George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, got a few things wrong — for example, the date. But he was dead-on in depicting the cause-and-effect relationship between language and politics, between language and our ability to think clearly; the process of using words as social control was called Newspeak. What cannot be expressed cannot be effectively understood or opposed. Neutralizing language defuses the most powerful weapon against oppression: the ability to think.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell wrote, “[The] decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes…. [To] think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous.” Nor is the political use of bad or distorted English accidental.
Since the advent of political correctness, a vigorous war on words has been waged.
Some of attacks are blatant. For example, “gender” has replaced the word “sex” and this replacement has been key to embedding the idea of sexual orientation as a social construct and not a biological fact. Words have been demonized as de facto acts of violence, so that using a slang term for a race is viewed as a hate-filled attack that might result in retaliatory violence or even arrest. Other attacks on words are subtler. Terms have come mean their opposite, so that “equality” now requires the disadvantaging of men in law and with policies such as affirmative action in order to favor women. Euphemistic terms are used to describe vicious practices; for example, “sensitivity training” refers to mandatory re-education sessions at which participants are harangued for possessing wrong beliefs such as a traditional Christian view of women or gays.
Political correctness has so infused the public schools and academia that the institutions no longer offer education (to the extent they ever did) but, instead, offer propaganda that “teaches” proper attitudes and positions on social issues. Thus, language is degraded not merely by the production of illiteracy but also by shutting down entire areas of discussion.
One expression of the war on words is currently unfolding: the circus of rhetoric that precedes the 2012 presidential election. It will do nothing but intensify as that election draws nigh and rhetoric ramps up. Words will be used to confuse not inform; lies will masquerade as truth and become weapons against awareness; the meaning of words such as “justice” and “equality” will be gutted or reversed, so that analysis or even understanding becomes tortuous.
One of the characters of 1984, Party member Syme, proclaims, “The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought.” He adds, “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
What does “is” mean?
Consider merely one instance of political doublespeak from a myriad of possible examples. In his “jobs” speech of September 8, President Obama claimed that his job-stimulus bill “is” paid for. The Wall Street Journal reported, “Mr. Obama insisted that it’s all ‘paid for,’ but with unspecified future entitlement cuts and tax hikes on small business owners and the energy industry.” In short, Obama front-ended the spending and back-ended how it would be paid through unspecified means.
Obama’s statement is reminiscent of one made by Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky sex scandal. In front of a grand jury, Clinton countered a direct question about his alleged impropriety with a linguistic challenge to the meaning of the word “is.” He stated,
It depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. If the — if he — if “is” means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement….
Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.
Similarly, Obama’s use of the word “is” regarding payment echoes the words of the portly Popeye character Wimpy: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” It is a meaning of “it is paid for” with which most people are unfamiliar. But the sleight- of-hand reassures people; it makes objections to the stimulus bill seem less reasonable and, so, more difficult to pursue. Much of current politics involves similar linguistic sleights-of-hand.
What’s in a word? A rose by any other name …
Impoverishment of the language is an impoverishment of our very ability to think. Try a thought experiment. Chose a belief you hold strongly but have never expressed orally or in writing; for example, “I believe that peace is still feasible in a world at war.” Construct an argument for your position and express it out loud. Typically, what seems clear in your thoughts will sound clumsy and incomplete when spoken for the first time because the spoken word is a refinement of thought that challenges fuzziness. Now write your argument down. It may be extremely difficult to do because the written word is also a refinement of thought. To argue cogently requires the definition of terms, the weighing of distinctions, the evaluation of evidence (also presented in words), et cetera. At every step, precise language is essential to precise thought.
Language as social control
Orwell’s totalitarian state Oceania imposes its will over language through Newspeak, which serves the ideological goals of Ingsoc — English Socialism. Newspeak is a form of English that has been radically simplified in content and grammar in order to prevent “crimethink” — thought that questions or contradicts official views. Wikipedia explains, “The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language, leaving simple dichotomies (pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, goodthink and crimethink) which reinforce the total dominance of the State.” One manner in which the State reinforced itself by destroying language was to eliminate words — and so eliminate the ideas they expressed. Syme eulogizes the impact of Newspeak:
“How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished?… [There] will be no thought, as we understand it now.”
