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Japan, Nuclear Energy, and Chu

March 18, 2011

The escalating danger at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant took center stage at this week’s Congressional budget hearings for the Dept. of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. DOE Secretary, Steven Chu, found himself sitting between the devil and the deep blue sea, or as Fred Upton (R-MI)  had it, between “dispel[ing] overstated fears” and “discussing legitimate concerns.”  Chu was asked not only to defend the DOE’s 2012 budget and its almost 12% increase, but also reassure a jumpy Congress, or country, that American nuclear plants were really just snug as bugs in their foundations, safeguards and security.

But reassure us about what?  Before Chu even had the chance to speak,  committee members did their best to describe what kind of problem Japan, and by extension the US, faced.  They did so partly through euphemisms and dysphemisms.  Euphemisms we are all familiar with, but dysphemism, where we use harsher or more explicit language than deemed appropriate, can be more intriguing.  They are a rhetorical pop, rather than euphemism’s gentle swish.

Sometimes we know the literal, straightforward term for what happened. Then we can readily distinguish euphemism from dysphemism.  There are those high school parking lot car accidents you call your insurance agents about, ones they might legally define as a crash, ones you describe to your parents as a fender-bender or bump (which doesn’t quite cover the side door’s new dent); ones your little siblings gleefully report as a smash-up or totaled (which neglects the fact you drove the car home).

But how do we know what language describes Japan?  Senses of euphemism and dysphemism can also emerge in relation to each other; we can measure descriptions against each other and judge—who is being vague; who is exaggerating.

Against the vivid media reports and images, Chairman Whitfield’s (R-KY) opening remarks: “Circumstances have certainly changed since we decided to have this hearing” might strike one as a bit too dry or subtle. But Whitfield wasn’t the only one to speak so.  Bobby Rush (D-IL) mentioned the “nuclear situation in Japan” and “The events unfolding in Japan,” neutral language that glosses over the deaths, property loss, and mounting threat of uncontained radiation.  John Shimkus (R-IL), was even more fuzzy: “We always live in interesting times, and this is another one” he offered.

But interspersed with those euphemistic expression come more dynamic—or dysphemistic—expressions.  Directly after Shimkus’s turn to cliché, Henry Waxman (D-CA) gave this description:

Japan faces potential nuclear meltdowns at its damaged nuclear reactors.  We don’t know yet whether Japan will be able to avoid catastrophic release of radioactive material.  We don’t know whether we—what the full impact will be.

And Edward Markey (D-MA) also racketed up the description:

Right now, a few dozen brave souls are fighting a nuclear meltdown with water trucks.  We send our prayers to those heroes and to the people of Japan.  The effects of this disaster have already rippled through the world.

So the audience moves from hearing about “a situation” and or “events” to getting the name of a specific kind of nuclear disaster, a meltdown.  Are you feeling the rhetorical whiplash?

Between the bland expressions of the “situation” group and the fiery labeling of the meltdowers, there was a middle ground— descriptions that focused on Japan’s loss. Gene Green (D-TX) defined “Their current situation” as “truly a devastating disaster…” and Upton also spoke of the “tragedy in Japan”.  Tragedy has a weight and sincerity  that “situation” lacks, as well as a measured tone absent in the chorus of nuclear disaster.

Or maybe it just sounds that way placed between the urbane dryness of event and the fiery narrative of meltdown.

Recognizing people speak in both euphemisms and dysphemisms gives us a way to place descriptions in relation to each other, to see how different voices define the problem at hand.  We might all feel shock and sympathy for Japan, but we are also likely to respond differently depending on whether we judge Japan to be facing a situation, a tragedy, or a nuclear meltdown.

So which is fitting?  That’s where the audience comes in, the necessary second half to all rhetorical descriptions.  In the end, you decide which language is most appropriate, and he (they were all men that spoke) who used the most appropriate language might also strike you as having the most persuasive case about what to do for Japan, and about the US’s own energy problems.

If you want to know more:

  • Quotes taken from C-SPAN video of the meeting found here.
  • At the time of publication, the Japanese government rated the level of crisis at five, the same level as the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island.  CNN.com details here.
  • For more on euphemism and dysphemism you can check out this or this.
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