emotions of children ("Mama will kiss it and make it feel better.")

Crowley would perhaps compare those who oppose torture to animal-rights activists who "liberate" domestic animals, or, worse, radical environmentalists who spike trees—people who do foolish or dangerous things because, in their minds, it elevates them to a higher moral plane. Or perhaps she would compare them to small children, seeking a balm for their hurt feelings.

And then her listeners can relax, confident that there is nothing to this opposition to torture—at least, nothing that they need to worry about. It's just some people who want to make themselves feel better.


Republicans now control much of the federal government
Up until the 2006 elections, they controlled all three branches
listening to our local talk radio station
in the hopes of understanding why our country has gone off the rails
attack McCain directly
and it was McCain who was standing in their way; the Democrats pretty much rolled over on this issue. The Democrats did not, for example, try to filibuster the Military Commissions Act, even though they could have.

In the end, McCain rolled over, too. After making a big show of his opposition to torture, he agreed to a "compromise" that left the torture provisions in the bill.

linguistic tricks
There is trickery here of another sort, because Crowley is putting our use of torture up against the terrorists' use of killing. Terrorists have killed many people, and sometimes they desecrate the bodies and publish the video on the internet, but I haven't heard of much torture or mistreatment at the hands of terrorists.
feel better than starving
or not, as the case may be


Azerbaijanian courtesy of Amir Abbasov
Russian courtesy of Sergey Cosbuk
Ukrainian courtesy of The Word Point
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Steven W. McDougall / resume / / 2007 January 15