Since ancient times, observers have remarked on the rapid deterioration and debasement of language during wars and revolutions. In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the Athenian general Thucydides (c. 460–400 BC) remarked how, “to fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.” In Tacitus’s “Agricola” (c. AD 98), Calcagus, a Caledonian chieftain, says of his Roman enemies, “They create a desert and call it peace.”
On Feb. 1, Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, seized power from the duly elected government and announced a year-long state of emergency. Absurdly, the Tatmadaw justified the coup as necessary to “preserve democratic norms.” Immediately, the Chinese regime, in a perverse bit of wordplay worthy of “Alice in Wonderland,” referred to it as a “cabinet shuffle.”
The generals demand an uncritical acceptance of their outlandish claims. Like all totalitarian bullies, they try to control the language, preventing opponents from using accurate words to describe the takeover of a duly elected government. Unhappy with the choice of words used by the media, the generals threaten “consequences” for those who insist on calling things by their accurate labels: words such as “coup,” “junta,” “dictatorship,” and so on.
The truth is not in dispute: the generals are not preserving “democratic norms,” nor did Burma’s government experience a “cabinet shuffle.” The proper word for what transpired is “coup.” The proper name for the new government is “military junta.” The proper term for Burma’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, is “dictator.”
The abuse of language is true of tyrants everywhere—tyrants who demand we set aside our judgment, skepticism, and understanding while they dissimulate and manipulate the language. As the generals in Burma are so vividly demonstrating, political corruption turns on the institutionalization of lies. The medium responsible for the crushing of truth is, of course, words that are misapplied, mangled, and misused. The abuse of language quickly deteriorates into a dangerous and fraught reality.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn addressed the close connection between language and action in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. He warned of complacency: “Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot exist by itself: It is invariably intertwined with the lie” (Solzhenitsyn’s emphasis).
Solzhenitsyn’s analysis further explains the Burmese generals’ pitiless escalation of violence: “They are linked in the most intimate, most organic and profound fashion: Violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence.”
Or to phrase it differently, violence is the method, and the principle is the lie, cloaked, of course, in honey-throated words and phrases such as “democratic norms.”
There’s a temptation to indulge in the self-satisfied belief that the liberal West is somehow immune from these sorts of political upheavals. Military coups are for other peoples and other lands. But such complacency is unwarranted. The threats to liberty begin with telling lies, and no nation is immune from lies that distort and erode public discourse. To quote Solzhenitsyn again: “There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”
The official sanctioning of lies erodes any nation’s social fabric. When journalists take to task our elected leaders for their misuse and abuse of language, they are not merely being pedantic. The abuse of language and the telling of lies is always a danger sign, an alarm bell that something has gone seriously wrong in political life.
When Alice reproached the Red Queen, asserting that “one can’t believe impossible things,” the Red Queen quickly corrected her: “I daresay that you haven’t had much practice. … Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The benighted people of Burma are being coerced and bullied and told that they must believe impossible things. At the top of the list is the assertion that the military junta is preserving the nation’s democratic norms, an absurdity worthy of the Red Queen herself.
Patrick Keeney, Ph.D., is an academic, columnist, and associate editor of C2C Journal.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.