Sullivan: Our Politics And The English Language: What would Orwell say about our debased discourse?

I also find it useful to re-read Orwell’s essay, and try to follow his general rules (leave readers to judge the extent to which I do). While he takes his arguments too far (e.g., on systemic racism), his fundamental point on the need for clarity and precision, and not “hiding” behind jargon, is valid:

From time to time, I make sure to re-read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics And The English Language.” It remains the best guide to writing non-fiction, and it usually prompts a wave of self-loathing even more piercing than my habitual kind. What it shows so brilliantly is how language itself is central to politics, that clarity is as hard as it is vital, and that blather is as lazy as it is dangerous. It’s dangerous because the relationship between our words and our politics goes both ways: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” We create language and language creates us. If the language is corrupted, so are we. 

Near the end of the essay, Orwell lists a few rules to keep writing clear, accessible and meaningful:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Originality, simplicity, brevity, active verbs, everyday language, decency: as simple as it is very, very hard. It’s a relief in a way to recall that Orwell thought things were pretty damn shitty in his day as well, but the more you read broadly across most elite media platforms these days, the more similar it all sounds. To reverse Orwell’s virtues: so much of it is repetition, complexity, length, passive verbs, endless jargon, barbarism. 

I was just reading about the panic that occurred in the American Medical Association, when their journal’s deputy editor argued on a podcast that socio-economic factors were more significant in poor outcomes for non-whites than “structural racism.” As you might imagine, any kind of questioning of this orthodoxy required the defenestration of the deputy editor and the resignation of the editor-in-chief. The episode was withdrawn from public viewing, and the top editor replaced it with a Maoist apology/confessionbefore he accepted his own fate. 

But I was most struck by the statement put out in response by a group called “The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” Here it is:

“The podcast and associated promotional message are extremely problematic for minoritized members of our medical community. Racism was created with intention and must therefore be undone with intention. Structural racism has deeply permeated the field of medicine and must be actively dissolved through proper antiracist education and purposeful equitable policy creation. The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country.”

Consider the language for a moment. I don’t want to single out this group — they are merely representative of countless others, all engaged in the recitation of certain doctrines, and I just want an example. But I do want to say that this paragraph is effectively dead, drained of almost any meaning, nailed to the perch of pious pabulum. It is prose, in Orwell’s words, that “consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” 

It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going.

Notice the unnecessary longevity: a tweet becomes an “associated promotional message.” Notice the deadness of the neologisms: “minoritized”, “marginalized”, “non-problematic”. As Orwell noted: “the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalizeimpermissibleextramaritalnon-fragmentatoryand so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.” Go back and see if you can put the words “minoritized” or “non-problematic” into everyday English.

Part of the goal of this is political, of course. The more you repeat words like “proper antiracist education” or “systemic racism” or “racial inequity” or “lived experience” or “heteronormativity,” the more they become part of the landscape of words, designed to dull one’s curiosity about what on earth any of them can possible mean. A mass of ideological abstractions, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”

Then this: “Racism was created with intention.” Abstract noun, passive voice, vague meaning. Who “created” it? What was the intention exactly? Hasn’t racist tribalism been a feature of human society for tens of thousands of years? They never say. Or this phrase: “purposeful equitable policy creation.” Again: what are they talking about? It is as vague as “doing the work” — and as deliberate as the use of a highly contested term like “structural racism” to define objective reality. These are phrases not designed to say anything real. They are phrases designed to send a message of orthodoxy, and, as Orwell also noted, “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Try reading Slate or Vox or the Huffington Post: the tedium you feel is the tedium of a language rendered lifeless by ideology.

I caught a glimpse of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent appearance at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual woke, oxygen-deprived hajj for the left-media elites. He was asked to define racism — something you’d think he’d have thought a bit about. This was his response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book. When he proposes specific action to counter racism, for example, he suggests: “Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.” “Always vote for the leftist” is a bit blunter.

Orwell had Kendi’s number: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.” And that conformity is proven by the gawking, moneyed, largely white, Atlantic subscribers hanging on every one of this lightweight’s meaningless words — as if they really were in church.

The most dedicated abusers of the English language, of course, are the alphabet people. They have long since abandoned any pretense at speaking English and instead bombard us with new words: “cisheteropatriarchy”, “homonormativity”, “fraysexuality”, “neutrois”, “transmasculine”, “transmisogynoir”, and on and on. To give you a sense of the completely abstract bullshit involved here, take a style guide given out to journalists by trans activists, instructing them on how to cover transgender questions. (I’m wondering how Orwell would respond if given such a sheet of words he can and cannot use. Let’s just say: not like reporters for the Washington Post.) Here’s the guide’s definition of “gender nonconforming”: “[it] refers to gender presentations outside typical gendered expectations. Note that gender nonconforming is not a synonym for non-binary. While many non-binary people are gender nonconforming, many gender nonconforming people are also cisgender.”

This is a kind of bewildering, private language. But the whole point of the guide is to make it our public language, to force other people to use these invented words, to make the entire society learn and repeat the equivalent of their own post-modern sanskrit. This is our contemporary version of what Orwell went on to describe as “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four: a vocabulary designed to make certain ideas literally unthinkable because woke language has banished them from use. Repeat the words “structural racism” and “white supremacy” and “cisheteropatriarchy” often enough, and people come to believe these things exist unquestioningly. Talk about the LGBTQIA2S+ community and eventually, people will believe it exists (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

And that is the only recourse an average citizen has when buried by this avalanche of abstraction: ask the language-launderers what they are really talking about. When some doofus apologizes for the “terrible pain” they have caused to the whatever community, ask them to give a specific example of that “pain.” When someone says “structural racism,” ask: what actual “structures” are you referring to? How do they actually work? Give concrete examples. 

When someone calls American society “white supremacy”, ask them how you could show that America is not a form of “white supremacy”. When someone uses the word “Latinx”, ask them which country does that refer to. When someone says something is “problematic”, ask them to whom? When you’re told you’re meeting with members of the BIPOC or AANHPI communities, ask them first to translate and then why this is in any way relevant, and why every single member of those communities are expected to have the same opinion. And when you’re told that today is IDAHOBIT Day, ask them if you can speak to Frodo.

Yes, some humor is key to fighting back. But the core truth is: we do not have to speak this debased and decadent language. It is designed to overwhelm and confuse and smother and subdue. And the more it is used by elites, the more normal Americans, still living in the real world, feel utterly alienated by their masters, and the deeper our divide goes. Reclaiming our discourse from these ideological contraptions will make our writing better. It will help us think more clearly. And it could help re-start a genuinely national conversation. In everyday English, the language of democracy.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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