Jack Shafer of Slate has written a superb article on the notion of “loophole” titled “Shut Your Loophole.”(Thanks to Brad Malestein for bringing this piece to my attention.) Here’s an excerpt:
Upon entering the English language in the late 16th century, the word loophole defined the narrow opening in a wall through which defenders jetted arrows, javelins, or stones at foes.
Over the centuries, this perfectly useful term has been corrupted by rhetorical con artists to mean terrible “gaps” in the law—or in the tax code—that demand “closing.” Because the legal code allows all that it does not prohibit, loophole prospectors needn’t look far to discover new ones. Just find a permitted behavior in the proximity of a banned one and scream, ” Eureka!”
It’s a loaded, partisan word, one that implies wrongdoing and scandal where none exists, and inserting it into a political argument gives the inserter the upper hand. When loophole creeps into news stories, they start to read like editorials….
The Washington Post shouted loophole just yesterday in “Loophole Lets Candidates Skirt Donation Limit” (July 23). Using the word in both the headline and the story, the Post reports that presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards are legally collecting donations for their presidential campaigns at the same time they’re gathering money from other political entities connected to them. For example, presidential candidate Clinton has also declared herself a candidate for re-election to the Senate in 2012, thus allowing supporters to make double donations to her.
The Post headline makes the candidates sound extra naughty by stating that the loophole allows them to “skirt” donation limits. Like loophole, skirt is a slippery, vague, and slightly accusatory word. But why should we think of it that way? By definition, anybody who skirts a law is still in compliance with it. A more accurate headline for the Post piece would have been “Candidates Exercise Maximum Fund-Raising Rights.”
Shafer goes on to provide additional examples and to point out that the word “loophole” is used to make perfectly legal and morally legitimate practices seem illegal or bad.
Ayn Rand identified this same phenomenon in broader terms in her 1972 essay “How To Read (And Not To Write),” in which she coined the term “anti-euphemism”: “If a euphemism is an inoffensive way of identifying an offensive fact, then … an anti-euphemism [is] an offensive way of identifying an inoffensive (or great and noble) fact.” An anti-euphemism is a concept or phrase that names a legitimate or good thing in a way that makes it appear corrupt.
To what facts of reality does the word “loophole” refer as used by the media in this context? It denotes various means by which people are still free to act on their own judgment; it specifies aspects of life in which individual rights are not yet being thoroughly violated by the government. In other words, it names a wonderful yet rapidly diminishing thing called freedom—which users of the term “loophole” seek to smear as corrupt.
Kudos to Jack Shafer for identifying “loophole” as a smear term—and kudos to Ayn Rand for identifying the broader category of smear technique under which it falls.
Although Shafer’s piece has some flaws—for instance, the use of the smear term (and anti-concept) “partisan” and the naïve assumption that “Once reporters understand that one man’s loophole is another man’s freedom, they’ll never use the word again. At least not outside quotation marks.”—it is an excellent piece of journalism, which is a rare thing today.