Essay

The Emperor's New Language

In January 2004, Subaru announced a minor redesign for the Outback, one of the cars it sells in the United States. The vehicle frame will rise 1.4 inches higher above the road surface than the older model. But this seemingly immaterial alteration, along with a number of similarly minor modifications, will make a fundamental difference: it will allow the automaker to have its sedan reclassified as a light truck. And that means that a far less stringent fuel economy standard applies: 21.2 miles a gallon on average for the 2005 model year instead of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars.

Outback-like reclassifications could drive the final nails into the coffin of already feeble attempts to limit automotive energy consumption. Already, with light trucks capturing growing U.S. market share, average fuel economy is now at its lowest level in more than two decades. But if all passenger cars were modified to meet light-truck standards, annual gasoline consumption would rise by 30 percent or 17 billion gallons. In that case, kiss climate stability good-bye.

The Outback incident is far from an isolated development. Deceptive definitions and classifications -blurring distinctions, creating things that don't exist, defining unwelcome facts out of existence, turning the meaning of words upside down-have become widespread, both in the corporate world and in government. Consider some of the techniques being used to confuse, deceive, or conceal:

Now You See It, Now You Don't.

Creative terminology can help governments make unemployment-one of the key challenges of our time-look less severe than it really is. If some of the unemployed aren't counted, then they cease to exist in the public eye and will weigh far less in policy-makers' considerations.

In January 2004, for example, the German government-struggling with a stubbornly high joblessness rate of around 10 percent-stopped counting as unemployed those people who were enrolled in short-term courses designed to test their aptitude and job skills. Also uncounted were "non-unemployed welfare recipients"-jobless individuals age 58 or older. Even though they receive unemployment compensation, the government has decided that they are effectively too old to rejoin the workforce and thus relegates them to a state of quasi-retirement. Germany's "uncounted jobless" add up to about 840,000 people whose plight is not reflected in the official unemployment rate.

Full Employment at One Hour per Week.

If you trust the explanations offered by the U.S. media, joblessness in Europe is high because these societies are saddled with burdensome welfare states and rigid labor laws. The U.S. economy, by contrast, is a lean and mean job creation machine. Or is it?

The U.S. government counts anyone working as little as a single hour per week as employed (whereas the German government requires at least 15 hours per week). The United States also appears to be far more willing to drop people out of the statistics if, having lost hope of finding a job, they stop actively looking for openings.

At Wendy's and Burger King, Manufacturing Jobs Are Plentiful.

High unemployment is always a political problem for incumbent governments, but especially when the lost jobs are high-paying ones. In the United States, some 3 million well-paying manufacturing jobs have been lost since George W. Bush entered the White House, and total manufacturing employment is down to levels last seen a half century ago. What to do?

The 2004 edition of the annual Economic Report of the President has hit upon a solution. It suggests that perhaps jobs in the fast-food sector-where wages are on average one-third those in manufacturing-should be regarded as manufacturing jobs. The report asks, "When a fast-food restaurant sells a hamburger, for example, is it providing a ‘service' or is it combining inputs to ‘manufacture' a product?"

Creative Management.

Healthy capitalism is supposedly about innovation, entrepreneurship, and intelligent risk-taking, with rewards going to the most innovative and successful. But some top executives have discovered a rather different path to profits and power. Over the past few years, corporations like Enron, WorldCom, and Parmalat proved quite inventive at creating phantom assets and imaginary ventures and setting up complex shell games involving fake transactions. Such accounting artistry was designed to attract investors and confuse regulators. The inflated profits and stock values that followed allowed the executives to take over other companies and morph into politically powerful behemoths. These elaborate schemes enriched a handful of managers, until reality caught up and exposed the defrauding of millions of customers, shareholders, and employees.

Smiley-face PR.

Confronted with the discovery that the phone batteries it was selling had a tendency to overheat and explode, Kyocera Wireless Corp. issued a press release describing such outcomes as "rapid disassembly."

