Another Look at ‘Politics and the English Language’

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I had only read the novel 1984, but the tome that really influenced me more was George Orwell’s prior short essay written in 1945 entitled Politics and the English Language. You can google a PDF for yourself quite easily, or you can purchase one of many college-level readers used in composition courses which will contain the essay, probably with better formatting. My understanding is that it is not being used as often these days in courses on prose style or rhetoric.

The impression it had left on me in my early 20s was quite profound, and has influenced my writing to this day. Orwell’s message in this essay was quite simple: that one’s written expression should be free of tired, overused phrases that do the thinking for us. Such phrases and words to a large extent cloud our meaning. As a result, we fail to make our point effectively, or at all. His aim was to get us to express ourselves authentically, in everyday English, free of tired jargon, deadwood phrases, and other forms of unnecessary pretense that end up generating more smoke than light in terms of our self-expression. And, of course he encourages us to break any of his rules lest our use of language has to become even more awkward in the following of said rules.

The 1940s was a time of high-minded-sounding rhetoric. The Nazis were just defeated and fresh in everyone’s mind; Stalin was still the dictator of the USSR, and England and the rest of Europe were rebuilding and repairing themselves from the damages of World War II. Surely, political rhetoric, slogans, and catch phrases were not in short supply in Orwell’s day. Germany nearly invented propaganda; while England and America were quickly adopting their own brands of propaganda during and after the war. Noam Chomsky points out much later that propaganda has been felt to be necessary by the elites in power to generate “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications”, so that consent of citizens to any new government policy can be manufactured on demand (hence the phrase Manufacturing Consent, also the title of one of Chomsky’s books, co-authored with Edward Herman).

Such was the influence of George Orwell that by 1992, Edward Herman wrote a book called Beyond Hypocrisy, which featured an extensive glossary which he called the Doublespeak Dictionary. So, to update Orwell’s laundry list of tired political phrases, here is a more recent sample of political phrases used to the point of losing their original meaning, cited by Herman: Antisemitism, Benign Neglect, Communism, Environmental Terrorists, Freedom Fighter, National Interest, Special Interest, and so on.

Orwell would agree with Vaclav Havel, who was quoted as saying: “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality, while making it easier for them to part with them.” This is because to facilitate the illusion of dignity and morality, you need language. Rather than using language as a means of authentically expressing one’s self, it is now used as a means of mind control. But mind control is a kind of double-edged sword in the sense that, while you give yourself identity, dignity, and a sense of morality and purpose, one can also blind one’s self to transgressions committed in its name. The reason is because the same language can be used in a way that sterilizes one against feelings of guilt when committing transgressions against others, particularly the perceived enemies of their cause.

Of course, the current decade has some of the greatest howlers of tortured English that I think we have seen yet: “speaking my truth”, “cancel culture”, “problematize”, “heteronormativity”, “womxn”, “latinx”, “intersectionality”, “privelege”, “shaming”, and of course, the big 4-letter word: “woke”. That is far from a complete list. I could continue: “lived experience”, “othering”, “platform”, “content provider”, “punching down”, “queering”, “spaces”, “they/them” as a singular pronoun, and “voices”.

All of them are just phrases that become overused as time goes on as ways of hiding and blurring clarity more than making meaning more clear. Phrases like “cancel culture” have been overused by members of all political stripes to the point where all life and meaning have been eviscerated from it. “Speaking my truth” is made more subjective by calling it “my truth”, and thus weakens and trivializes the word “truth”.

I particlularly find the recently-coined phrase “content provider” offensive. I am a writer of essays for this web-based journal. What writer feels any sense of dignity in calling themselves a “content provider”? It describes absolutely nothing about exactly what “content” is being “provided”. “Content” could refer to music, essays, news articles, videos, conspiracy theories, online stores or online pornography. There is nothing about the phrase “content provider” that distinguishes my writing from, say, E-Bay, YouTube or InfoWars.

Much of the rest of these phrases and words appear to be designed, not necessarily to make the world more open minded, but instead to further isolate the users of these very phrases from mainstream society, thereby defeating their own object and making further discussions into nothing more than an echo chamber where the message never properly gets outside of the closed circle of “woke” people. The stilted words appear designed to provide a barrier to entry for everyone else (since most people don’t know what “woke” people are talking about), which has the function of actively preventing their ideas from becoming mainstream. Language, which usually facilitates delivering a message, is now being used to prevent any hope of widespread adoption of ideas or actions in support of oppressed groups.

