George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential essays ever written. First published in Britain’s Horizon in 1946, it has since been widely anthologized and is always included in any collection of the writer’s essential nonfiction. In the decades since its appearance, the article has been quoted by many commentators who invoke Orwell’s literary and moral stature in support of its continued relevance. But perhaps the language of today’s politics warrants some fresh criticisms that even the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm could not have conceived.
“Politics and the English Language” addressed the jargon, double-talk, and what we would now call “spin” that had already distorted the discourse of the mid-20th century. “In our time,” Orwell argued, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. ... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. ... Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Those are the sentences most cited whenever a modern leader or talking head hides behind terms like “restructuring” (for layoffs), “visiting a site” (for bombing), or “alternative facts” (for falsehoods). In his essay, Orwell also cut through the careless, mechanical prose of academics and journalists who fall back on clichés—“all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”
These objections still hold up almost 80 years later, but historic changes in taste and technology mean that they apply to a new set of unexamined truisms and slogans regularly invoked less in oratory or print than through televised soundbites, online memes, and social media: the errors of reason and rhetoric identified in “Politics and the English Language” can be seen in familiar examples of empty platitudes, stretched metaphors, and meaningless cant which few who post, share, like, and retweet have seriously parsed. Consider how the following lexicon from 2023 is distinguished by the same question-begging, humbug, and sheer cloudy vagueness exposed by George Orwell in 1946.
Frequently said to be a pressing social issue but seldom defined with any clarity, this common epithet misuses the adjective “systemic” as a synonym for “persistent,” “diffuse,” or “subjectively felt.” True models of systemic racism could include the legal codes of apartheid South Africa, of the segregationist US South before the 1960s, and of Nazi Germany under its Nuremberg Laws from 1935. In each instance, racial or religious discrimination was explicitly prescribed through a complex of written rules and enforced by judges, police, bureaucrats, and other agents of the government. By those standards, no Western democracy can be called systemically racist now; indeed, it’s happily far easier to find systemic anti-racism in the form of federal holidays, commemorations by civic bodies, images on stamps and currency, public commissions and inquiries, academic curricula, hiring policies, official diversity agendas, and in the very texts of constitutional documents. The value of the systemic racism charge lies in how it both extends and depersonalizes guilt in societies where few individuals—and certainly no public authorities—remain avowedly guilty of racism. Call one person a racist and you’ve got an angry lawsuit, but call an entire system racist and you’ve got a campaign plank, a bestselling book, or at the very least a convenient excuse.
Here the same principle of generalization allows activists to accuse whole communities (e.g., a university campus or a sports league) of sanctioning and promoting sexual assault, in the absence of criminal allegations of sexual assault committed by particular people. Like systemic racism, rape culture is a political concept that’s difficult to reject without sounding unlikable or even immoral, rather than a specific indictment that might be leveled or challenged in specific situations—which is probably the point. Both ideas seem to be holdovers from civil rights or feminist movements of generations ago, when unapologetic bigots and lechers were obvious adversaries. Lacking modern equivalents of George Wallace or Larry Flynt, force of habit now ascribes their offenses to everybody and nobody at once, such that a permanent oppressor-victim complaint can be maintained even as the number of certifiable oppressors and victims dwindles.
This expression routinely appears in reference to the settling of Canada, the United States, Australia, and other territory by Europeans after Columbus. Since 1492, the established populations of vast geographies were displaced and devastated by newcomers (see, for example, Ronald Wright’s 1992 book Stolen Continents, along with innumerable posters, t-shirts, and other paraphernalia). This centuries-long process is now reduced to a simple parable of theft. But the stolen land trope borrows the language of criminality to emphasize Native resentment and non-Native culpability in a way that other portrayals don’t: usurped doesn’t have the same bite; the fashionable unceded is more of an empty gesture than a preface to tangible reparation; conquered is hard to dispute historically but rather indelicate in polite company. No one expects the supposedly stolen land to be returned the way it was found, like a stolen car or wallet, just as no one is still bitter that the Romans stole Britain or the Muslims stole Egypt. Assertions of stolen land also promote myths about Aboriginals residing on the same real estate “since time immemorial,” contrary to archaeological and anthropological studies of human migration—violent, gradual, or somewhere in between—across the last 20,000 years.
Despite drawing on the same imagery, an emotional injury is not like a broken leg. Spiritual malaise is not like an infectious sickness. Verbal castration is not like castration. Genocide is another noun that means something quite different when it is modified, yet the cultural version has become a staple of political dialogue in Canada (describing the Native experience since colonialism) and elsewhere. As with systemic racism or rape culture, cultural genocide seems to be a linguistic device more than an objective phenomenon: by uttering a powerful word but hedging it with a thin qualification, protesters can subtly compare themselves to Jews under Hitler or Cambodians under Pol Pot, winning public support and governmental redress for undergoing mistreatment significantly milder than what the word stands for alone. There’s no doubt that, in the Canadian context at any rate, Indigenous children were once taught to forsake the traditions of their ancestors and assimilate through English and Christianity. But how might this be considered a program of extermination comparable to the Holocaust or the Killing Fields? We could also say that women’s liberation was a cultural genocide of male chauvinists, or that punk rock was a cultural genocide of hippies. Because we shudder at any mention of genocide, that little caveat “cultural” piggybacks on the horror of the original term while serving as a neat proviso that, oh, by the way, we don’t mean mass murder.
