Thursday, November 24, 2011
What’s in a Name? “Pepper Spray”
The police use of so-called pepper spray is much in the news and on the web these days, especially as a result of its use at University of California at Davis. According to The New York Times “Megyn Kelly on Fox News dismissed pepper spray as ‘a food product, essentially.” That same story also reports:
To the American Civil Liberties Union, its use as a crowd-control device, particularly when those crowds are nonthreatening, is an excessive and unconstitutional use of force and violates the right to peaceably assemble.
A food product? Excessive and unconstitutional? One and the same product.
I understand the name’s derivation, that the active ingredient—technically, oleoresin capsicum—is the chemical that causes the ‘bite’ in peppers. The use of THAT name, of course, automatically associates the spray with food. Not only is food innocuous, it’s necessary for life. So the name tells us that this agent is, at most, an exaggeration or amplification of something that’s good for us: “Eat your spinach, it’s good for you.” We don’t think that such an agent could put someone in the hospital or induce possibly permanent nerve damage.
How would these stories play out if the spray was known as ‘liquid pain’ or ‘torture spray’? How would the officers using the agent think of themselves and their actions if they thought of the agent as torture spray rather than as a food derivative?