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That 'Bad English':
A Visit with George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

George Orwell is-after Frederick Douglass-our next formidable writer. And like Douglass, reading his words can be both inspiring and instructive-as long as we takes our time and understand his meaning. Just like Douglass, Orwell is a political animal, deeply involved in the crises and movements of his day. Even his imaginative literary masterpieces, 1984 and Animal Farm, were politically motivated, powerful expressions of his deeply held belief in the evil of totalitarianism and his conviction that danger resides where people turn from clear thinking and blindly follow orthodoxies.

In "Politics and the English Language" we're asked to consider the connection between corrupted (and corruptive) language and political manipulation. Specifically, we are asked to consider whether "ugly" language (defined as staleness of imagery and lack of precision) contributes to muddy or "foolish" thinking. Orwell believes it does, although the process is anything but simple. Political and economic pressures produce ugly language, which then produces foolish thinking; but then, foolish thinking produces even uglier language, and the cycle continues. For Orwell, this was not a purely philosophical or academic problem; the essay moves towards a position which links the degeneration of language with the rise of totalitarianism.

The connection between "Politics and the English Language" and the previous material on propaganda is fairly obvious, maybe just a little bit subtle. The previous material instructed you to recognize the tools of the propagandist, how he uses language-everything from name-calling and card-stacking and euphemisms, you name it-to manipulate and gain influence. While Orwell doesn't specifically discuss "propaganda" by that exact term, he makes the case that political writing (including speech writing) is "bad" because, like propaganda, it renders language practically meaningless, muddying thought and destroying rational decision-making. His essay analyzes the corrosive trends in the writing of his day, but fifty-four years later, we can still share his complaint and still find a million examples to prove that bad writing (or speaking) is a cause of the public's blindness.

So Orwell is interested is the function of language in this essay; he analyzes how the corruption of language gives rise to massive political conformity, a consequence that makes the propagandists shiver all over in victory thrills. With Hitler a recent nightmare and Stalin beginning his purges, among others, the threats were real enough. The power of political propaganda was in the air. Bad writing was in the air. Muddy thinking was in the air.

For Orwell, "bad writing" is stale writing. He blames "stale imagery" for a host of writing ills. What exactly does he mean? What is a stale image? It's something you've heard before. In fact, the more you keep hearing it, the more you realize you've heard it maybe a thousand times. Maybe a million. You've heard it so many times, you don't even think about it anymore. That's it's special mission-to enable you not to think about it anymore. It does your thinking for you. All you have to do is register your attention for a nanosecond-that's all the thinking that's required.

EXAMPLES. Suppose you were just gullible enough to have the following responses (many people are):
· He's from "Washington." Oh, right. He's from Washington. I get it. From Washington = Corrupt Politician. Yeah, that slimeball; he's from Washington. My guy's not from Washington.
· He wants "Big Government." Oh, right. Big Government. I get it. Big Government = Too many taxes, too many wasted social programs for lazy poor people, too many bureaucrats, too many rules and regulations to protect human rights and the environment at the expense of corporate profit. No way. We can't have a guy that's for big government. That would put an end to the gravy train.
· He wants to "invest in our country's future and extend prosperity to all Americans." See? My guy really cares about the right things here-our country's future! Prosperity! To all!
· He wants to "keep the economy growing" by "building a foundation of fiscal discipline" and not return us to the "days of deficits." This guy will make people richer, he'll make everyone disciplined, and he'll get us out of debt. He's got the right idea! He's so smart.

Judge for yourself these two excerpts from the Bush and Gore campaigns:

GORE
October 22, 2000
Delivering the Sunday morning address … Al Gore today called for "a new commitment to strong families and strong values." To help strengthen America's families, Gore will use the nation's prosperity to invest in public schools, make higher education more affordable and protect Social Security.

"I know government can't solve a family's problems. Parents have to take more responsibility, and spend more time with their children," said Gore. "But I believe a smaller, smarter government can give families more tools, more choices, and more opportunities in their own lives-more of a chance to achieve what they want for the future. That's what I'm fighting for."

….

Anything seem STALE up there? How about each portion of "new commitment to strong families and strong values." Do you know what it really means? We've heard "invest in public schools" how many times? What will be invested and how? Did you notice the plentiful number of weasel words (especially "more")-"more affordable" and "take more responsibility" and "spend more time with their children"? What about "smaller, smarter government" (another way of saying more small and more smart)? Not to mention the long litany of other "more" statements-more tools, choices, opportunities. As if the weasel words aren't bad enough, we've got nothing but abstractions in every case to attach to them. As Orwell laments, there absolutely NO clarity to be found anywhere near this statement. William Lutz and George Orwell have hopefully changed forever our understanding of how this kind of language is used! It's hollow, evasive, irresponsible, meaningless-we supply whatever meaning seems happiest for us at the time, and the speaker is never accountable for anything, because he never says anything. If he says something, we just might hold him accountable. So he's careful never to say anything too clearly. It's a convenient arrangement for him. He gets votes and we get what we want to hear. Except if you're like George Orwell and you're more of the mind to analyze it and fight the staleness, which climaxes in Gore's closer, where he wants to give families "the chance to achieve what they want for the future. That's what I'm fighting for." ACK!!!

