July 28, 2014
The lead article, “Silence and Punishment” in the July 20th issue of the magazine section of the New York Times by Michael Sokolove, tells the story of the fall from grace of Graham Spanier, an exceptional man who had a very successful career in higher education until he was forced to resign because of the Sandusky scandal. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State University was convicted on 45-counts of sexual abuse of young boys during a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is serving a 60 year prison sentence.
Mr. Spanier now awaits trial. He is charged with “Conspiracy of Silence.” He is being accused of “conspiring with other top university officials to conceal information about suspected child abuse involving Jerry Sandusky.”
Jeremy Fyke of Marquette University and Kristen Lucas of the University of Louisville published a very interesting article: “Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal” that was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.
The study showed that members of the University staff “used coded language to report the assault up the chain of command”… and that “top leaders relied on an innocuous, but patently false, interpretation of earlier euphemisms as a decision-making framework to chart their course of (in)action.”
For example, some of the words used to report the incident were “doing something with a youngster in the shower,” or “in very close proximity behind a young boy with his arms wrapped around him.” While the correct words that should have been used were that he had “raped a child.”
Sometimes euphemisms leave too much room for interpretation when there should be none!
Mr. Spanier says that he would have taken the appropriate actions had he been told of the true nature of the repeated incidents that were reported to him about Mr. Sandusky. He says: “I am an intervener, I see something going on the street, in the community, I intervene.” He adds that if he had been told “anything about child abuse, sexual abuse, had anything criminal had even been hinted about that possibility” he would have acted differently.
Having been himself the victim of violent child abuse by his father, who for many years, brutally beat him, one can easily believe that he would have indeed reacted appropriately had he been told the truth.
The authors of the study believe that: “Through euphemism, distasteful activities can lose their repugnancy, harmful conduct can be made respectable, and that which is socially unacceptable can be transformed into something socially approved.”
The use of euphemism serves an important role in society. It allows a “kinder, gentler” exchange between people and helps avoids unnecessary embarrassments and unpleasantness. It is indeed more appropriate to say of someone that he is “academically challenged” rather than “stupid.” It is kinder to say that someone is “disabled” rather than “crippled.”
Yet the use of euphemisms can represent a risk of downplaying an action that is unethical or even criminal. The term “enhanced interrogation” does not convey the horror of the word “torture.” The word “cheating” (on a spouse) does not have the stigma that the word “adultery” carries.
The question then: When is it acceptable, from an ethical point of view, to use euphemism and when is it not?
I believe it all depends on the intention. If the use of euphemism is for the sake of civility and an attempt not to offend, then most likely it is “OK.”
If, however the motivation is to diminish the severity of a reprehensible action, then we should abstain and have the courage to call out the unacceptable behavior by using the word of words that best clarify the action. There is value in calling “a spade a spade.”
As the historian Paul Johnson once said:
“Euphemism is a human device to conceal the horrors of reality.”