In April 1946 George Orwell wrote that “our civilization is decadent and our language- so the argument runs- must inevitably share in the general collapse”. Throughout his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell argues that poor use of language, whether through staleness of imagery, pretentious diction, or the use of euphemism and a lack of precision, particularly in politics can have a detrimental impact upon society, as meanings can become obscured or can simply be misleading. Despite the passage of over seventy years since the essay’s publication having inevitably rendered certain aspects obsolete, the political landscape of the twenty-first century shares much in common with the Post-War climate Orwell was writing in.
Orwell argues that redundant language ought to be got rid of, having “lost its usefulness”, as within the field of politics alone, it can either further exacerbate a ‘state of chaos’, or simply lead to political “quietism” due to a lack of understanding. The contrast between the modern ‘state of chaos’ and that of the era in which Orwell writes is worth considering. Various critics of Orwell’s essay have cited the Nazi propaganda from the time shortly before he wrote the essay as a prime example of how political language can be manipulated to alter how a message is received by the public. Orwell’s view was that the only way in which such totalitarian regimes could be defended was by placing arguments for them in language “[consisting] largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. A fundamental feature of the propaganda he describes is the use of slogans, something all too familiar to a modern British audience. ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘Take Back Control’, ‘For the Many Not the Few', ‘Britain Deserves Better’: the list is endless. Not that it is a new phenomenon, in 1978 Phillip Boardman wrote that “many people find it easier to take stands and make decisions based on existing prejudices or overriding emotional appeal”, something that “slogans pander” to. They are attractive because they reduce a complex decision-making process into an emotional rather than considered judgement of potential outcomes and impacts of the matter under consideration. For an often-disengaged political audience, they become a convenient shortcut that politicians are all too happy to provide. The arguments for and against the UK’s recent withdrawal from the EU serve as an example of this. The complex issues involved in this were reduced to a slogan on the side of a bus.
Orwell also cites “euphemism, question-begging and vagueness or a lack of precision” contributing to the decline in quality of political language. At the end of his essay, he asks the question “since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” Although his example is perhaps a little hyperbolic, especially by modern standards, it raises the interesting point of asking how liberally specific political terminology should be used, so as to prevent it from losing its actual meaning. Earlier in the essay, he noted that “the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable”. This has hardly improved. This same term and the more modern one ‘woke’, employed as a form of shorthand for someone you disagree with politically. Providing a more precise explanation is largely avoided by using a form of ‘sound bite’, a concept Orwell may not have been familiar during 1946 but would have almost certainly recognised for its implications.
In a way, there is a parallel between the wartime situation Orwell was familiar with and the contemporary situation in the COVID-19 pandemic. For many countries, it has been the first time since 1946 that political leaders have been confronted with a threat sufficiently serious to cause protracted disruption to national life, the collapse of public services, and death on a significant scale. It did not take long for national leaders to rehabilitate tried and trusted methods. Wartime exhortations to ‘make do and mend’ and ‘careless talk costs lives’ reappeared in a more modern idiom. The Prime Ministers announcement of a lockdown on 23rd March 2020, probably the most significant imposition of controls over national life since Neville Chamberlain announced that “this country is at war” in September 1939. The superlative “biggest threat this country has faced for decades” was employed and emphasised with the description of COVID-19 as an “invisible killer” (something repeated multiple times in the speech) and probably used with the intention of instilling a suitable sense of fear, to encourage the population to follow the restrictions being introduced. Wartime analogies became a frequent feature of coronavirus discourse. The Prime Minister made reference to them, stating that “in this fight, we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted”. Not that he was alone in this; such metaphors were invoked globally, with the UN, Italy, and the USA all drawing similar comparisons. Whilst these may be compelling and appeal to an individual’s sense of duty, it is no doubt exhausted, and exhaustive, in its use. These have been described as having the effect of calling for obedience to restrictions and regulations, rather than awareness of the implications of the virus and how this could be limited. No doubt the lockdown was imposed with the best of intentions to slow the spread of COVID-19, but its negative consequences should not be overlooked. To return once again to the slogans used, ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ or ‘Hands, Face, Space’, or ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’. These now over-familiar phrases offer a rather disingenuous over-simplification of the position many people found themselves in. Orwell himself wrote that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, a rather disingenuous over-simplification of a complex issue affecting a vast number of people.
The extension of the powers of the executive was an inevitable consequence of the pandemic, both in the UK and abroad. In the UK, emergency powers, largely reserved for wartime, or similar crises, were implemented during the early stages of the pandemic, and have been used to implement subsequent restrictions. In some countries, this has led to sanctions and restrictions being placed on individuals who have refused to be vaccinated. In Austria, it is leading towards mandatory vaccinations. It might be argued that a lack of official political opposition to the steps taken has become a further issue, debate often limited to criticising the government with little more than further slogans such as ‘too little too late or that problems confronting the country tended to be ‘a perfect storm’ or worse still, ‘a tsunami’. Orwell’s observation which highlighted the flaws with the “staleness of imagery” and a “lack of precision”, noting that “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else,” rings true seventy years later; there would be little about the general standard of debate to cheer him were he alive now to witness it, although it has been noted that sales of 1984 and other dystopian novels have increased throughout the pandemic which may be a hopeful sign.
A further cause of the exacerbation of this propaganda-like state of information within modern politics could be blamed upon the reliance on ‘spin’. This form of propaganda offers a biased and manipulated interpretation of an event, individual, or group, and was perhaps shown to best effect during the Blair administration, notably in events surrounding the Iraq War. Blair’s extensive use of press conferences allowed this to develop as a political art form, as messages could be pre-prepared and managed more effectively than by being announced in the House of Commons. The public becoming more reliant on the press and journalists for scrutiny, as opposed to MPs, whose role this would have been in the past: image became more substantive than reality. Orwell noted, “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. The recent extensive use of press conferences by the Prime Minister in England, and the First Minister in Scotland, follow a similar pattern. The arrangement focuses attention on the executive and limits the potential for questions that delve much further than the next news bulletin. The degree of scrutiny and accountability of the government decreases accordingly.
The area of modern political debate Orwell had not foreseen was the advent of social media. This has had a profound impact on political language and discourse and the way in which politicians connect to their electorate. What views Orwell would have had of it are, of course, impossible to guess with any certainty. He was commencing the work that was to become ‘1984’ at around the same time he wrote ‘Politics and the English Language' and there are aspects of social media that lend themselves more to the former than the latter. Yet there are aspects of it that he might have taken issue with due to its implications for political language. It is hard to imagine that the recent ‘Twitter Presidency’ of Donald Trump would have greatly impressed him. Some have pointed out one significant contrast is that tone and content have become far less formal, with the 140-character limit leading to the use of improper English, rather than simply making short effective statements. Much time is spent making short ‘attacks’ on political opponents with little possibility of effectively discussing the issues of the day. There is an egalitarian aspect to social media that might have appealed to him, however, there is no doubt the majority of the tweets made subscribe to the “slovenliness of language” which Orwell describes as contributing towards semantic decline.
There is no doubt that developments in informality have led to a reduction in the quality of political discourse, the extensive use of slogans and social media has led to a poor ability when conveying messages, with a significant lack of detail and consistency. But equally, an increase in formality and restrictions upon messaging has led to the increased use of ‘spin’, which too, leads to a lack of integrity and comes across in an equally poor manner. In the light of 1984, there is a risk with Orwell of defaulting to a dystopian view of the world and even essays like ‘Politics and the English Language’ take a rather critical view of the world even in 1946. His criticisms of politicians and political discourse then, remain equally valid now. If anything, the advent of social media has exacerbated matters.
Written by Frances Rigby