Orwell was right about politics and the English language
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The Language of Resistance and the Resistance of Language
“The word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” -- George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That’s the old saying. Maybe you could change that to “if all you can think about is race, everything looks like racism” or whatever other -ism you want to use. In today’s joyless culture of “resistance,” language is translated through -ism lenses.
It’s not just a matter of words being seen only through particular lenses, though. There’s the issue of changing meaning in our language, the problem of how too much value is placed on singular experiential language instead of a big-picture view, the tendency towards using language to co-opt a movement and build a base of unwitting supporters, and the problem of purposefully stripping out complexity for mass understanding.
First, let’s talk about how the meanings of words have changed, and how our understanding of how those words are used continues to change.
In the C.S. Lewis essay “The Death of Words”, Lewis explains the idea that words used to have specific meanings but that is changing. “[N]early all our terms of abuse were originally terms of description,” he writes. “The vocabulary of flattery and insult is continually enlarged at the expense of the vocabulary of definition...as long as most people are more anxious to express their likes and dislikes than to describe facts, this must remain a universal truth about language.”
That might not seem like a big deal, but Lewis points out that, at the very least, historians need to have the original meanings of the words be understood for the sake of future readers who read their work. Without the original meanings of the words, those readers are going to be clueless about the context. “[T]he words, even with a dictionary laid open, evoke an emotion difficult to control or even identify.”
So when I read a book from long ago and see a word used that people have now deemed unacceptable and offensive, I might get all worked up about the language and misconstrue and misunderstand the actual history being told to me. I won’t be able to hear the facts because I’m all in a tither about the words that mean something different to my time or culture.
Lewis notes that we are constantly in a state of creating new words because we make the original mean something else, and that when we’ve effectively killed a word’s original meaning, we’ve “blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”
Call everything fascism and racism, and we end up losing the ability to speak about actual fascism and racism.
This relates to the protest, because there were specific language abuse and language control issues at work. For example: water protectors.
“I refused to call them water protectors,” I said to NYC photographer and documentary filmmaker Stephanie Keith. “They were adamant they had to be referred to that way, and people in the media and academia were ridiculously willing to do that, but I would not.”
“I didn’t call them that either,” she told me.
It’s like calling white supremacists “white separatists”, as if they weren’t about supremacy but merely wanting to live apart. It’s unwise for media to use the language the people in the story tell them to use, because their story is necessarily corrupted and skewed. You don’t get to control the language used to refer to you, Dear Leader.
I mean, water protector. What bad thing can you say about that?
You can’t use that in a sentence and also describe the harassment of landowners. You can’t use that in a sentence and talk about the garbage in the camp. You can’t say “the water protectors drowned a deer in the river” (which they did), because it’s incongruent.
The language a movement provides you is purposefully restricted for propaganda purposes. It lacks any negative adjectives or terminology in reference to themselves, meaning you have no words to describe their negative actions. It was shocking how easily journalists, who ought to have the largest vocabulary arsenal of all of us, happily picked up a restricted vocabulary that limited how they could cover the story.
So here’s a hint for all of you out there who are looking to stop destructive movements: co-opt their language.
Go after their language and shift or poke holes in its meaning. Associate specific words with different imagery to change their emotional effect which, ultimately, changes the meaning of the word. In one of the Facebook community groups, I posted my thoughts on how we could take the language back:
“The protesters keep calling themselves warriors. We need to take that back. We are all warriors. The guys running the snow plows? Warriors. The people helping their neighbors? Warriors. Our NDNG and police? Warriors. The language that they use against us must be turned back against them. When you see them gushing about their camp warriors, take the words and politely refer to our own warriors. We need to neuter their language. You can take the power of their words away by using them yourself. You can strip the power of language just like they do; they overuse and abuse certain types of words for propaganda, so we now take that back. We are warriors. We are community protectors. Community is life. Take the language back.”
That brings me to the second language issue, the value placed on experiential language.
The most common method of refuting the idea that there were violent elements in the camps and that there was violence happening against law enforcement was “I didn’t see that when I was at the camp.”
Setting aside the possibility the person is lying outright means we move to the elephant in the room, that well-used story about three blind men touching an elephant and trying to figure out what it is they’re touching. Is the elephant like a tree trunk because you touch its leg? Or is it smooth because of its tusk? Perhaps it is like a snake, because you have a grip on its trunk.
A young woman sent me a private message and insisted that because she’d been at the camp for a few weeks and seen nothing of the violent sort, claims of that nature couldn’t possibly be true.
“Were you everywhere at all times?” I asked her.
No, she said.
“Were you there from the beginning until the end?”
No, she said.
“So what you’re telling me is that your personal experience was different than these reports of violence.”
Yes, she said.
“But clearly your personal experience is limited. You just told me so.” I went further. “If you visited the restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center on September 10, 2001, your experience of it would be very different than if you were there the next day. Both experiences are true, but they are completely different.”
She told me she was busy and had to get back to her schoolwork.
