Reflections on Orwell and Political Language

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." - George Orwell

George Orwell observed that "Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Conservatives may accuse the left of the mangling of meanings, and liberals can accuse the right of the same thing. What they don't acknowledge, but Orwell did, is that such contortion of language is inherent in political speech. It's implicit in the nature of speech crafted for the masses that concepts be kept ambiguous and rudimentary. Since the object of political discourse is to garner support for the speaker (or program, or party,) critical discussion of its substance is generally an unwelcome response.

Here's an attempt at deconstruction of some current buzzwords.


n. 1. Quality or state of being tolerant ; freedom from bigotry ; toleration. 2. Act of tolerating. [...] Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1936

Catchwords or jingles play a literary eqivalent of hide and go seek (the popular children's game) with meanings. "Tolerance" seems like a good example. Tolerance is good, or it was in the 90's. "Zero tolerance" is better these days, it seems. Maybe that's because the tolerated became the tolerators and suddenly tolerance just isn't so cool anymore. Maybe it's because too much was tolerated by too many and that got old fast. When you understand "tolerance" as putting up with other people and granting them the same freedom you expect, it all sounds pretty absurd. Call it the revenge of the politically oppressed. Oppress one group long enough, they'll become vociferous and politically militant and dragoon the politicians into their service. Around and around on the carousel of the squeaky wheels, today's castigated minority may become tomorrow's tyrannical majority. That's one thing to be said for democracy -- everyone eventually gets a chance to make someone else miserable.

The Free Market

A "free market" can represent a spectrum of things to a variety of people. For some, the free market may provide justification for government issued license to favored corporations to ride roughshod over the common market. To others it may imply "free and fair trade", proponents of which naively expect government to reign in corporate depredations. Somewhere betwixt these two poles fall those who realize that government is to business what steroids are to cattle. Given an injection of big government, corporations grow unnaturally large and aggressive. A market free of help or hindrance by government is the solution least likely to be tried. Too many hands in the tills at either end of the buffet; whether good intentions or self-serving motives run the registers the results are similar. Policies which protect individual rights can and should also protect corporate rights. Protectionist policies thwart the action of corrective forces by removing companies from the judgement of the open market. Not judgement by a prescient elite or majority, or by market experts, but by the cumulative force of each freely made individual economic choice acting as the sand in the hourglass.

Sex Abuse

A disconcerting phrase, "sex abuse"; perhaps a novel device designed to leave us clamoring for bedroom police. If we can abuse sex, someone will justify supervising it for public health reasons. (What's next, sex licenses?) Phrases like "sex abuse" deter thought about other vital underlying issues. In the sad case of the "paedophile priest" scandal, these substantial issues are: the misuse of a position of authority, betrayal of trust, and neglect of responsibility. Any of these are reproachable even without the involvement of sex scandal. A friend observes that the following are excluded from the priesthood of the Catholic church: married men; women, regardless of marital status; persons with an unconcealed sex life. Homosexuals are denied marriage and are expected to remain celibate. Combine these exclusions with what appears to have been a wink and nod culture toward personal peccadillos, and church policies rolled out a red carpet for disaster. This could explain why there is an abundance of priests sufficiently debauched as to prey on children or women and a shortage of honest, unpredatory priests. Perhaps it's surprising that there are as many of the latter as there undoubtedly are, and a testament to the power of sincere belief in religion. Of course, we don't hear as much about them.

Drug Abuse

One instructive exercise is word replacement. To rephrase "drug abuse", we might choose terms which run the gamut between "self-medication" and "psycho-spiritual self-flagellation". Of course, the term would refer to an individual situation and require discretionary thought. It is hardly sensible to linguistically bundle together people who use a substance for pain mitigation, or for spiritual purposes, with those who are self-destructive. There's a difference between self-care and self-annihilation. The phrase 'drug abuse' glosses over the fact that the reasons for drug use are as individual as drug users. Furthermore, it obscures the root causes of drug use: whether brought on by alienation, suffering, hopelessness, internalized wrath, a search for enlightenment, or a simple need to transcend the artificial constraints of society. Unless we can see people as sovereign individuals and respect their needs and motives, we have no business minding their habits at all, much less dictating them. What is most damaging to any civil society is, arguably, a frenzied preoccupation with controlling individual behavior.

Homeland Security

Wow. What is "homeland security"? Unlike any of the above concepts, this one isn't neatly addressed in a sentence or two. Try rephrasing it in less than a paragraph without resorting to sarcasm. The more vague and precarious a concept is, the harder it is to adequately do the exercise of word replacement. Security is safety, freedom from fear or harm. Homeland isn't in my dictionary, though no doubt it will be in some future edition; but it refers to the home country. This is a prime indicator that we're in George Orwell's newspeak territory, where public servants coin words in an effort to obfuscate or pervert literal meanings.

Politically Correct

"Political correctness" makes a mockery of democracy, unless we each get our vote as to precisely what "correct" is. But no, that's bundled in with the right to vote for people whose words usually prove meaningless, whose principles prove to be nonexistent or easily compromised, and whose loyalties come at a price that few can afford. Political correctness appears to be no different from that which politicians deem to be politically expedient. Essentially, it comes back around to tolerance and the squeaky wheel which got the grease.

Engage people's thinking skills by avoiding politically abused words and phrases, and "just say no" when they begin to infiltrate your speech and your thinking. Finding other words to frame your ideas is essential to staying awake and conveying intelligible meanings in a culture of linguistic lullabies.

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