Politics and the English language
George Orwell’s advice to writers could save us from Orwellian hate speech outcomes.
I wonder what George Orwell would have made of the term, “Orwellian”. It’s become a cultural shorthand for a word or phrase that’s subversive or indoctrinating, one with a real meaning different and even opposite to its surface meaning. It’s ironic that Orwell himself was a master of clear, evocative writing—a master who was eager to teach. His 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” spells out the connection between clear writing, clear thinking, and politics. It’s a message with particular contemporary relevance.
The essay opens with a biting critique of the prose and speech of the day. Orwell’s initial examples—academics, newspapers and magazines—may seem relatively trivial, even if the critique is justified. It’s his language-bending masterpiece, the novel 1984, that illustrates why Orwell was so concerned with clarity. In it, the totalitarian Party of Big Brother surveils the subjects of Airstrip One (formerly England) through omnipresent telescreens for evidence of a facecrime (facial expression of a thoughtcrime). Records that the Party finds inconvenient are memoryholed (erased), including those referring to unpersons (someone executed by the Party). Subjects therefore become adept at doublethink (the art of believing two contradictory things sincerely and simultaneously) and goodthink (orthodoxy). Words like these are part of Newspeak, the regime’s language designed to drain communication of meaning so that it would be impossible to express, or even think, a thought contrary to Party doctrine.
Newspeak is a fictional extension of Orwell’s real concern, that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” If you can’t write clearly, you can’t think clearly. Orwell has a number of targets in mind: “pretentious diction,” “meaningless words”, jargon, “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” The use of these “ready-made phrases” and glib commonplaces saves the author the trouble of constructing a precise meaning and, worse, allows them to obscure it. Some of Orwell’s examples are still relevant: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Contemporary examples might include “kindness,” “step-change,” or, as in the Government’s hate speech proposals, “equality, diversity, respect and fairness”.
Orwell believed political writing was particularly disfigured by these tendencies, and that writing clearly and thinking clearly was “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” He was concerned with political ideologies like communism and fascism (the real kind). We don’t face those existential threats, but we do face existential questions: What is moral, how do we know, and what difference should it make in law and culture? What kind of society will we be, and what should we do about our disagreements? We rely on politics to resolve these debates peacefully, but first we must be able to express them clearly. Orwell proposed six rules to achieve this:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is why the hate speech proposals are so significant. Law casts a shadow, and anyone approaching territory marked out as criminal hatred will tread very carefully. Unfortunately, the proposals don’t make it clear where that territory begins and ends. For example, the crucial term “hatred” is ill-defined, and if it refers to an emotion rather than an effect then the law becomes subjective and uncertain. Some may not see that as a problem. The Chief Human Rights Commissioner recently wrote that, “hate speech laws … send the message that vile speech can have terrible consequences and it is not tolerated. Whether offensive words fall one side or the other side of the legal threshold for hate speech, the message is clear: abusive speech is unacceptable.”
Who will want to risk speaking or writing clearly about important but controversial issues if this logic wins the day? What kind of society will we have made if we can’t address fundamental questions of identity, politics, and meaning without looking over our shoulder? The answer, I suspect, will be a society marked by euphemism, covert conversations, and hidden meanings, one that has little prospect of resolving those questions openly and honestly and in a way that the majority regards as legitimate. Now that would be doubleplusungood.