It's Repugnant When the Media Describes Torture as Merely "Harsh"
The most disgusting and omnipresent cliché in journalism right now is "harsh" as a word to describe "torture, as in "harsh interrogation" (WaPost)and"harsh methods" (NYT).Look up the phrase"harsh interrogation"and you'll find it 247,000 times at Google. Look up "harsh methods" at Google, and you'll discover that virtually all of the most salient hits are about the George W. Bush torture program. In fact, over the last two days, the Washington Post used the word "harsh"here and here and here and here and here and here and here to describe torture, using the word in every recent article..
Merriam Websters Online Dictionary defines "harsh" as (1) "difficult to indure" and (2) "disagreeable to one's aesthetic or artistic sense, e.g."the harsh lighting in the cafeteria makes the food look slightly off-color."
Torture, on the other hand, is the intentional effort to make pain impossible to endure, not merely "difficult". There is a significant difference between "difficult" and "impossible", and that's why the WaPost's adjective just doesn't make the grade.
Saying "harsh torture" is like saying "harsh murder" or "harsh rape". All rape and all murder is at least harsh, so the word is meaningless when used in that context. And all rape and all murder is also vastly worse than "harsh", and so the word invariably minimizes the violence and painfulness of the acts, to the victims and to others' "aesthetics".
When one college student calls another an "idiot", engaging in a verbal insult, a third will admonish the name-caller by saying, "that's harsh". College students understand the meaning and appropriate usage of the word "harsh" far better than writers at the New York Times and the Washington Post do.
In fact, to describe torture with an adjective that means often means only "disagreeable to one's aesthetic or artistic sense" is a linguistic usage that is itself an obscene, foul and offensive use of the English language. It clearly minimizes the torture itself and makes people who use the word complicit with those who would justify and condone torture. Why not torture if it is merely unpleasant in an "aesthetic" way, and unpleasing and "disagreeable" to the "artistic sense"?
I smell a conspiracy. Did the minions of George W. Bush go to the news media and warn them that describing torture as more than "harsh" would threaten the success of the "War on Terror"? It sure seems like it, since only beneficiaries of the use of this euphemism are the torturers themselves. The word certainly doesn't help newspaper readers to understand torture in the abstract or this torture in particular any better.
One would think that simple concern for good writing would make journalists seek out other adjectives, if only to avoid being so repetitive and seeming as though their vocabularies start and stop with the letter "H". Unlike torture itself, the mealy-mouthed adjective "harsh", when used repeatedly and relentlessly, quickly loses its bite, (whatever mild mustard bite it had in the first place). Meanwhile, relatively objective adjectives that could be used to describe torture, like "violent", "disgusting" and "vile" are disfavored at the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere in the mainstream media. These words are rarely if ever used.
How about some linguistically and semantically and politically appropriate variety? How about "insufferrable". How about "repugnant"?
Those seem like far more appropriate adjectives for torture, since the very purpose of torture is to inflict suffering that is "insufferable". How about "unendurable"? "Unrelenting"? "Relentless".
And if the purpose in using the term "harsh" is to avoid value judgments, then why not call torture "very painful". Is there any torture that it is not very painful?
When did the Washington Post and the New York Times decide that the word "harsh" was the most "harsh" adjective that would be applied to torture methods? "Harsh" and "torture", when used together, oxymoronic and redundant. All torture is, by definition, much more than harsh, and at the same time torture must be more than "harsh" or it probably doesn't constitute torture.
Harsh is a word used to describe verbal assaults, while "abusive" is the word used when verbal assaults go beyond being merely "harsh." So, if mere words go far beyond merely "harsh" then certainly torture starts out somewhere far beyond "harsh" and quickly becomes "outrageously abusive" and "unthinkably cruel".
"Harsh" simply doesn't cut it as an adjective where torture is concerned. Stop using it.
UPDATE: The New York Times has described torture as "brutal" today. Hooray! Previously major US media, Google shows, have been reluctant to describe torture as brutal, with only 54,000 uses of the word "brutal" at Google compared to five times as many uses of the word "harsh".
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Redwater, Alberta, Canada