The Core of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Devotees — I make bold to use the plural — of this blog know that the pair of us routinely pore over George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”  We are critical of the essay.  As a result of our criticisms, we may obscure our admiration for Orwell’s thinking.  It behooves us, then, to reiterate the essay’s virtues from time to time.  This entry is one such time.

In my view, the following passage is the centerpiece of Orwell’s insights:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

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, as a result of dictatorship.

I confess that every time I read these paragraphs, phrases and clauses leap from the screen — seldom from pages these days although from the pages in the collection Shooting an Elephant in 1976 when Professor Lance Bennett sent me Orwell’s way — as fronts of T-shirts.

My favorite sentence in the essay was initially and remains today “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  What a bounty that hucksters such as Dr. Frank Luntz should expose themselves as liars and cheats even as they ply the polity with soothing phrases and soulless palaver!  Dr. Luntz and other politicos wield calculated vagueness and crafted equivocation with frightening effectiveness, which makes them at once enemies of understanding, rationality, and democracy.  Their expedients win elections and shape policies at the expense of self-governance.  The dark arts of political grifting enrich the grifters even as they impoverish the polity.

Another T-shirt aphorism aligns with the foregoing maxim: “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”  To me these first two sentences mutually reinforce.  Because the insincere manipulator or audiences must avoid clarity in favor of euphemism and other “swindles and perversions” [Orwell], the con artist must assemble words and phrases into slogans, bumper stickers, and spot ads that withstand mindless repetition but not critical scrutiny.  Apostles of orthodoxy intricately arrange words and phrases — but not usually sentences and paragraphs lest  complicated, modulated expression induce thought and skepticism — into towers of babble that bear repetition much better than they weather reflection.  Orthodoxy and conformity, it follows, not only encourage but also depend on rote expression(s) that mask motives and hide sinister designs behind dextrous expression.  Insincerity is a great enemy of clarity because clarity of thought and expression threatens the insincere.

As insincerity begets strategic and tactical unclarity and as prosaic, hackneyed strategic and tactical words and phrases repeatedly hide motives and designs unbecoming to partisans, ideologues, and other scammers and shammers, political messages becloud minds.  “And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity,”  Orwell notes.  Orwell’s “model” of language and politics seems to me to be that propagandists enthrall followers and thereby make their followers far less even as they may make followers believe that followers are becoming far more, perhaps, even that followers are becoming part of leadership.



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