Orwell Never Dies: On the Importance of Clear Political Language

Real news articles showcase the linguistic incoherence of our discourse.
Real news articles showcase the linguistic incoherence of our discourse.

In American political discourse it has become stale to quote George Orwell’s novels 1984 and Animal Farm to claim the other side is totalitarian. The great insight of 1984, however, is that language shapes politics; totalitarianism takes root only after you have been deprived of the proper words with which to think and oppose it. To better grasp the importance of language in our culture, it is essential to read Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” to see what insights he may provide to the problems of 21st century America.

Orwell observes that many political words are simply meaningless. Words like “fascism” have no meaning except to signify “something not desirable.” To call somebody a “fascist” does not necessarily mean that person supports a repressive dictatorship, instead the accusation is often simply a sign of disagreement. Another example of a meaningless word in politics is “change.” Advocates of “change” fail to realize that even the most ardent defenders of the “status quo” (I.e., conservatives) desire many changes in social and economic policy. Conservatives would like to see a flat tax, increased bans on abortion, business deregulation and a balanced national budget among others—agree or not, these are certainly are “changes.” To claim one simply stands for “change” is a meaningless platitude meant to raise one’s sense of moral superiority. It only retracts from fruitful discourse. “Change” is only one such word among dozens.

Part of the dumbing down of language, Orwell explains, “consists in gumming together long strips of words” that contradict each other and “making the results presentable by sheer humbug” so the speaker appears intelligent and righteous. One such example among a vast ocean of nonsense comes from a January 15 Washington Post article by Cristina Beltrán where she argues that “multiracial whiteness” explains why Trump won a third of the Latino vote and an increased share of the black vote in 2020 as opposed to 2016. “Multiracial whiteness,” she explains, reinforces the “desired approach” among racial minorities “to colorblind individualism” and thus allows them to “engage in the wild freedom of unbridled rage and conspiracy theories.” Beyond the disgusting attempt to paint non-white Republicans as angry race traitors, the obvious contradiction between the words “multiracial” and “whiteness” must be lost on the writer. 

To have a vibrant culture of free speech we need a clear language, not the current political language that Orwell said “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” A clear language requires us to reject vague and meaningless words and instead incorporate nuance and complexity into our dialogue. Touting words like “science” or “equality” for their assumed virtue does not benefit our discourse but rather serves to castigate the opposing side unfairly. Furthermore, we must avoid academic jargon that is rife with contradictions. Arguments such as “hate speech is not free speech” or “affirmative action is not discriminatory” are not coherent by definition yet are widespread in national discourse. Any improvement in our politics must begin with an overhaul of our language or it is doomed to fail. Let clarity be our compass and truth our destination if we seek a better future.

Elie Aoun ’21

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