Tuesday , June 18 2024
Home / Robert Skidelsky / The Language of Political Control

The Language of Political Control

Summary:
April 19, 2024 ROBERT SKIDELSKY George Orwell’s great contribution to dystopian literature was not his depiction of the modern surveillance state, but rather his insight that if everyone used only state-approved language, surveillance would become redundant. The difference today is that Newspeak has emerged from the mechanisms of liberal democracy itself. LONDON – Language shapes our thinking and perception of the world and, consequently, what happens in it. That is why I worry less about the troubling state of the world nowadays than about the words we use to describe it. For example, we use the word “war” to describe a phenomenon that exists independently of our term for it. But if we consistently describe and perceive the world as hostile, it tends to become so. By the same

Topics:
Robert Skidelsky considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Robert Skidelsky writes Post-Capitalist Pessimism

Robert Skidelsky writes The UK Labour Party’s Green-Energy Debacle

Robert Skidelsky writes Britain’s Post Office Scandal and the Rule of Law

Robert Skidelsky writes How to Prevent an AI Apocalypse

April 19, 2024 ROBERT SKIDELSKY

George Orwell’s great contribution to dystopian literature was not his depiction of the modern surveillance state, but rather his insight that if everyone used only state-approved language, surveillance would become redundant. The difference today is that Newspeak has emerged from the mechanisms of liberal democracy itself.

LONDON – Language shapes our thinking and perception of the world and, consequently, what happens in it. That is why I worry less about the troubling state of the world nowadays than about the words we use to describe it.

For example, we use the word “war” to describe a phenomenon that exists independently of our term for it. But if we consistently describe and perceive the world as hostile, it tends to become so. By the same token, declaring that we are on the verge of World War III, as many do nowadays, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I first started contemplating the impact of evolving language on thought in the 1970s, after reading George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” At the time, I was struck by the increasing vagueness of our political language.

Writing in 1946, Orwell noted that the harrowing events of his time – the mass atrocities of Nazism, Soviet communism, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – necessitated the use of doublespeak as a numbing agent. “Political speech and writing,” he wrote, “are largely the defense of the indefensible.” As an example, Orwell cited the euphemistic terms “transfer of populations” and “rectification of frontiers,” used to describe the forced relocation of millions of people.

Orwell viewed such euphemistic absurdities as a disease of democracy. “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases,” he wrote, “one often has the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.”

By the 1970s, many writers shared Orwell’s concerns about the deterioration of public language. Although the world had undoubtedly improved since the 1940s, the proliferation of euphemisms had intensified. Paul Johnson characterized this trend as the “effort of the well-meaning to avoid hurting others’ feelings.” Why, I wondered, have we become so sensitive?

The vagueness of public language has markedly increased over the past few decades. Consider, for example, the Royal Society of Arts’ aim to foster a “resilient, rebalanced, and regenerative” world, or Ian Hogarth’s commitment, as head of the UK government’s AI Foundation Model Taskforce, to forging a “nuanced” policy that “manages downside risks while protecting the upside of this technology.”

Such mission statements raise the question: Are public-communication professionals handed playbooks filled with the right adjectives, acronyms, and stock phrases to construct sentences “tacked together like sections of a prefabricated henhouse,” as Orwell described them, or do they simply imitate what they perceive as industry best practices?

In his dystopian novel 1984Orwell explores how manipulating language can control thought, thereby rendering “thoughtcrimes” impossible. To be sure, Big Brother’s telescreens, successors to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, represent a technologically advanced form of surveillance foreshadowing today’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

But Orwell’s greatest contribution to dystopian literature was not his depiction of the modern surveillance state, but rather “Newspeak”: If everyone used only the words sanctioned by Big Brother, laws and surveillance would become redundant.

Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, is tasked with rewriting history. His duties include altering yesterday’s news stories to conform with the latest policy shifts, removing outdated inscriptions, statues, memorial stones, and street signs, and burning old books. Meanwhile, his colleague Syme is responsible for “destroying [hundreds of] words” every day or translating them into Newspeak, the only language “whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.” As Smith explains, “In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Orwell regarded the purification of thought through language as a hallmark of totalitarianism. But as the “canceling” or shaming of individuals for using “inappropriate” language shows, even democracies are not immune to such practices. In his 1978 novel 1985, the British author Anthony Burgess observed, “If I, a writer, use words that betray even grammatical discrimination, I am in danger of legal punishment.”

While much of today’s language policing represents a deliberate attempt at social engineering, this is only part of the story. What we are facing is not state-generated Newspeak, but rather a politically correct vocabulary that has emerged from the mechanisms of liberal democracy itself. In Democracy in AmericaAlexis de Tocqueville warned against the unchecked power of the majority in a society free from traditional constraints and dedicated to equality. In traditional societies, he noted, “few new words are coined, because few new things are made.” By contrast, democratic countries embrace change for its own sake, a characteristic evident not just in their politics but also in their language.

Moreover, Tocqueville observed that such societies tend to assign grandiose titles to modest occupations, apply technical jargon to everyday items, change the meanings of words so they become ambiguous, and replace idiomatic expressions with abstract ones. He states, “I had rather that the language should be made hideous by words imported from the Chinese, the Tartars, or the Hurons, than that the meaning of words in our language should become indeterminate.”

Unlike the largely homogeneous American society Tocqueville described, today’s linguistic excesses are not driven by the tyranny of the majority. Instead, they are initiated by minorities, or lobbies claiming to speak for them, seeking “equal recognition” for their inherent or chosen identities. This shift imposes a moral obligation on outsiders to use language that avoids causing “mental distress” to members of these minority groups.

Democratic governments begin to regulate language to prevent distress from escalating into political disorder. Consequently, the category of “hate crime” has been introduced into the statute books.

But the biggest problem with today’s democratic rhetoric is its tendency to frame international relations in moral terms, dividing the world into “good” and “bad” countries. While this dichotomy might boost morale, it impedes efforts to achieve global peace. As the British historian A.J.P. Taylor famously observed, “Bismarck fought ‘necessary wars’ and killed thousands; the idealists of the twentieth century fight ‘just’ wars and kill millions.”

Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *