Politics and the English Language

If the ban were announced with a one week (sic) notice, the “bad” would rush into our country during that week. A lot of bad “dudes” out there! – Donald Trump, 30/01/17

First of all, it’s not a travel ban – Sean Spicer, 31/01/17

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind – George Orwell, 1946

When is a ban not a ban? It’s not surprising that a regime like the one in power in the United States would try to dictate the meaning of words, giving the extremity of its members’ beliefs, and their disregard for civil liberties. Seeking to control public discourse by controlling is a tried-and-true method adopted by despots insecure about maintaining control. George Orwell dramatized this practice in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the authoritarian Party gradually introduce Newspeak, a limited form of English in order to diminish the public’s ability to conceive of and express any ideas contrary to the Party’s interest. The most obvious attempt to control discourse through disinformation (deliberately false information, as opposed to misinformation, which is unintentionally false) is of course Kellyanne Conway’s now-infamous assertion that Sean Spicer’s falsehoods about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Her ludicrous claim is also reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s concept of Doublethink: simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs.

And Trump’s speech, and writing, are also ironically reminiscent of Newspeak in their simplicity, though I think that’s due to his own limited vocabulary, and not any deliberate attempt to restrict expression. And Twitter’s only got a 140-character limit.

In conceiving of the Party and its attempts to control language, Orwell was inspired by contemporary dictatorial regimes, and also, sadly, predicting future regimes. The adjective Orwellian tends to get used quite frequently, generally to describe increased surveillance or restrict civil liberties. Which is fair enough, as those are key elements of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But I feel it does a disservice to Orwell’s work, as he wrote many more fine works also deserving of falling under the Orwellian umbrella. One such work which is just as relevant as Nineteen Eighty-Four is “Politics and the English Language.” In this 1946 essay, Orwell points out the deliberate use of vague and inaccurate language in order to obscure ugly truths, or indeed to hide lies:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It’s clear that this practice continues to this day. Civilian deaths are called collateral damage, and soldiers killed by their allies fall victim to friendly fire. Biased practitioners of pseudojournalism such as Fox News or The Daily Mail are old hands at such use of English. Dig up anything you can on your enemies and make it sound as bad as possible, and gloss over the atrocities and repulsive beliefs of those you support. All, ideally, without actually lying. Such is the power of language. Taken to its extreme, it can be used to completely disregard reality, simply by taking a common adjective (let’s say, alternative, for example) and a common noun (facts, perhaps?) and putting them together to form a phrase that is nonsensical, yet grammatically feasible. Don’t like a judge disagreeing with you? Just call him a “so-called judge,” ignoring the fact that he actually is a judge. Or provide an “alternate fact” whereby he’s not a judge.

The interesting thing about Trump’s regime is that the president himself doesn’t engage in such obfuscating language too much. He can certainly be unintelligible, but through being oversimplistic, and trying to squeeze his thoughts into tweets. But I honestly get the impression that he lacks the vocabulary to truly engage in political language. Instead, we see the people around him with more political experience translate his blunt statements into more polished political speech. So no, it’s not a ban, it’s “trying to get more information about people from certain countries.” By not letting them into the United States. And the ban, which isn’t a ban, isn’t discriminating against people on religious grounds, Trump’s going to help Syrian Christians. Which somehow involves a binary opposition in which you therefore don’t help Syrian Muslims.

Orwell was not simply criticising political language and its biases though. As he saw the increase of politically-motivated vague and clichéd language, he imagined a feedback loop in which our increasing exposure to such language would affect our ability to think clearly and with insight:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

This is the same idea dramatized by Newspeak. And I do worry that our increasing access to the poor level of political English through our greater access to media might befuddle us. This is another classic tactic of the dictatorial regime: confuse the people and make them mistrust their senses, so they can’t organise themselves against you. How can you criticise a policy using simple language when it’s not clearly defined in the first place?

Perhaps one of the most prescient aspects of the essay is how Orwell imagined political language would evolve under a dictatorial regime:

I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

Could you imagine that happening to English? Imagine some outlandish dystopian far-future scenario where a narcissistic megalomaniac uses blunt sentence fragments to brand people traitors on social media in a 21st-century equivalent of Stalinist show trials, lash out at the slightest criticisms, and dismiss facts as “fake news?”

Sad!

5 thoughts on “Politics and the English Language

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