Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I learn new appreciation for George Orwell all the time. I think his essay "Politics and the English Language" (a copy can be found here) should be required for every student of political science or English. It's mostly about the craft of language, but there's some relevant and timeless bits about political use of language in there. This bit, for example:
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. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. 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. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years [the essay was written in 1946], as a result of dictatorship.

The obvious corollary is that just as some words are used because they're stripped of meaning or they avoid the honest emotional reactions, others are used because their meanings are irrelevant but it's not obvious, or because they provoke emotional reactions just for the sake of those reactions. I'm reminded of Orwell because I just saw this post by a guest blogger at Andrew Sullivan's. What I'm wondering is, what is "militant philosophical atheism"? Can you think of any examples of militant philosophical atheists? I suppose Soviet Russia and other totalitarian communists would count as militant atheists, but there's little or nothing philosophical about them. And since the post itself is about the Catholic Church's position on intelligent design, I doubt Communists could possibly have anything to do with it. I can just see the thought process of this R guy: "hmmm, philosophical = weak, atheist = un-American, militant = terrorist, extremist, baaad..." Who cares that the people he's describing barely exist in this hemisphere and have nothing to do with intelligent design?

And while I'm at it, could someone tell me what "objectively dishonest" means? Is there a bit of Catholic moral teaching here that I'm ignorant of? (Complete coincidence that these both touch on Catholicism, by the way. I first heard this particular emotionally-charged but content-free phrase here; I just reference that Catholic news source because it seems like an earlier use of the phrase, if not the first.) Have any of the people using the phrase ever stopped to wonder what a "subjectively dishonest" statement or action would look like?

EDITED ON 12/21/05, 11:06 A.M.
And of course, how could I forget what might be the single most egregious example of our times: "homicide bombers," which is the term Fox News made up for suicide bombers. Even going as far as to rewrite AP stories without saying so in some cases to make that "correction". I first heard about this in the documentary "Outfoxed." As others have pointed out, it really is pretty much the definition of Orwell's Newspeak - removing information from a term and at the same time trying to incite irrelevant emotional reaction.

"Suicide bomber" - Huh? Why would someone do that? What's wrong with them? What could drive someone to such lengths? How can we prevent something that doesn't fit into normal patterns of rational behavior? "Homicide bomber" - Homicide is a crime, so they deserve whatever they get, end of story, no more thinking needed, it's probably seditious anyway.

No comments: