Politics and the English Language

March 11, 2017

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, a turning point in the twentieth century. The early part of that century saw the invention of the automobile and airplane, the discovery of X-rays and penicillin. It was the dawn of the modern world, full of cause for endless optimism. But by 1946 that world, with all its science and rationality, had given birth to two global wars, genocide on an unprecedented scale, and the deployment of chemical and finally nuclear weapons against human bodies. How did so much potential get bent to such monstrous ends?

As a writer, Orwell turned to language. He alighted on a trend, a “tendency of modern prose away from concreteness,” and in it found, if not the cause of the twentieth century’s barbarity, at least a contributing factor. And while he was writing to counter the “ugly and inaccurate” English of his time, his words bear just as heavily on our own.

Truthiness, Before Its Time

On its surface, Politics and the English Language is an invective against unclear speech and writing, especially when used intentionally to deceive. We might call this “euphemism” or—in a coinage from Orwell himself three years later in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“doublespeak.” Orwell sometimes calls it “political speech” because it’s not just bad writing, it’s a political tool. Concrete ideas one can say yes or no to. (“Should we kill innocent civilians? Of course not.”) Whereas vagueness can be applied strategically to make the heinous palatable. (“How much ‘collateral damage’ is acceptable? Well…”)

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense 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 the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless 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.

Or, for a contemporary example, when Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway infamously defended the Press Secretary’s demonstrable falsehoods as “alternative facts”. It is this perverse imprecision, a refusal to call things what they are, which Orwell sees as so threatening. A lie is a bad thing, but it can be refuted and rendered harmless. The real danger comes from language that has a quality Stephen Colbert would famously dub “truthiness,” the appearance of truth, without any factual content to be refuted by reality.

Lacking any factual content, such ideas serve primarily a practical, rather than an epistemological, purpose. Their slipperiness allow us to believe contradictory things. We want cheap gasoline, but also want to believe it does not come with a price measured in human lives. Phrases like “collateral damage” let us have it both ways, at least if we don’t think too hard about it.

Advice for Writers and Thinkers

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

At first, I couldn’t see what lazy writing has to do with political disinformation. But Orwell argues that while weapons-grade ambiguities are born of the desire to mislead, they need to “catch on” to do the most damage, and for that they need our help. They “spread by imitation,” because if something sounds true, and especially if it’s something people want to believe even though it isn’t true, the careless will repeat it as a rhetorical tactic. And it needn’t always be political propaganda; clichés operate by the same mechanism.

Orwell gives five examples of truly awful writing which usefully illustrate the advice to follow. Here is the first, on Milton:

“I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.”

—Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

To which Orwell replies pointedly:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

Indifference reminds me of Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, where he defines bullshit not as mere lying but an indifference to the truth of one’s words. The liar at least believes in the truth and its implications enough to risk their reputation claiming its opposite. The bullshitter on the other hand undermines the very concept of truth, which is even more dangerous.

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:

  • What am I trying to say?
  • What words will express it?
  • What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  • Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

This is especially difficult when writing about abstract ideas. Orwell describes it as a struggle against a horde of the clichés and tired ideas you’ve heard before all trying to get a hold on your idea and make it their own:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.

If the guidelines above aren’t concrete enough, Orwell ends with some specific rules, though pay particular attention to the last one:

  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 outright barbarous.

And remember, writing clearly is about thinking clearly, and helping others to see and think clearly. And until large numbers of people start seeing things as they are, nothing will ever change.