English author George Orwell is well known for his novel 1984, where he discusses the consequences of indoctrination and the suppression of speech.
Although millions have read his cautionary work, few know if his essay, “Politics and the English Language” that the ideas of 1984 are based on.
In his essay, Orwell claims that the English language is broken. And rightfully so. Looking at political rhetoric, it is apparent that amidst the endless controversy of modern politics, politicians’ use of rhetoric is undeniably manipulative.
Orwell goes on to assert that the causes of this are political in nature because of the emotionality and vagueness that politics brings. He also states that unclear metaphors such as “crystal clear”, or jargon such as “dichotomy” should not be used, as people have varying levels of comprehension when it comes to this.
I.E.- Your standard of crystal clarity is far different from the person across the room from you.
Although I don’t believe that the causes of this deterioration can be found in politics, modern political rhetoric is a superb example of this deterioration.
Hence, let’s take a deeper look into how the words we speak are deteriorating through the lens of politics.
Firstly, to declare a tool as broken, it must fail to do what it is designed to do. Given its communicative nature, I (and Orwell) believe the purpose of language to be to communicate thoughts to others, with as little chance of miscommunication or misinterpretation possible.
And politics often steer us away from this with fancy words and vagueness.
As someone who competes in speech and debate, I can personally relate to this. As an example, below is something I heard at a tournament recently.
“According to Bracey 06, reducing conversation on matters to an ideological contest allows opponents to elude inquiry into whether the results of a particular policy are desirable.”
Can you clearly tell what the speaker is trying to get across?
In this, two things happen.
- Vague words and phrases become open to interpretation
Take a phrase such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and think to yourself (regardless of your sentiments towards Trump): What does great mean? What is wrong with America to begin with?
Now ask yourself: would the person across the room from you, who heard the same slogan from the same speaker, have the same answers?
This is the genius of Trump’s campaign slogan- there is no inherent meaning.
Because we are emotional, when we hear something vague, we often fill in the gaps with what we want to hear.
The Texan farmer will think that Trump will make America great again by fixing the gas prices he hates. The Californian police officer thinks that Trump will solve the border crisis he despises.
Both believe that Trump will “make America great”, but believe that to be very different things.
- True comprehension is eliminated by large words and complex sentence structures
Regardless of the intent, when complex words that people do not understand are used, it often confuses them. This is the antithesis of language’s purpose.
This confusion results in audience members thinking, “I’m not sure what they’re talking about, but because I don’t know the word they’re saying, they must be smart!”
In the use of vague, jargon filled speeches, political figures are able to manipulate constituents and listeners by making them assume that they know what they’re speaking about.
Don’t believe me? I’m sure you can think of one person in a class you’ve had where there was a smart student. You never had any idea what they were talking about, but you just knew they were smart based on the complex way they spoke.
That’s exactly what often happens in the modern political world.
In political rhetoric, comprehension is often lost in buzz words that stir our emotions, and in vagueness that confuses us. Thus, the English language is (at least partially) broken.
While we continue to pull up thesaurus.com while writing essays to find words to make us sound smarter or stretch the word count of papers, we may very well be contributing to this. The more wordy, vague, and emotional the English language becomes, the less control we will have over true comprehension and communication.
Choose your words carefully.