Politics and the English Language
“I never discuss anything else except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss.” – G.K. Chesterton
It is difficult for me to imagine exactly what all the great George Orwell might say about our current cultural situation were he to resurrect and assimilate into American culture in the year 2020. I don’t know which “sides” he would take or how he would contribute to our overall circumstances. On the one hand, he was a devout socialist (though he would need time to define and clarify his definition), so it would be improper to assume he would check off every conservative check mark. On the other hand, books like 1984 make it difficult to assume he would want to be counted among the liberal establishment.
Since, we do have so much his literature, we can apply his thoughts as best we can. In 1946 he wrote an essay (which I recommend to everyone) titled “Politics and the English Language.” This essay has impacted me in ways difficult to quantify. It is both philosophical and practical, and though penned some 74 years ago, it provides insightful commentary on the state of politics and religion discussions today. Without really dissecting the thesis of the essay or it’s prescriptions, allow me to provide some examples of how this application can take place.
Orwell criticizes the politicization and destruction of language and thought through the use of what he calls “pretentious diction.” Pretentious diction are words which “are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.” Examples he uses from his time and culture include words like,
“Objective, effective, exploit, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable.”
I too believe our conversations today are rotting with the decay of politicized language and thought. We too must suffer pretentious diction at every turn. Modern examples of this would be words like “science,” and “my truth.”
Our culture has an obsession with the personification of science. Science has ceased to be a methodology and has become a living person, a king of sorts. We say things like “Well the science says…” which in turn gives our opinions this veneer of objectivity. Science does not speak. Science says nothing. Scientists speak, and often times other scientists will disagree. But when we hold someone to what “some scientists say” we lose our objective authority. Instead, the Science itself has spoken. This is why “science-deniers” has become a popular term in political rhetoric. Liberals began accusing Conservatives of denying the enterprise of science altogether because they reject the many scientists who conclude the evidence supports man-made climate change. Never mind the fact that many of these same people deny the scientific consensus surrounding issues like what makes someone a man or a woman, and when these human beings became humans.
This is also done when you hear the phrase “speak my truth” in today’s parlance. Rarely are these people deeply studied and committed to philosophical postmodern skepticism and subjectivism. It is simply a desperate attempt to make our subjective opinions sound more objective.
There is a phrase idiosyncratic to the Christian community today which is also pretentious, and this is any language regarding God “speaking” to us outside of Scripture. Anytime preachers describe their sermon as “something God told me to say” or “the word the Lord gave me today” they are engaged in pretentious diction, because now to disagree with them is to disagree with God.
There is no place for pretentious diction, so scrub your language clean of it.
Perhaps my favorite of all of Orwell’s criticisms is his category for “meaningless words.” Meaningless words and metaphors are words that “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader.” Among this category are many subcategories of sorts. For example, some words become meaningless because “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.” Orwell accuses these words of being used “more or less dishonestly.”
Many of the examples Orwell gives of this class of meaningless words are still great examples for us today. Words like “Fascism, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, justice, totalitarian, science, progressive, equality” remain meaningless in today’s conversations.These words are used by both sides of the aisle, but are used very differently. They are merely meant to indicate good and bad things, but nothing specific. This allows them to be leveraged by anyone. This is why both Antifa can call Trump a fascist, while also being regularly accused of fascism. Fascism has no meaning, it is merely a bad word.
Many additional modern examples abound today. The phrase “alt-right” comes to mind. There really is no solidified definition of someone who is “alt-right.” It is merely a bad word. It is used to by those on the right to make their views not sound radical, and it’s used by those on the Left to all right wing ideas and people sound far more radical.
What’s important to note is that Orwell understands the value of words made meaningless is that they can be used deceptively. Orwell states,
[Meaningless words] are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
This category is key; don’t miss this in your conversations. Examples of this today are words like “evangelical,” “soft-complimentarian,” and “racism.”