A mainstay of using words as social control is to reduce the number of words in common use. In 1984, six words — arguably one word modified five times — describe the entire span of right and wrong, good and evil. The words are: good, plusgood, doubleplusgood, ungood, plusungood, and doubleplusungood. Using Newspeak would it be possible to write the following passage?
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government….
Indeed, and without sarcasm, it is difficult to imagine the public-school system producing people who could write that passage.
But there are many other ways to degrade the language for political purposes.
One is the introduction of “doublethink.’ Doublethink occurs when someone simultaneously accepts two contradictory beliefs as true. It is achieved through using one word in a contradictory manner. An example is “affirmative action.” Because it is wrong to judge people on the basis of skin color or gender, universities and employers should give preference to people based on skin color and gender. Or consider the concept of “diversity”; because differences in human beings are to be embraced we must eliminate those differences that may offend some. “Affirmative action” and “diversity” have become part of the PCspeak and modern doublethink that parallel Newspeak.
If people embrace the incompatible ideas of doublethink, their ability to make distinctions and to critically analyze issues is crippled. This hobbling is also promoted by surrounding the doublethink idea with euphemistic language that makes it more palatable and casts a priori aspersion upon anyone who objects. Thus, affirmative action is not “class preference embedded into law” but “justice to oppressed minorities”; thus, making slang terms for minorities into hate speech is not “censorship” but “respect for dignity.” Who can righteously object to justice and dignity?
A variety of other linguistic tactics are used to cloud and slant any critical analysis. In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell identifies two prominent ones: “The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.”
A hallmark of “staleness” is the frequent use of dying or dead metaphors and slogans. The dead metaphor has lost all specific meaning and no longer produces a vivid image even though it may still evoke an emotional response. Thus, politicians invoke “America, land of the brave” or cry, “Let freedom ring!” Although the phrases lack specific meaning, they evoke a patriotic swell within many listeners almost as a matter of emotional habit.
Equally, lack of precision can be achieved in many ways. Two common examples are the use of meaningless words and pretentious language. Orwell commented, “Adjectives such as epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics….” Those words add nothing to the information (or lack thereof) being communicated. They merely serve to give the impression that something of consequence is being said.
Other common tactics include:
1. Embedding new terms. Some of the words embedded into the presentation of “diversity” are “ethnocentric,” “gender-specific,” and “patriarchy.” Each term is an idea and, when favored by officials, it acts to quash the circulation of opposing ideas.
2. Eliminating “wrong” words and, thus, wrong ideas. In 1984, all literature was being rewritten in Newspeak so that authors such as Shakespeare either disappeared or were rewritten to serve Ingsoc’s purposes. Today, school textbooks are reviewed to eliminate politically wrong words and ideas. Accuracy is a secondary consideration if, indeed, it ranks that high.
3. Gutting the power of remaining words. In 1984, the word “free” is used only in its nonpolitical, trivial meaning — e.g., “My sweater is free of lint.” In most of academia today, the word “sex” is used only as an act and not as a biological description.
4. Using bureaucratic or over verbose language to describe simple ideas, thus making them inaccessible to average people. In “Politics and the English Language” Orwell referred to such obscuring language as “Operators or verbal false limbs” that replace “appropriate verbs and nouns…. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs.”
The list of language tactics could fill a large book. But the final resort used against those who persist in today’s version of Oldspeak (Newspeak’s linguistic predecessor) is punishment through lawsuits, the law itself (e.g., laws against so-called hate speech), public humiliation, the dismissal from jobs, exclusion from opportunities and, sometimes, open violence.
Words are met with the force and punishment not because they are weak, babbling things but because they possess tremendous power. It is time to reclaim the power of the English language … verb by verb, adjective by adjective.
A good way to begin: When listening to politicians, academics, and pundits, constantly ask yourself, “What did he actually say?” Do not take even the word “is” for granted.