Politics and Language

In 1946 George Orwell published an essay called “Politics and the English Language”.  In it he expressed his distress over the state of the English language, arguing that academic double-speak and rote, tired and inconsistent metaphors contributed to an epidemic of unclear, misleading prose. More specifically, he despaired over the state of political language. I would paraphrase here, but he expresses it much more elegantly than I am capable of:

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.

The implication, of course, is that if insincerity destroys clear language, politics relies upon deception, and everything is political, the clarity and precision of the way we communicate with each other is under constant assault. Whether we point to made up words in academia (e.g. “Post-Fordism”) that ensure that only those with the requisite training can effectively engage, or towards the debasement of words with specific, precise meanings (e.g. democracy, fascism, socialism etc.) into crude signifiers, Orwell demonstrated a frightening prescience. This is, of course, hardly news (which makes it all the more alarming).

I have little to add to Orwell’s excellent piece. I considered, briefly, trawling through news articles from both sides of the aisle and trotting out pertinent examples of the misuse of words like “democracy” and “communist” but that seems to be pretty low hanging fruit (yes, that’s three mismatched metaphors…I’m going to have to do a better job of this) and anyone with the desire to do so can easily satisfy themselves. Instead, with an acknowledgement that I quite love academic doublespeak, and am doubtless going to engage in it fairly often, I’d like to establish clarity as a core goal of any of the writing that will go up on this blog. Let me know how I do. Also, read the essay—I’m going to try to keep it at the forefront of my thoughts anytime I write anything.