Racism is perhaps the most used buzzword today. Our society is accused of “racism,” both personal and “systemic.” This led one pastor to satirically defining racism as, “Anyone winning a debate with a liberal.”
Many are beginning to wake up and see that the modern world does not use the word “racism” the way it is classically understood. This leaves people very confused when black people are accused of being “white supremacists” and white men who marry women of color and adopt minority children are still considered “racist.” Racism no longer means “hatred for others according to their skin color.” Today a white person could love minorities and still be deemed a racist white supremacist. It has become a vague, all-encompassing term, and has in the process, lost all meaning.
Many in the Christian world describe themselves as “soft-complimentarians.” This really has no meaning though. It is just a way to claim to hold conservative views, while rejecting important aspects of those conservative views. in fact, the prefix “soft” is a meaningless prefix added to any theological term in order to devoid it of specific meaning. Words are used today like “Soft-theonomist,” “Soft-Calvinist,” “Soft-postmillenialism.” It has no meaning, and is often used to disarm and deceive.
Perhaps my favorite of all possible examples is the word “evangelical.” This term has absolutely no standard, widely agreed upon definition; and yet, it is used all of the time. Anyone who wants to maintain the title Christian, but distance themselves from popular Christian opinions will merely blame “the evangelical church.” The problem is the vast majority of people who rebuke the evangelical church would actually fall into the category of “evangelical” according to how it has often been defined historically! Additionally, the word is almost always used with the prefix “white.” The “white evangelical church” or “white evangelicalism.” Yet, I never see “Asian evangelicalism” or “the black evangelical church.” It seems that “white evangelical” is now a redundancy. Thus, the word has a prefix added to it which is also meaningless. Some are now even using the term “evangelical adjacent” which is literally replacing a word with no meaning, with a new word with no meaning. This is the kind of political and religious language that is deceitful, and actually makes us dumber:
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Orwell also brilliantly noticed the catechetical nature of many political slogans. Political propaganda creates talking points and meaningless phrases that signal affiliation. Therefore, people are expected to religiously regurgitate these expressions. Orwell notes,
“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style… A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. 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.”
Perhaps there is no better example of this today than “Black Lives Matter” and the many other slogans popularized underneath that movement. People cannot say the same thing a different way. One cannot say “Black lives are made in the image the Triune God.” One cannot say, “All Lives Matter,” one cannot say “Black Lives Matter from Womb to the Tomb.” None of those make you an “ally” (another meaningless word). One must repeat the theology verbatim. They require mechanical, absolute conformity.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”
The euphemisms of political language are especially important. These are how people soften their horrible, immoral ideas. Orwell continues,
“The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
These words hide “arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.” Orwell uses many examples. I find it sufficient to include only one:
Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population.
My favorite example of these are words like “Women’s Reproductive Freedom” and “redistribution of wealth.”
When a woman goes to a protest and holds a sign that says something like “I support women’s reproductive rights!” what exactly is she saying? What she means is that women should be allowed to slaughter, decapitate, and torture to death living human babies inside their wombs. The true nature of abortion is far too wicked and graphic to be honest and specific about it. Abortion is murder. Abortion is violent. Abortion is itself a euphemism!
I noticed how often socialism is referred to the “redistribution of wealth.” What is that? It’s a euphemism for theft. Socialism is when wealth (money earned) is forcibly stolen and then given to whomever the thief deems worthy (redistributed). Abortion is murder; socialism is theft.
Never be intimidated by big words. Ask what they mean; break them down. You’re not stupid; the English language is.
I think we have proved the truth of Orwell’s thoughts a generation ago that,
[P]olitical language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
One of the most important ways Christians can combat false ideologies today is to be honest. Be succinct. Be clear. Be specific. Define your terms. Strive to communicate, not manipulate.
Likewise, in your interactions demand clarity; demand specificity; demand definitions. You will be amazed at how often you can control conversations and avoid deception by simply asking the question, “What do you mean by . . .?”
“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.