The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

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