Another moral disengagement mechanism identified by psychologist Albert Bandura is euphemistic labeling. This mechanism refers to the process of sanitizing language in order to detract from the emotional intensity of the reality being referenced.
Some examples of euphemistic labeling:
- “Friendly fire,” used to describe the accidental killing of soldiers by their own comrades
- “Servicing the target,” used as a substitute for bombing missions
- “Collateral damage,” applied to the killing of innocent civilians
Another favorite is “enhanced interrogation”—not exactly the term most of us would use when describing repeated efforts to bring a 15-year-old boy almost to the point of drowning over and over again.
An excellent example of euphemistic labeling by the U.S. government was changing the name of one of its major executive departments from the Department of War to the Department of Defense.
Consider the 1982 U.S. invasion of Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island. Six thousand U.S. troops bravely took on almost 125 powerful Cuban soldiers (for which 7,000 medals were handed out); U.S. students in a medical school waited to be rescued; and a U.S. newspaper helpfully published a map of the city of Granada in Spain. Sadly, an aircraft bomb hit the wrong target and some children at an orphanage were killed.
And what was the U.S. government “defending” against? The building of a 5,000 foot runway that Soviet jets in Cuba might be able to use to bomb, well, somewhere.
In the next post, we describe the moral engagement alternative to euphemistic language—that is, telling it like it is. In the meantime, please comment and share examples of euphemistic labeling that you’ve noticed.
Kathie Malley-Morrison, Professor of Psychology
Note: This post was adapted from my previously published article in Peace Psychology (a publication of the American Psychological Association), Spring, 2009, as well as Corgan, M., and Malley-Morrison, K., Operation URGENT FOLLY, International Psychology Bulletin, Spring, 2008, 28-30.