Politics and the English Language, Revisited

On the occasion of Richard Dawkins complaining about “unofficial” Orwellian thought police, I went back to reread Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language“. When the meme originated in the slime pit, I ignored it, but now that we have global secular thought leaders adopting their language and promoting their contributors, that appears to have been the wrong strategy. Still, in my defense, who thought Dawkins would reach out to publicly embrace them instead of ignoring their obvious nonsense?

If you haven’t read the essay, you should. If you’ve ever used Orwellian metaphor to talk about things that are not state power, you should read it before trying to communicate with your fellow human beings again. Don’t worry. It’s short.

An excerpt:

People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

And another that stood out to me today:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. 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.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

I never much enjoyed reading Orwell’s fiction. I dislike dystopias. His essays, however, should be more broadly read than they are, particularly by people who want to claim a good foundational education.

Politics and the English Language, Revisited
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9 thoughts on “Politics and the English Language, Revisited

  1. 1

    Dawkins is so incredibly ignorant and bad at communicating that I’m embarrassed for the people who have promoted him for the last few dozen years. It has gone way past Dawkins… he’s obviously an arrogant fool who doesn’t know much about much and insists on spewing his foolishness on anyone who will hold still. In that regard, he reminds me of that crappy “comedian” Gallagher with the big hammer. Gallagher would say silly things then spray bits of fruits and veggies on the crowds. Dawkins doesn’t even provide the nutritional content.

  2. 2

    As I recall, Gallagher had a twin brother who would do the same act at county fairs and such, and sprinkle it with right wing gibberish. Like, this here watermelon represents Bill Clinton, amirite hillbillies?! I could be wrong and often am. Anyhow. Education!

  3. 3

    I went and read it. I have a few issues with Orwell here. It’s cute that he cops to being a hypocrite at the end, but the ideals he’s outlining have problems. The first excerpt – while it would most accurately be read as promoting thoughtful intellectual individualism – most powerfully reads as “both sides suck! All politicians are liars!” While I don’t think we should abandon skepticism to blindly accept any party line wholesale, I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric used over and over again IRL and now to justify political inaction (non-voting) and to minimize the villainy of the right wing.

    In the second excerpt, I’ll give him a pass on using what SJ types now regard as an ableist use of a clinical term, but the substance has other issues. When people speak of language “deteriorating” it is often an expression of classism and/or xenophobia, as it is when they say the same about art or other things closely tied to evolving cultures. Linguistic perfectionism is often used for discrimination, and is based on a fallacious notion that languages have a true form which is fixed and unchanging – or at least only evolving through a series of formal changes in orthodoxy. And the crappiness of the dominant political narrative can be as bad in supposed secular democracies (home sweet home) as it is in former Soviet Russia (where political narrative dominants you!).

    I do find a lot to agree with in this writing, but I personally wouldn’t present it without my reservations attached. That’s me, I’m cool with other people thinking and doing how they will. It was thought-provoking at least. One thing he gets at that I’ve found to be true: People use rote language to avoid having to think.

    Have you ever talked with someone who had a tiny bit of something to say to everything, but it was always the same words, tailored slightly to fit the input that triggered it? I know a religious person who I can’t needle because of life circumstances, and whenever the subject of someone xtian doing something wrong comes up, we move to No True Scotland for ten minutes and I can’t say shit. *siigh* Anyhow, the same person would have ready-made soundbites about everything from laundry to beaches, locked & loaded and waiting for triggers. Able to go through life with hardly a thought, outside of some mandatory cognition at the office.

  4. 4

    Richard Dawkins has a whomping amount of zero qualifications when it comes to linguistics or the different works on culture and society that actually allow us to deconstruct how language and imagery work. But he’s enough of an educated upper class twit to believe that it doesn’t really matter and that unlike in science everybody gets a trophy qualified opinion on these matters.

  5. 7

    Very interesting piece – I think I’ve heard about it before but not actually read through the whole thing till now. Just composing this sentence I’ve had to drop three or four metaphors and phrases that came rushing in like air into a depressurised aeroplane.

    I do like Orwell’s fiction though. I don’t think anyone can properly understand what thought police and doublespeak are without having it explained by Orwell himself in 1984. Just the first words written in Winston’s journal: “April 4th, 1984.” have always stood out as a wonderful way to show the interconnected nature of language and politics. The dystopia in that novel is rather sad, I remember being dismayed at the lack of happy endings or hope in general the first time I read it, but my second and later readings allowed me to enjoy the beauty of Orwell’s writing and how appropriate it is to point out negative aspects of political speach through the exhaggerated examples in that book.

    The overall message of the essay is very much like xkcd’s Listen to Yourself Think about what you write, listen to what you are saying and cut out the garbage!

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