BUSH
October 12, 2000
We honor the Greatest [WWII] Generation for its values as well. They confronted problems instead of passing them on to others. They accepted responsibility, both at home and abroad. And they shared an endless confidence in America-rising to every challenge with courage and optimism. Consider Jack Mekel, who was 17 when the bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor. He left his high school class, walked down to his recruiting office and volunteered. After amphibious training in Virginia, Private Mekel made his way to the Pacific Theater. And as the sound of rifle fire lifted, he claimed four battle stars.

Jack, you were the same age as many of the boys in this gym, with the joys of life before you. Yet you weathered days of struggle and nights of fear, and were willing to die to preserve our freedom. You are part of a collection of Americans we rightly call our Greatest Generation. And we are honored to be with you this morning.

Today, our nation faces a challenge of our own-a challenge that concerns the Greatest Generation and my generation as well. Social Security and Medicare are in trouble. The crisis is serious, and it is coming. Not today, but soon. As the baby-boomers retire, these programs will run deficits. Without reform, they'll go bankrupt.

It is the responsibility of my generation to save Social Security and Medicare. It is our turn to lead, our turn to face up to challenges, our turn to act boldly, for the sake of our future and that of our children and grandchildren.

Maybe you think Bush is the better man. A lot of Americans seem to be leaning that way. But remember, the spirit of Orwell is watching over us. As you look at the words Bush prepared and delivered up there, does anything strike you as "stale"? Does anything strike you as "propagandistic" in tone or purpose? Even if he's your man, I hope you recognize the glittering generalities-the banal, stale, worn out virtue words that somehow still ting a bell with people who don't want to think too hard, or who don't mind doing their candidate's thinking for him. Don't we admire Bush for admiring those young soldiers (or are we more than a little annoyed at his blatant and shameless patronizing of and pandering to the crowd)? These soldiers of the "Greatest Generation "accepted responsibility" with "endless confidence"; they "rise to every challenge with courage and optimism." They even "claimed…battle stars." "Joys of life," "days of struggle," "nights of fear." The stale clichés are beginning to pile up, none more obvious than the clincher, "willing to die to preserve our freedom." When discussing the issue (finally) of Social Security and Medicare, Bush continues in vagueness: we find out these programs are in "trouble" and that the "crisis is serious" and that it's "coming." (We don't know why or when. Because it doesn't matter? No, because real data won't be compelling enough.) Luckily Bush's generation will "save" these programs because it's their turn to "lead," "to face up to challenges," "to act boldly" and in case anyone's still listening, they'll do it "for the sake of our future." In case anyone believes I'm being too harsh-I have just one question: what important facts do you know about the "troubled" Social Security and Medicare programs that you can use to help you make an informed decision regarding changes a candidate or a legislator might propose?

BACK TO ORWELL'S ESSAY:

Why is Orwell so against staleness of imagery and imprecision with words? It's not just the pain of empty language, although sometimes it is that. But more importantly, staleness and imprecision are odious because they lead to vagueness, which (especially in politics) can lead to anything. Meaning is sometimes deliberately manipulated. Rather than doing their real job which is to clarify meaning, slack or hack writers open channels through which "the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you-even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent-and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself."

These ready and endlessly repeated bromides are what permeate the air as we inch towards our presidential election. We've considered just a few instances. We used examples from two sides in an attempt to be fair. We could have gone on for weeks.

In his essay, Orwell catalogues a few of the more prominent vices:

· Dying metaphors
· Operators, or false limbs
· Pretentious diction
· Meaningless words

He uses examples culled from professional writing to illustrate these mind-numbingly disastrous trends. He really drives the point home when he translates Ecclesiastes into "ugly" modern prose.

Orwell insists that the corrosiveness of modern prose is in the air we breathe and when we need the "right" phrase, it just floats down to us ready-made, easy to assemble, euphonic and effortless. The only way to keep ourselves from becoming degenerates, part of the problem, is to consciously ask a few relatively simple quesitons:

· What am I trying to say?
· What words will express it?
· What image will make it clearer?
· Is this image fresh enough to have any effect?

And two more:

· Could I put it more shortly?
· Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

And then to follow some simple advice:

· 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.

If we follow Orwell's advice, maybe we can rescue language from the power-grip of advertisers, propagandists, politicians, and others who would subvert it as our primary instrument for creating and expressing thought.


 

 

 

     

 


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