Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The importance of clear language

In politics (and life in general) language is used in order not only to simply communicate, but also to shape and, yes, control thought. I'm not sure I know of anyone who has not at some point expressed frustration at what is commonly known as politician talk, aka political rhetoric that is either devoid of content or deflects or distorts the truth.

The problem is that in our everyday lives we do not pay all that much attention to the proper use of language. This leaves us particularly at a disadvantage for recognizing deceptive language because we often use it ourselves without awareness of it.

No one was more aware of the potential dangers of the misuse of language as a means of manipulation than George Orwell whose principles of Newspeak have escaped the confines of his dystopian book 1984 to take on a life of their own. Less known , though, is an essay written by Orwell entitled Politics and the English Language - which in my opininon should be a part of every citizens education - in which Orwell discussed the ability of vague and ambiguous language to corrupt thought. Orwell, the 20th century's most acute critic of the misuse of language, warned that "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." The advice he offered was to actively seek to improve your own use of language: "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."

With practice and concentrated effort it becomes easier to see through imprecise language; this is something that every citizen should always strive to be aware of since, afterall, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."


Scott said...

Welcome back, HG. Excellent post. I am astounded (and a little horrified) at the unleashing of repetitious phrases (think "Social Security 'Lock Box'") to shape public opinion on policy. Of course it's propaganda, but the insidious nature of these metaphors is the obliteration of the debate's fundamental truths.

John Lombard said...

Well, I thought Social Security Lock Box was an excellent metaphor for "not pissing away the surplus".

Hey, perhaps *you* can tell me what a weapons of mass destruction related program activity is. Because I sure as Hell don't have a fucking clue.

Hume's Ghost said...

"Obliteration of the debate's fundamental truths" I would say is a perfectly concise appraisal of them.

What really gets me is langugage that is more subtle, such as "homicide bomber" for example. That strikes me as particularly Orwellian. I suppose a news report would read: "Homicide bomber kills 7 by self-homicide"

""... the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. . ." - the character O'brien from 1984

"We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." -senior Bush advisor to Ron Suskind

Creepy, seriously creepy.