Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The cage of language

One of the labels I frequently attach to my posts is "power of words." I believe that words do have power. Our whole life, after all, is shaped by language. Few if any of us remember before we learned to speak, and we probably cannot even conceive of the experience. If language is a vessel for thoughts, it is one that transforms what is inside of it.

One person who truly understood this point was George Orwell, who explained his views most forcefully in "Politics and the English Language." Many people have read this wonderful essay, and many more are at least passingly familiar with Orwell's ideas. But not everyone fully grasps what he was talking about. Ironically, people today who throw around the word Orwellian are usually falling into the very trap Orwell warned against: the use of hackneyed but politically charged terms to mask lazy thinking.

Bemoaning the decline of the English language, the beginning of Orwell's essay almost sounds like it's going to be a tired old trope about the misuse of grammar. But those who read further will discover a far more distinctive argument. Indeed, one of the examples that Orwell cites of bad writing is itself a critique of grammar-related sins, an issue to which Orwell seems indifferent. The writing issues that concern Orwell are wordiness, triteness, and vagueness.

I have observed that people have three levels for understanding Orwell's critique. Level One readers interpret it simply as a call to communicate more effectively. Strunk & White's popular style manual, for example, eagerly seizes upon Orwell's humorous "translation" of Ecclesiastes 9:11 into dry academic prose: "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

Level Two readers understand that the bad communication cited by Orwell serves a definite purpose, as the people in power try to confuse the masses. This is the most popular conception of Orwell's ideas, the kind that shows up whenever someone rallies against "doublespeak," a term that Orwell did not actually invent.

Level Three readers correctly identify the core of Orwell's message: if we don't exercise control over the language, then the language will exercise control over us. Bad communication is not merely a conscious process designed to keep the masses in line. It is something that we blind ourselves with.

What would Orwell say about the current political climate if he were alive today? Conservatives speculate that he would attack political correctness. There is definitely an element of doublespeak in PC terminology, not just because of oversensitivity but also because of the way it implicitly excludes some views from discussion.

But what many conservatives fail to acknowledge is that overuse of the phrase politically correct has itself become an Orwellian tactic. In the culture at large, the phrase has practically lost its political implications. It is simply a synonym for "polite," but with negative connotations.

I once was reading a blog discussion where a guy referred to the author of some book as an idiot. Another guy said he agreed with the criticism but added that there was no need to launch ad hominem attacks against the author. The first guy came back and retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC." This discussion, I should note, had nothing to do with politics.

What PC means, to most people, is "avoiding saying what you mean for fear of offending someone." People use the expression so that they don't have to take responsibility for their words. It gives people the license to be as offensive as they want and then make it sound as if anyone who disagrees is being namby-pamby. The elder Bush once described political correctness as something that began as "a crusade for civility" and turned into "Orwellian...crusades that demand correct behavior." I would describe the backlash against political correctness as something that began as a crusade against censorship and turned into an all-purpose excuse for poor decorum.

Orwell did not direct his criticisms against any one party or philosophy. He realized that the problem was almost universal: "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 respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Properly, Orwell's critique should be used for reflection, not just condemnation. We need to consider how we communicate, not just how others do. No one escapes the cage of language; the best we can do is be conscious of how it surrounds us.

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