The following two-part guest post is written by the talented Will Richardson, a literary and political writer and friend of the Radical Tea Towel Company. He writes his own blog called The Opinionist and his Twitter handle is @WillRichardson6
George Orwell is probably most famous for having the second most misused adjective derived from his name. (“Oh my Gawwwd, mum. I can’t believe you won’t let me skip Nan’s funeral. This is so Orwellian!”) Second only to Kafka, perhaps. (“Oh my Gawwwd this burrito is so Kafkaesque.”) He is also known for uttering a bunch of inconveniently prescient stuff, among which: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
1984, the book from which that shocking quote is taken, has the fine legacy of being the go-to example of dystopian tyranny (“First it’s registers for paedophiles, mate”, John insists, “the next thing you know, Government’s gonna be givin’ you a colonoscopy after every meal”). Although I’ll not try and convince you that if you are currently resident in Britain you are living in some dystopian Hell-scape bordered by barbed wire and overseen by oppressive, droid-headed CCTV; and I’ll not try to convince you that the powers that be keep us in fear and obedient through constant warfare, or that the government and the media tries to divide us by religion or colour or money; I shall be showing you the way in which that quote of old George’s is relevant to us in 2015. For it is not because should you tell the “truth” (man) you will get hauled into the back of a blacked-out van and lugged to room 101; no, it is because the manipulation and alterance of the English language in the political sphere and in public discussion has morphed to allow lies to become truth, and to make our truths lies.
To show what I mean, it won’t be George’s political fiction to which I’ll be referring; it will be his 1946 essay: Politics and the English Language. In this essay, the man elucidates how the politicos’ lingual use allows for truth to be concealed, or for the definition of truth and lie to blur.
In his essay, George states that language, far from a separate and autonomous organism that writhes and evolves of its own accord, is a tool, and one we have control over and whose development we can steer this way or that. He says this before denoting language’s importance to politics and proving folly the idea that to bemoan the “decadence” of the English language is “sentimental archaism”. Such a charge is just as relevant today as it was in 1946, and although I’m not going to be decrying the YOLOing youth with their fleeks and their emojis, believe me, to do so would be most justified. That is not lingual evolution; that is idiocy and stupidity and intentional lingual retardation. That is rewinding our language back to simple catechisms and pictograms that can be daubed on cave walls. Never mind, it is with George’s idea of the lingual “instrument” in mind that I continue.
George’s main beef with modern political English is that it has become bored, repetitive, and meaningless or vague. Where once specific examples would be used to exemplify a point, now they’ve dwindled down into vague, limp, lifeless, surgical phrases (“but time and chance happeneth to them all” becomes “a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”); and words themselves become meaningless (George gives this excellently apt example: “The word fascism has no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. Although you may sigh and resign yourself to the fact that this might seem to be the way of things – politics can be a boring game – in fact George’s polemic is most vital, and demanding more from the use of our language is utterly crucial. For language’s misuse, especially by those that represent us, can “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and […] give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
Take, for instance, a phrase we hear all the time as our red-faced, shiny-foreheaded, pale-bellied Etonian rulers dither and dally and scoff and stutter over the decision as to whether or not to commit to a war in Syria: “Boots on the ground”. It is a phrase innocuous enough and one that causes no alarm as it is spat out unthinkingly by the rolling news cycle. But to think what it means is to give cause to pay more attention, perhaps. It means that our soldiers – young British boys and girls – will be put in a foreign country to fight a war on our behalf and risk death and pain beyond imagination. The phrase sanitises the reality of the situation; it wraps 20 extra thick condoms around the idea of war so there is no longer any sensation in it. And this, of course, is entirely deliberate. It makes us think of war like Call of Duty, a swift in-out operation with no fuck-ups, but as we are all aware – limbless veterans especially so – wars are not, and never have been, like that.
As well as this sanitisation of language, George speaks of the misuse and overuse of metaphors until they become meaningless. While metaphors are a wonderful literary weapon to have in the arsenal for ramming home a point, so too are they for skirting over one, and it is this latter use to which they are all too often put by our politicians, by rendering them clichés. Austerity is a hard sell for the British public, especially those in the lowest financial echelons. But put it to the people in cosy, homely, apron-string terms and it suddenly becomes something we all have to do, as a community: simple and easy and lacking the ramifications of starvation and desperation and suicide that it, in reality, may cause. Say, quite simply, that we all have to “tighten our belts”. B-e-a-utiful! Well isn’t that lovely. Such a turn of phrase turns otherwise undecided middle class copers into austerity supporters, because it is a duty we all have to do; we are all in it together and it’s just for a while and no, Jimmy, until mummy balances the books you can’t have an Xbox. Of course, what this phrase, and indeed the entire Government rhetoric around austerity, discounts, is the gross disparity between the extent to which the poor have to tighten their belts, and the mega, super-duper, gold-plated-face rich have to tighten theirs. Such metaphor allows us, in some respects, to ignore or justify the unfairness and the deaths that occur as a result of the policy. It belies the truth of the matter.
