Euphemistic labeling (Moral disengagement, part 3)

Truthful Language NOT!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.

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3 Responses to Euphemistic labeling (Moral disengagement, part 3)

  1. Will Fitzpatrick says:

    Very interesting. This concept reminds me of the Millgram experiments. To feel more emotionally at ease with an act, there must be an obvious sense of disconnect and lack of substantial moral consequence from action. Emotional intensity is reduced by a more distanced, acceptable perspective…it makes sense. It’s like when a soft drink is advertised that it was “MADE WITH PURE FRUIT JUICE”…and it makes you feel like it’s healthier. All those capital letters and that big label do not change the modest 3% of actual fruit fortitude, but the glorified sugar water still sells.

  2. Tristyn Campbell says:

    I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is in the Marines. She mentioned that she is leaving in December for another tour of duty. Although that fits the definition of a tour, I hardly think of it as the pleasant experience as I think of most tours. But whatever it takes to get the public on board and people signed up to go on a tour of duty.

  3. Jessica Petritis says:

    This blog post on euphemistic language reminds me of how we do not take corporal punishment as a serious offense. The negative effects of corporal punishment have been demonstrated and yet we still generally think of it as just a “spanking,” just a way to discipline our kids. Corporal punishment can be viewed as a socially acceptable form of child abuse. Children disciplined via corporal punishment are at an increased risk of physically attacking a spouse, abusing their own children, and using drugs according to Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective by Kathleen Malley-Morrison and Denise A. Hines (page 100). I’m sure if we referred to it as child abuse it would be much less practiced and would no longer be viewed as acceptable. Now that the literature has proved that there are in fact many negative outcomes associated with corporal punishment how is it that we still are not holding ourselves accountable for these outcomes? Just like using the term “friendly fire,” to keep us from acknowledging the fact that this means we are accidentally killing our own soldiers, using these euphemistic terms facilitates our moral disengagement and allows us to ignore the very real consequences of our actions. If we keep thinking of corporal punishment as “spanking,” or giving your child a “whooping,” and not labeling it as abuse it will keep happening.
    It seems that gradually corporal punishment has become less accepted than it used to be but it is still be practiced, especially in the African American community. Many people believe that it is almost part of African American culture to use corporal punishment but as pointed out in Family Violence in a Cultural Perspective, “it is possible that these ‘traditions’ are more a product of forces such as social class and chronic stress than ethnicity,” (page 100). Perhaps we need more education and less euphemistic language to help stop these issues.

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