Re: Politics and the English Language
In late 2016, a group of thoughtful people albeit with vastly different backgrounds, came together at a popular restaurant in a quaint little Southern city to discuss about the state of politics as was created by the polarizing national campaigns being run. There were deacons, startup employees, and even an individual who had worked with local governments in Britain in the past. Of course, at this point, it is easy to pinpoint where our use of the Chatham House Rule originated from but bearing that in mind, these are some condensed thoughts as espoused at that meeting after having read the material prior to it.
In 1946, George Orwell published a succinct yet compelling essay titled Politics and the English Language in the journal Horizon. Its theme is that the decline of language does not happen in a vacuum but that it has a far reaching affect on the social and political conditions of the people. In fact, he argues that the decline itself is caused by political and economic causes thereby feeding a vicious cycle. He dips into the idea of the thoughts of the masses being an average of the constituent elements of that mass without explicitly stating that, as he doesn’t blame the slovenliness of language on individual writers but on “us”. In the books he wrote around the time this essay was published; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he attempted to warn society about the dangers and methods of totalitarian governments. Now, totalitarian governments themselves weren’t novel to the time or to ours for that matter and they come in all flavors — democratic, monarchical, republican, oligarchic— pretty much every system that one can think of, can be turned into a totalitarian version by the suspension of the rule of law and concentration of power. Interestingly, while depicting the physical abuse meted out to certain characters within the stories, he focuses more on the use of language by those who have wrested control of power in the stories. Propaganda is, without a doubt, an instrument of shifting the average or mean of thought of the masses during the process of seizing control or maintaining it once it has be gained but there are other nuances in the use, misuse, and abuse of language that he prefers to showcase. Above all, the control of language is crucial to controlling human thought and when that begins to happen, the world is tossed into a dystopia. While this nation has not reached such a critical juncture, there are concerning trends that have begun to emerge in the use of language by politicians. Let’s explore some of them in light of this essay.
The most visible characteristics of bad political writing, speechwriting, and speech to Orwell’s eyes are the staleness of imagery and lack of precision. He contends that as soon as certain topics, and one can hypothesize that these topics are sensitive in the eyes of government with the possibility of being a threat to the sustenance of power, precise language melts into fluidity and platitudinous turns of speech. In fact, the most pressing argument that he makes is that writers and speakers do not use words having carefully weighed their meanings, rather they are oft repeated phrases with predefined contextual meanings that are patched together to deliver a party line and build on accepted presuppositions. Additionally, he pinpoints four commonplace language utilization tactics that have aided in developing this trap of banality — the continued use of dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. One could say that the use of these are so widespread at this point that they have become general use political language and if they’re used in any conversation, the frame of reference is automatically assumed to be that of politics.
Case in point: ‘Freedom of the press is absolutely essential to the effective working of democratic government. Like any freedom, however, it is a freedom which can be abused. In many countries, in addition, either as a result of editorial direction or as a result of the increasing influence of the journalists vis-à-vis owners and editors, the press has taken an increasingly critical role towards government and public officials. In some countries, traditional norms of “objectivity” and “impartiality” have been brushed aside in favor of “advocatory journalism.” The responsibility of the press should now be increased to be commensurate with its power; significant measures are required to restore an appropriate balance between the press, the government, and other institutions in society.’ — The Crisis of Democracy, Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission.
The Trilateral Commission was formed by citizens of North America, Western Europe, and Japan years after Orwell passed away ‘to foster cooperation among these three regions on common problems’ yet one can see the authors succumbing to a few of the four tactics that Orwell had already tapped as ingrained methods of deflection from the principal point, the one being made in this excerpt; someone needs to control the media as the journalists have become susceptible to exploiting the freedoms that allows them to operate independently in a democracy. In using language like ‘to be commensurate with’, the writers use verbal false limbs to obfuscate the direct action that is implied throughout the paragraph. To give the directive an air of measured intellectual value pretentious diction is employed; vis-à-vis, which in actuality is borrowed verbatim from French and has no need to be included in a wholly English document or understood by readers when the authors could just as easily have said “in relation to” to highlight their belief that journalists are becoming more vociferous in sharing their opinions than owners and hence wresting control of the direction of political speak from the latter. Finally, meaningless words such as appropriate balance are used almost dishonestly to indicate that the press had, in some way, become more powerful than the government, a situation that authoritarian regimes, and not democratic nations, are most afraid of.
To combat this, Orwell suggests that a principled writer ask oneself the following four questions:
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Along with an additional optional two:
1. Could I put it more shortly?
2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
While I understand the sentiment and broadly agree with his suggested questions, there remains the problem of individuals who intentionally wish to misdirect from their agenda by clouding their statements with contradictions and fogginess to conceal nefarious designs of “the party line”, and these guidelines only serve to further assist them in making those intentions hidden by developing a counter-playbook. For example, the authors of the above passage cannot say forthright, “we propose that a situation be created such that media owners are empowered to censor staff or the government grant itself power to censor them so that a government of the people, by the people, for the people can act with impunity via reduced oversight by the same people”. I concur that to stick to “a line”, most speakers and writers tend to play by “talking points” that morph the individual in question into an automaton, but an angle that Orwell seems to have missed is when automatons are not articulate or patient enough to express the line in terms polished by years of use by various other automatons due to which they resort to crass language in expressing that same line and so elevating or devolving themselves into “anti-establishment” figures.
In the end, Orwell beseeches writers with good intentions to work within a few language guidelines that would foster openness in communication, resulting in open thought and therefore, establishment or continuance of open government. These are:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
One could include these in a handbook of transparent governance and be sure to receive nods of agreement from reasonable readers. The first point is an attempt to prevent the writer or speaker from falling into the snare of obviousness that poli-talk has got the masses accustomed to. Phrases like they hate our freedoms, they’re all rapists, they take our jobs have become pervasive speech that rile up listeners and readers alike not because they’re true or untrue but because of the fact that they are so closely bound to the emotion. On the other hand, a fresh and reasoned take on the same topics make the individual sound less like a partisan hack and will probably elicit tempered responses from the audience, if not thoughtful. The second point speaks to a different angle; elitism. We have come a long way from the days when a simple, hardworking man or woman could gain office to serve the public. Today, there’s a system of hoops through which he or she must jump through before gaining office, and one of the hoops is invariably education. Even supporters and those with influence to provide the pecuniary or thought foundation for these individuals to build upon have in most cases received a quality education but it is unbecoming of either to use words like intersectionality, positionality to make language a tool of class distinction. Yes, the person holding office is important but it is more important that everyone who has the right to vote understands the ideas that he or she did or did not vote for. The public should be given the opportunity to vote rationally, not emotionally. Point five also cautions against a form of discrimination via language; the common man too needs to be a part of political discourse for the elections to be truly fair. Points three and four might sound like straightforward language lessons but when one scratches beneath the surface, he or she can see that the goal is to prevent the construction of a false air of superiority by the prolixity of writing or to hide the full force of a message behind the passive voice. Point six can be interpreted to be a get out of jail free card but if the guidelines were meant to be rigid rules, wouldn’t he be putting writers and speakers inside the same box that he is attempting to break them out of? A well intentioned poli-speaker would see that.
Orwell cautioned for the future, let us learn from the past.