“Pretentious diction” too falls within George’s crosshairs. It gives “an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments”. This is most dangerous as it dehumanises anything the Government may be seeking to do. The use of fallacious or pseudo-scientific vocabulary or phraseology puts a mask on the things being spoken about; it anonymises the effect of the words. Indeed, Orwell isn’t the only George who has taken aim at this phenomena, George Carlin in a manner more contemporary attacked the fact best: “The CIA doesn’t kill people anymore, they neutralise people, or they depopulate the area. The Government doesn’t lie, it engages in disinformation.”
Likewise, Orwell speaks too of the need to say what you mean, to not use needless jargon or meaningless words. Not only does this present the same threat it did at the time of George writing, but it does so in a way evolved for the worse since 1946, and all the more damaging. Politicians and the media – arguably the fourth check in our Montesquieu-inspired separation of powers system (and one which time and time again does not do its job) – rather than using meaningless words, transform words with meaning into words that are meaningless.
Take, for instance, “terrorism” or “terrorist”. Traditionally, a terrorist is someone who uses terror as a weapon in the pursuit of political aims. According to our media, though, and some elements of society, a terrorist is and can only be a Muslim. When a white guy with a haircut far too 90s for his own good shot up a black church in Charleston, that was not terrorism. But when two Muslims hacked the head off an army drummer, that was. This is dangerous because when the word is in circulation like that, and has that unofficial connotation, it allows the furtherance both of insidious prejudices and, conveniently, of our Government’s sometimes clandestine agenda. The Middle East is politically unstable, the countries therein are monetary mavericks – many efforts to introduce a currency based on the gold standard have been tried there – it is oil and resource rich, and it is a perfect, war-ridden theatre in which to use the wares of the private arms manufacturers. You know what else it is? Predominantly Muslim. It is not financially expedient to wage a war on stupid white people, but it is financially expedient to wage a war in the Middle East in the name of preventing “terrorism” – now, thanks to overuse and misuse, a meaningless word that can be thrown into conversation here or there to validate any given course of action.
As well, the danger in the meaninglessness of this word is shown at home. When Theresa May wants tighter controls on the borders, or MI5 want more powers in relation to your data, or the police want more powers to stop you and search and detain you, or David wants more powers to look at your communications; it is all done in the name of the fight against terrorism. The impingement of civil liberties because of a shifting, shimmering, elusive word.
This meaninglessness of words can be seen as having occurred more patently through the utter inversion of the phrase: “living wage”. If he wasn’t in charge of the fates of millions of people who he probably imagines as little troll monkeys swinging their fists and dancing about in the mud because he has never had cause to actually see the ‘poors’, George Osborne would be lovingly adorable; what with his gluttonously wobbly chin-bag and features that would be better suited to the face of a Roman dignitary lounging in a chaise longue eating/vomiting grapes, and of course that demented, petrified stare through eyes that look as if they are witnessing the very blackened depths of Hell itself whenever the man is sat in the Commons listening to debate rage about his budget. But alas, he is a politician and he has power and unfortunately that podgy youthfulness conceals damaging machinations. So is this shown through the fact that he has called a wage that is not possible to live on, a “living wage”.
But we do not demand he be truthful, we accept the man’s outright lie with a “tut” and a “whaddaya like?” and we refer to the thing as “Osborne’s living wage” with knowing, English smirks. But to demand more of our language would be to have the fact that he has not introduced a living wage out there, in big bold letters; a fact we could act upon. Because otherwise that tacit, knowing acceptance of his lie translates into inaction.
Lies are not told to us blatantly. For the most part, we are informed of the truth; we know when the Government fucks up, we tend to find out about hidden agendas and cover ups, if a while after the fact. Since there is always a propensity for any society’s institutions of leadership to turn to corruption or abuse, we could consider ourselves somewhat lucky with the level of transparency we have. However, we cannot and should not rest on our laurels. For lies are told to us everyday, and one way we can demand truth, is to demand the correct and candid use of our language. For if not, the words of a little known Russian musician whose father had been Brezhnev’s doctor should ring in all our heads: the difference between the West and Russia in the Soviet days was that “we knew it was propaganda”.
Before you get upset that this is over, know that it is not goodbye, it is only au revoir, for this is but the first part of a two-part post. Next time I shall be writing about how we have contributed to our language’s misuse in the political sphere and in social debate.