Attila the Compassionate.

The easiest way to conceal one's true intentions may be to call one's actions the direct opposite of what they are. The Bush administration, for example, has proven very imaginative in naming its actions and policy initiatives. "Clear Skies," "Healthy Forests," and "No Child Left Behind" all conjure wholesome, desirable visions of the future. But the results of these policies are more polluted air, denuded forests, and shortchanged education. The impact of "Clear Skies," for example, will be 50 percent more sulfur dioxide emissions, almost 40 percent more nitrogen oxides, and three times as much mercury pollution than if the 1970 Clean Air Act were fully enforced. The utility industry will be able to continue its violations of established law and reap higher profits, but at the cost of far more deaths related to air pollution.

Similarly, the U.S. Energy Department tried to reclassify highly radioactive waste in a way that would have permitted abandoning it in leak-prone underground storage tanks. Under the proposal, the material would be called "incidental waste."

Keeping Up Appearances.

June 30, 2004 was declared the day when the United States would "hand over sovereignty" to Iraq. But to whom? As of one month before the handover, Iraq's "transition government" does not exist. But perhaps that does not matter, for this entity, whose composition is a mystery, will have no authority to enact any laws or to revise those imposed by the occupiers. It will have no power over Iraq's armed forces, which are to be under U.S. command. Presumably, in "sovereign" Iraq, the roughly 20,000 employees of private military companies will continue to be referred to as "contractors" and "civilians" rather than as mercenaries. Growing insurgency and chaos will be billed as a "symptom of success" as Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized it in mid-April.

The Emperor's New Allies.

Sometimes those in power have to invent distinctions and divisions that simply don't exist in the real world. In the months leading up to the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of "old Europe" opposing the Bush war plans as opposed to "new Europe," including José María Aznar's Spain, being firm supporters. The inconvenient fact that 90 percent of the Spanish population resolutely opposed the government's Iraq policy was swept under the rug. When Aznar's conservative party was ejected from office by irate voters after the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, it was clear that the only real division in Europe was between the bulk of the population and a handful of governments more beholden to Washington's dictates than to democracy at home.

Sshh, It's Not Genocide.

Finally, if nothing else works, there's always the simple refusal to call things by their proper name. When the mass killings in Rwanda began in April 1994, the Clinton administration maneuvered carefully to avoid using the term "genocide." Why? Because acknowledging the facts would have obligated the United States (and other governments) to undertake steps to halt the killings, under the Genocide Convention. The administration squelched the feeble attempts to bolster a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, even though early action could have prevented much of the mass killings that unfolded over three months.

Governments and corporations will always be tempted to portray things in a favorable light, and sometimes to hide the truth. But a variety of manipulative devices-deceptive definitions, false distinctions, blurred categories, distorted terminologies-can undercut accountability, undermine the use of language as a reliable tool for society at large, and ultimately weaken democracy.

Language is fundamental to society. In our fast-changing, increasingly interconnected world, accurate information and reliable language are becoming ever more indispensable for businesspeople, international diplomats, community activists, and "ordinary" citizens alike. But at the same time, it is in some ways also easier than ever before to distort reality. Computer software allows the alteration of images with ease, for example. "Reality TV" programs show anything but daily reality, while sidelining questions and issues of global concern. And consider the sophisticated advertising techniques that suggest that we're nothing if we don't consume, that we gain identity and meaning through corporate branding, that scaling the heights of consumerdom is more important than citizenship.

If words stop meaning what they mean by common convention, then the basis for community is lost. It is not necessary to go to the extremes of an Orwellian society where power and control rest on thought control, and where war is peace, slavery equals freedom, and ignorance is strength. What may appear to be minor changes in technical specifications, arcane details of bureaucratic classification, or choices of terms, may actually have grave implications for matters of human welfare, environmental quality, and war and peace.

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, and co-author of State of the World 2004.