Friday, August 08, 2008

Escaping the cage of language

The following is a transcript of a speech I gave at Toastmasters two days ago. I based it on my blog post "The cage of language," with strong help from Geoffrey Nunberg's article "If it's 'Orwellian,' It's Probably Not." My project assignment was to deliver a keynote address. I presented myself as the keynote speaker to the convention of the Language Guardians Party, who are nominating George Orwell, the first dead Englishman to run for president of the United States.

I am so pleased that you have handed me the opportunity to shoulder the burden of heading this convention so that we can face the issues of our day without knuckling under the pressure and mouthing empty platitudes just so we can elbow our way in to the American electorate.

No wonder politics gives people such a headache.

Language is a wonderful thing, but it is also a sneaky thing that can blind us when we aren't paying attention. Language can be used to express our deepest thoughts and insights, but it can also be used to confuse and distort and conceal. It's vital that we pay close attention to the dead metaphors and clichés that litter our language, because if we don't, they will take control of our thinking.

One person who truly understood this point was our nominee, Mr. Orwell, who explained his views most forcefully in his essay "Politics and the English Language." How many of you have read this essay? It's one of the most widely read essays of the twentieth century, and in many ways one of the least understood.

Mr. Orwell tells us that modern English is in a state of decay because the people who speak and write it have become trite, wordy, and vague. Mr. Orwell argues that this situation poses serious problems for our society.

I have noticed that people have three levels for understanding Mr. Orwell's message, with Level One being the most superficial, and Level Three being the deepest. I hope and believe that everyone in this room can progress to Level Three.

Level One is the idea that all Mr. Orwell was doing was telling us to communicate more effectively. Mr. Orwell says we communicate very poorly today, and he illustrates this by giving his own translation of a famous verse in Ecclesiastes. Here is the original version from the King James Bible:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Now, here is Mr. Orwell's translation of that verse into modern English:
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.
Let me ask all of you, does Mr. Orwell's translation make the verse more clear and understandable? [Audience: No!]

Does it make the verse simpler? [Audience: No!]

Does it make the verse more poetic? [Audience: No!]

Is this the kind of communication we want to encourage? [Audience: No!]

Should we aim to improve our English by making it clearer, simpler, and more elegant? [Audience: Yes!]

Then we've got a problem.

Why is it important to communicate clearly? "Well, uh, if we don't communicate clearly, then, uh, people will have trouble understanding us." Alright, why is it important for people to understand us? "Well, uh, if people don't understand us, then we won't be contributing to public understanding."

It's hardly self-evident that we should be clear. People can get very far in this country without being good communicators. In the academic world, it is often to your advantage to be as unclear as possible. Some of our most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs can barely string a sentence together unless it's written in C++.

Understanding the importance of good communication brings us to Level Two of Mr. Orwell's message. We need to be on guard against the people in power who manipulate the language to keep the masses in line. This is actually what most people think of whenever George Orwell's name is mentioned, the way that the power centers of society--the government, the media, the CEOs of major companies--use windy, confusing phrases to conceal their true intentions. I'll give some real-life examples of this Orwellian language: referring to a tax increase as a "revenue enhancement," or referring to deaths of patients in hospitals as "failure to fulfill their wellness potential." I can think of some of my own examples! Blackout: "precipitous circuit conclusion." Falling down a flight of stairs: "unpremeditated diagonal excursion." Forest fire: "vegetative borough ignition."

I've got another question for all of you. If Mr. Orwell were alive today, what would he think is the most Orwellian term of modern times? [Members of the audience give possible answers.]

I'll tell you. If he were alive today, he would say that the most Orwellian term is "Orwellian." Everyone today is always accusing someone else of being Orwellian. "My communication is clear and direct, but you, you're Orwellian." You hear this criticism from the left, from the right, all across the political spectrum. People use the term "Orwellian" so often that it has become exactly the kind of hackneyed, overused expression that Mr. Orwell was warning us against, the kind of expression that people use to mask lazy, conventional thinking.

That brings us to Level Three. You really thought all Mr. Orwell was telling us was to watch out for a bunch of silly euphemisms? If only it were that easy. All the Orwellian terms I've mentioned so far are so obviously ridiculous, most people aren't going to be fooled by them. The truly Orwellian expressions are the ones that pass unnoticed.

For example, the Republican Party officially claims to be "pro-life." Yeah, that's why they support the death penalty. The Democratic Party officially claims to be "pro-choice." Sure, that's why they support gun control. Pro-life and pro-choice are true examples of Orwellian language, yet very few people seem to realize it. That's why these expressions are so effective, because most of the time they pass beneath our radar. As a matter of fact, that very term, "beneath our radar," is itself an Orwellian expression, a vague, hackneyed metaphor that you just don't notice until I point it out to you.

Because we barely notice these expressions, they have the greatest potential to influence our minds without our realizing it. That's why we need to reflect, to look at our own language. The next time you find yourself calling someone else Orwellian, take a look at yourself and ask, "Am I really being clear? Or am I using vague slogans, clichés, and catchphrases? Because if I am, then I'm not thinking independently."

By appreciating all three levels of interpreting Mr. Orwell's message, we will learn to take control of our language before it takes control of us. We will learn 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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