Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday's Quote: The wisdom of Orwell

Becoming reacquainted with George Orwell over the past couple of weeks has been gratifying.  A studious philosopher despite his collectivist leanings, one might contend that the author of dystopian masterworks such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was possibly at his best when writing about the English language itself – particularly when Orwell commingled his unease about the decline of semantics with the age-old conundrum of dodgy politicians who often exploit the ambiguities of dialogue for the mendacious purpose of simply getting elected (and re-elected).

Perhaps this sort of candidate would never stand a chance if the general electorate employed a greater sense of discernment.  Yet having known the type candidly, I have also found that such personalities – whether they are aspirant policymakers or not – possess the unique, if not unnerving and seemingly effortless ability to convey a sense of certainty among their enthusiasts.  And once that is achieved, being a wordsmith comes easily.

Here's Orwell to expand on that point:


"The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'.  The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.  In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.  It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.  Words of this kind are often used in a dishonest way.  That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.  . . .

"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.  . . .

"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.  . . .

"Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?  One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.  If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.  . . .   Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
– from the essay "Politics and the English Language" [1946] by George Orwell.  I cannot suggest this reasonably brief work of profound brilliance any more highly. 

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