‘Tender Age Shelters’

A view of inside US CBP detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Texas

‘Tender Age Shelters’ must be one of the most diabolical euphemisms I’ve ever heard, right up there with ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘peace-keeping forces,’ and ‘correctional facility.’

George Orwell (author of 1984) famously warned us that language can be dangerous, especially in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats, and others who use language to assert and maintain their power. Others have put the issue more bluntly, claiming that the use of euphemistic language kills democracy. Some people call this ‘sophistry’ which involves a kind of emotional manipulation for devious purposes.

There is nothing wrong with emotional appeal in an argument, so long as the appeal arises organically from the subject matter and doesn’t disguise the subject matter for purposes of manipulation, misdirection or extracting a profit.

A concern for language and democracy is said to fuel the criticism of political correctness (PC); however, the real fuel seems to be those good old prejudices and us/them binary thinking.

Euphemism becomes magical in its ability to appear to mean one thing when really talking about something else. Think of those famous ‘dog whistles,’ the reference to racist comments supposedly only racists can hear. Euphemisms were in use well before a Trump Administration was being dreamed of by anyone other than the Orange Overlord himself. And euphemisms don’t really fool anyone. It’s the frequency of their use that deafens us to the lies and brutality they are meant to ‘pretty up.’

Examples are abundant: words and phrases like “collateral damage” in reference to civilians killed by military action, “surgical precision” to describe bombing raids, “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe torture, or any word or phrase that dehumanizes and brutalizes people and emphasizes our differences. We no longer use the phrase “mental retardation” and instead prefer to use words like “disabled” or “challenged.” No more firemen, instead firefighters. I’m sure you can think of your own favorite examples. If the problem of distorted meaning is a matter that has been on the back burner for a while, it is now boiling over with a new energetic fury.

I tend to resist being told what to say and how to say it, but in the case of PC I’m willing to try to use language to put human beings first instead of to emphasize an arbitrary category. Put the person before the disability, put the person before their sex, their age, their color, nationality, beliefs, etc. Seems reasonable to me, a reminder that being human is why we’re here and not to fill a pre-defined place inside some large, arbitrary grouping we’ve been assigned to for purposes of political identification, cultural stereotyping, and commercial exploitation.

Consider the shifts of meaning our culture is imposing on these words and phrases, for example:

wall: apparently a wall can be anything from a fortress-like barrier to a few rottweilers

alternative facts: “I’m more interested in ideology than facts”

executive time: playing virtual golf in a $50K golf simulator installed in the White House

fake news: a disagreeable account of an event or person I like from a source I don’t like

national emergency: an unfulfilled campaign promise

make America great again: “make America white again”

tender age shelters: holding children in cages at the southern US border


Iris Murdoch (philosopher and novelist) on the importance of precise language:

“The quality of a civilisation depends upon its ability to discern and reveal truth, and this depends upon the scope and purity of its language.

“Any dictator attempts to degrade the language because this is a way to mystify. And many of the quasi-automatic operations of capitalist industrial society tend also toward mystification and the blunting of verbal precision.”

When language is used for mystification rather than illumination, trouble is brewing.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.