Newspeak updated

Dear Khmer Times and Phnom Penh Post,

While I would be happy to have the following brought to a wider audience, it is not really for publication (I will post it on my blog). It is intended for your subeditors and writers, especially the Khmers among them, who have, not surprisingly, adopted a grotesque linguistic construction that has become very common in the English-language press internationally.

A clear illustration of this construction is from the introduction to the 22 March Khmer Times interview with Lon Rith. This states that “the Khmer Rouge genocide … saw nearly two million Cambodians die”.

Instead of stating the simple truth – that the KR genocide killed nearly two million Cambodians – the “saw” construction turns genocide into something almost harmless: the Khmer Rouge genocide was watching when two millions Cambodians died. Maybe the genocide can be criticised for not calling the world’s attention to this disaster that it saw? And what could have been the cause of all those deaths that the KR genocide witnessed? Does “genocide” still mean something?

As noted, Khmer journalists did not invent this weasel wording. They simply imitate the already widespread usage in the English-language news media. Basically, the construction works like this:

Suppose that A has done X to B during the course of C. An objective news report of this would state: “A did X to B during C.” For example: “Fifty centimetres of rain (A) fell on (did X) to the region (B) during the storm (C).” There seems to be no reason to change that to “C saw A do X to B”, “The storm saw 50 centimetres of rain fall on the region”.

But suppose the sentence concerns a question that might lead readers to assign political or moral blame to one or more of the people or organisations mentioned. For example: “The United States killed thousands of Cambodians by bombing during the 1970s.”

If the publication that has to refer to this fact has many readers who might be irritated by a reference to US war crimes, the sentence can be made more gentle: “The 1970s saw thousands of Cambodians killed by US bombs.” In a reworking like this, the agent that did the bombing disappears almost completely; it’s true that the bombs are “US bombs”, but maybe the bomber, whoever it may be, bought them on the black market.

George Orwell’s brilliant novel 1984 foresaw authoritarian political manipulation through the imposition of a vocabulary, Newspeak, in which it was impossible to express heretical ideas. Orwell was right, but mistaken on the details. Our rulers and those who serve them have found a method that is easier and quicker, especially since it is adopted and used even when there is no immediately obvious political reason to do so.

“Proper” language will see political heresies banished from the media.

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