In nearly all cases, there is more than likely a word or phrase in everyday English that could convey one’s thoughts more clearly. And that has been my guiding principle throughout university. To free one’s self of all of these catch phrases is to make your thoughts your own, shorn of all pretense.

I wish to proceed with some criticisms as to why not everyone thinks as highly as I do about Orwell’s essay. To get a sense of the criticism, I will repeat Orwell’s six rules here:

  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.

It is one of the most simple style guides around. It is a style guide for the modern times. But even with rule 6 in place, the rules are still considered rigid by many writers. I am sure to have broken rules 1 to 5 somewhere in this essay; and Orwell himself admits to breaking these rules in his Politics and the English Language. I think of this set of rules as an ideal, while knowing that I am likely to be accused, as other writers would be, of overusing rule 6. Yes, I break these rules, but if I stop myself, I would need to ask if I am about to say anything ridiculous by applying rules 1-5? Maybe, but probably not.

Rule 4 is controversial, since, while using active voice makes a passage more readable, it makes the person in the sentence the subject of it. “I went to the movies” makes me the subject (active voice), while “The movie was attended by me” makes the movie the subject instead (passive voice). The latter sounds pretty bad, and Orwell would have something like this in mind when he made that rule. The idea of an inanimate “thing” being the subject of a sentence might not sound right unless you really want to discuss that “thing”, and you really want to treat the person as incidental. This is the ideal for scientific writing, where there is an effort to discuss what is observed; no one is interested in the observer. Then there is rule 5: of course where the specific topic is within a specific scientific field, it is difficult to avoid scientific terminology that might sound strange to a lay person.

Others have their hair on fire because if you reduce English to a basic subset of basic words as Orwell suggests, then what hegemony does that play to, they would ask? I am not sure I follow this line of reasoning. From reading, Orwell was aiming at clarity throughout his essay. The entire point was not to silence people, but to enable them to discover their true voice, free of carelessly predigested words and phrases that all of us are prone to use from time to time. You can only become active against the current hegemony if you know what injustices you are fighting against, and can communicate this clearly to others, so that others may engage in the conversation more holistically. It prevents this kind of stuff:

Bottom line, what it will ultimately require to end all the tragedies we see unfolding around us is a round-up of the Luciferian “elites” – and their minions in government positions and all areas of private life – those who aspired to and who have engineered and are now peddling as fast as they can to accomplish the decline and fall of the United States of America – and other countries. In short, the “New World Order” crowd.

Patricia Robinett, Thought Crime Radio web log, June 2, 2022

This quote is from a far right-wing web log. The topic the author was writing about was the recent Uvalde, Texas school shooting at Robb Elementary School. Who does the author have in mind as the enemy here? The word “elites” is in quotation marks, so while these “elites” appear to have have connections to people in government, they also have connections to people in “all areas of private life”. So they could mean anybody. The author never offers proof of the existence of these “Luceferian elites”, nor proof of the existence of their “minions” which apparently can be seen everywhere. The “New World Order crowd”, whoever that is, is not helpful in clarifying who is being referred to, or how their identification has anything to do with getting government to support the gun lobby, which I think is the point of the article (protecting children from crazed gun-toting people is mentioned in passing, however). Clarity is an endangered species in this example. It didn’t help that Breitbart was cited as the source of their information.

Another criticism is that Orwell appears to reduce Fascism to problems of English usage. It kind of looks that way, and it sounds excessively reductionist on the part of Orwell, but consider that fascism with its attendant use of propaganda is nothing without mind control, and the only way into the minds of the masses is through a constant drum beat of language, images, and video. Using simple words is something anyone can do, and a deliberate application of Orwell’s rules disrupts one of the most important avenues that propagandists keep having access to. Orwell reminds us that propagandists only have access to our mind through language because we have chosen to allow it. Clearing our minds of jargon is important to knowing our own thoughts and in making them known to others. It is also an important part of intellectual self-defense against the deluge of propaganda we are all immersed in in our culture.