Speaking Diplomatically

Sign addressed to China and RussiaAfter the discovery of what the Nazis did in the extermination camps, some people in the civilized world declared that “never again” would we stand by and allow this to happen. I have no doubt that the people who said this were serious as they said it. And perhaps if those people had lived, it might have been true.

Instead, we have discovered just how inconvenient it is to actually stop mass killing. At the same time, it does look rather bad if we appear not to care. This dilemma is dealt with by using diplomatic language. Simply by using the noises made by our mouths, we can express concern for people being slaughtered, and we can imply, without having to actually say so, that if this does not stop eventually, we could darn well be provoked into thinking about doing something.

Thus if you are engaged in mass killing at this moment, and if you do not stop within the next few weeks, we will officially “deplore” what you are doing. Even if we do finally take steps to stop you—with Russia and China, as always, voting to let things go on as they are—we will first give you time to kill thousands of people, as we use many increasingly serious, noble phrases. Here in the English-speaking world, we have a rich language full of elegant ways to justify whatever it is we choose to do.

Diplomatic language can be insidiously polite, often used as an attempt to sound engaged when in fact little or nothing is happening. The complete opposite of diplomatic language is not necessarily plain-spoken honesty, however. North Korea gives us good examples of official government statements perfectly imitating the tone of an angry drunk in a bar slurring at his opponent to come on out to the parking lot, ya capitalist dog sumbitch.

Which is worse, spit-flinging hysterial screaming (North Korea and a few others) or cold insidious politeness (the rest of the word)? People actually use the phrase “ethnic cleansing” instead of “mass murder”, rather than recoil from such a phrase as reprehensible. One of the worst reasons ever given for doing nothing was thought of in the mid-twentieth century, “noninterference in internal affairs”. With the use of this legal, even decently cautious, sounding phrase, every kind of abuse becomes nobody’s damn business. Through accidents of history, including actual aggression (think: Soviet Union), a national border justifies violence and abuse as long as they occur inside the line. This phrase is still commonly used by—wait for it—Russia and China. No democracy, however cranky they may be, has ever said “don’t interfere in our internal affairs” as a sullen rejection of criticism.

Recently, when Hillary Clinton said that the dictator of Syria has “lost legitimacy”, the Syrian government said this statement was proof of the U.S. desire to interfere in internal affairs. But Clinton only spoke words, noises made with the mouth.

The problem with diplomatic langauge is not that it is careful or polite. The problem is that we seem to believe that if we speak elegantly enough, those noises we are making constitute moral action. Sometimes words do constitute moral action. But when people are dying, saying how bad we feel about it is not enough.


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