Are euphemisms dangerous

A bad word for misdeeds: criticism of asylum

Sometimes euphemisms are justified. For example, it can make sense to use language to soften topics such as body excretions, sexuality or death in certain situations.

Euphemisms would only be dangerous here if they contributed to the fact that it is no longer possible to speak directly and openly about these areas. But if euphemisms are used to cover up injustice, inequality, hatred and violence on a social level, they must be rejected in every situation.


This currently applies to the words "asylum-critical" and "asylum-critic", which in recent years have established themselves as euphemistic terms for all possible shades of right-wing, xenophobic and racist thought and action, especially in German language usage.

At first it was mainly right-wing groups themselves who discovered the words for themselves, then they spread to the German media with reporting on the Pegida movement, which is often formally described as "critical of Islam and asylum". Their final breakthrough came in reporting about the protests and attacks against refugee and asylum seekers' homes, most recently in Freital, Saxony, which had been in the public eye since the beginning of the year.

Asymmetrical undifferentiation

The words "asylum-critical" and "asylum-critic" make use of a word formation pattern that has already produced the euphemisms "critical of Israel" (for "anti-Semitic") and "critical of Islam" (for racism and xenophobic resentment against Muslims). In all three cases, the words were initially used to literally express critical positions towards Israel's politics, certain aspects of Islam or Islamic societies or asylum laws and their implementation.

While the words in this usage do not yet seem directly euphemistic, they are also problematic here in their inconspicuously asymmetrical undifferentiation. This becomes clear when we bear in mind that words such as "America critic", "Christianity critic" and "tax critic" appear far less or never, although US politics, Christianity and tax legislation are also extensively criticized.

Problematic for three reasons

With the transfer to individuals and groups who do not exercise any objective criticism or any kind of justified criticism, but instead chant inflammatory slogans - in the case of the "asylum critics" especially in front of the refugee accommodation themselves - the words then become classic political euphemisms, the are problematic for three reasons.

Aura of legitimacy

First, they give xenophobic and racist thought and action an aura of legitimacy. You can't just criticize, you can even show what a thoughtful contemporary you are. It is noticeable anyway that people who sympathize with right-wing ideas often describe themselves as "lateral thinkers" or "free spirits" or proudly claim to "think for themselves" (instead of believing the "lying press", for example). These fantasies are strengthened by the word "asylum critic" both in relation to the so-called and in relation to the rest of society.

Conceals social problem

Second, these euphemisms mask a pressing social problem. In view of the daily attacks on refugee and asylum seekers' homes, it should have long been clear that Germany has a virulent problem with right-wing ideologies. Political action on many levels is urgently needed here - from the determined persecution of the perpetrators and effective protection of those affected via intensive political education work to the establishment of the "welcome culture" that is often invoked in Sunday speeches.

Words like "asylum-critical" help to convince yourself and others that only a few thoughtful (also: "worried") citizens need to talk about detailed asylum issues.

Those who find clear words have to justify themselves

Thirdly, getting used to the euphemistic usage of language means that those who find clearer words - such as "racist", "right-wing radical" or even "xenophobic", which is actually quite mitigating - are rhetorically inappropriately armed and have to justify themselves for them to have "worried" and "critical" people flatly vilified.

Incidentally, this reflects the uncomfortable habit of state actors to initially leave it to civil society to organize counter-demonstrations, but then to designate and treat the counter-demonstrators as "left chaos".

And in Austria?

Interestingly, the words "critical of Israel", "critical of Islam" and "critical of asylum" are found much less frequently in Austrian media usage than in German. It is difficult for me to say from the outside why that is. It is to be hoped that the Austrian media are simply less reluctant to mention xenophobia and racism by their names.

Or perhaps they are only reporting less intensively on incidents in which these euphemisms could be used, or they have found their own euphemistic language rules. (Anatol Stefanowitsch, 3.8.2015)