These have become standard characterizations of unwelcome, dissenting, or controversial positions which supposedly reflect the psychological afflictions of the people who hold them. Hate is visceral hostility; -phobia is a suffix denoting irrational fear; denial is a deep-seated refusal to accept one’s personal reality. Thus an opponent of immigration may be a member of a hate group—although, just as likely, he’s concerned with the socio-economic effects of rapid demographic change. A parent opposed to drag performances at her kids’ school may be transphobic—although, just as likely, she’s uncomfortable with sexualized displays aimed at children. A worker unwilling to be vaccinated against COVID-19 may deny science—although, just as likely, he bristles at the regulation of health standards and the access of personal medical data by employers. Increasingly, however, attitudes once thought to be ordinarily political—perhaps biased, perhaps shortsighted, but more or less constructive—are now described as forms of mental imbalance. Were they alive today, Darwin would be dismissed as a creation denialist and Martin Luther as Catholophobic. You’d have to sit down and debate with somebody whose views differ from yours, but there’s no need to engage with a hater, a homophobe, or a denier.
Misinformation and disinformation
A parallel pair of designations given to anything believed or said by those with whom one disagrees; they are descended from the older propaganda. Of course deliberately fake websites and “news” really are disseminated by a variety of actors internationally, and politicians and governments have always told lies to be accepted and shared by their publics. But the labels “misinformation” and “disinformation” are now attached first, and proof that the labeled material is intentionally deceitful is found later, if at all. In fact, most of the reportage, editorials, and conjecture that’s out there is neither unimpeachably correct nor totally spurious. There is a large difference between known untruths which may do real harm (misleading claims for a commercial product, say), and embellishments that twist agreed-on knowledge in order to persuade (such as a political platform). Misinformation and disinformation are like traffic accidents, phone addiction, and dryer lint: inevitable byproducts of widespread technologies whose conveniences we otherwise take for granted. You can always commute by bus, put down your device, and hang your wet clothes on a line—and you can always disconnect from the unending torrent of true and false messages in which we are all drowning—but not many of us are willing to make those trade-offs.
A burning building is an emergency. A sinking ship is an emergency. A rampaging gunman is an emergency. Evolving conditions in a planet’s atmosphere will impact the life on its surface, but the pace and the scale of the evolution do not merit categorization as an urgent, call-911 crisis. Evidence tells us that human activity has affected long-term trends of temperature and precipitation worldwide; day-to-day weather, though, still follows roughly seasonal patterns that even with occasional storms and heat waves are hardly sudden shocks. Sixty years ago, environmentalists began alerting the public to immediate blights of pollution or deforestation and spent little effort projecting possible consequences in the future. Recycling programs, banned chemicals, and mandated energy efficiency promised, and delivered, immediate benefits. In our era, by contrast, environmentalism is a millenarian cause devoted to anticipation of an imminent event (the 2021 film Don’t Look Up used the prospect of a meteor strike as an analogy), more than the realization of practical reforms. The “Emergency” stamp hypes a legitimate problem that most people can comprehend into an apocalyptic article of faith.
Climate, information, popular knowledge, genocide, land claims, sexual assault, and racism are all serious topics, but politicizing them with hyperbole turns them into trite catchphrases. The language cited here is largely employed as a stylistic template by the outlets who relay it—in the same way that individual publications will adhere to uniform guidelines of punctuation and capitalization, so too must they now follow directives to always write rape culture, stolen land, misinformation, or climate emergency in place of anything more neutral or accurate. Sometimes, as with cultural genocide or systemic racism, the purpose appears to be in how the diction of a few extra syllables imparts gravity to the premise being conveyed, as if a gigantic whale is a bigger animal than a whale, or a horrific murder is a worse crime than a murder.
Elsewhere, the words strive to alter the parameters of an issue so that its actual or perceived significance is amplified a little longer. “Drunk driving” will always be a danger if the legal limits of motorists’ alcohol levels are periodically lowered; likewise, relations between the sexes and a chaotic range of public opinion will always be problematic if they can be recast as rape culture, hate, or disinformation. This lingo typifies the parroted lines and reflexive responses of political communication in the 21st century.
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell’s concluding lesson was not just that parroted lines and reflexive responses were aesthetically bad, or that they revealed professional incompetence in whoever crafted them, but that they served to suppress thinking. “The invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain,” he wrote. He is still right: glib, shallow expression reflects, and will only perpetuate, glib, shallow thought, achieving no more than to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.