I don’t doubt her sincerity, her experience, or the passion that she felt about it, but she was either forgetting there were other experiences or willfully ignoring it. She may not have been raped or seen rapes or heard rapes, but does that mean they did not happen in the camp? She might not have participated in violent skirmishes in front of the police, but we know they happened because they’re on video.
So much emphasis was placed on the individual experiential language of protesters to prove that this was a solidly peaceful and prayerful protest when it was not. Even protesters who talked online about seeing weapons and drugs and agitators were argued down as some supporters were unable to agree what the proper experiential story ought to be.
The third problem with how we use language is that we co-opt unwitting followers of other movements. If that’s your goal, you probably don’t see that as a problem.
Co-opting is easily done by making someone feel moral indignation which, as H.G. Wells said, is the equivalent of jealousy with a halo.
In the April 2017 issue of First Things magazine, Mark Bauerlein discussed the growing resistance and protest movement in the country and noted that, whatever else you think of him, Karl Marx was a “perceptive critic of reform movements.”
In “The German Ideology” (1845-1846), Marx points out a falsifying tactic used by movements that are trying to shed the ruling class:
“For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled...to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.”
The process Marx describes isn’t difficult; simply find a way to make your movement as part of the “common interest”, or the only good and reasonable truth that a person could extract from the movement. (e.g. you either supported the protest or you want oil-filled water and ruined land).
These movements disguise this by finding a group of people to co-opt. In this case, it was Standing Rock and indigenous people. Suddenly, it’s no longer just about a pipeline. Instead, the language focuses on how our free and liberal society depends on the very things that concern that specific group (Native Americans). At that point, it’s Everyman’s plight, and people flock to a haphazard and increasingly violent protest in the middle of nowhere North Dakota under the guise of defending the Constitution and the rights of Everyman.
The language the co-opted movement uses suggests that their actions have equal importance to all people, and that the social or economic policy equally affects all. That’s how untold thousands of suckers thought it was a good idea to send more than $20 million to protesters, or divest from banks. They assumed, because of the language used by the co-opted movement, by celebrity endorsements, and maybe too much emotional thinking, that so much depended on this one protest.
Protester Angelo Sison, for example, made a comment on Facebook about how all clean water in the nation was the water protector’s gift to everyone. How grandiose! All clean water depends on this one movement! Does anyone in their right mind buy that? It sounds lovely, and makes a fine greeting card, but no. My clean and steady supply of drinking water has less to do with Sison and more to do with, ironically, the Garrison Dam, various EPA acts from the 1970’s, and advancements in water treatment technology.
The co-opted movement’s language excels at speaking in abstracts; that makes it more universal. Instead of saying “we don’t want to obey your laws” the language wraps it in some pan-Indianism mystical blatherings. A quick perusal of the social media feeds of a few self-annointed protest leaders will reveal some of the worst spiritual pablum you’ll find. This is done because abstract language does a great job hiding reality. As Bauerlein points out by using the example of sexual freedom that took root in the 1960s, the single, wealthy celebrity or CEO woman raising a child is not a real example. The single moms by the millions with kids by different fathers who aren’t around--they are the reality.
We have to push aside the abstract and idealized rhetoric to find reality. We have to push aside the Jane Fondas and Mark Ruffalos and Shailene Woodleys who serve a meal or drop off a few solar panels or get a mugshot, rejecting the fleeting and sexy face of activism, and instead look at the reservation where high crime and poverty rates abound. A movement that ended up costing the tribe millions in care and cleanup, and damaged their relationships in the community, is clear evidence of a movement composed of people completely unaware of the reality but completely sold on the abstract through emotional language.
The fourth language issue is the push to simplify and dumb down language for easier mass consumption. That’s aiming for the lowest common denominator instead of aiming higher and demanding that people who want to participate stretch to reach the bar.
You can’t have a healthy intellectual life if your diet is three-minute videos or internet memes. Yet a healthy intellectual life is imperative to healthy civil disobedience. The latter part of this protest, by the time it ended, was not healthy civil disobedience. It had more apparent mental illness than mental health.
In George Orwell’s essay “Politics of the English Language”, he said that “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts.”
That’s a rotten spiral to get into, but we’re in it.
Orwell continued, saying that “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together.” If you culled together all the phrases this protest used, you’d get a clear picture of this. Did anyone stop to think about these protest phrases, which were made even more prevalent through social media hashtags that abbreviated complete thoughts even further? Near novels were written in Facebook posts composed almost entirely of jingoistic phrases about the environment, pan-Indianism, anti-Trump, and anti-colonization phrases that in the end meant...nothing.
Sells a T-shirt. Boosts a GoFundMe. Makes someone rich. Means nothing.
Of course, language that ultimately sounds good but means nothing is the goal. “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness,” Orwell writes, suggesting we find a great deal of manipulative power the more we use language to confuse meaning and create abstract themes which no one can be held accountable for. We obfuscate for political reasons. We don’t speak clearly on purpose, or perhaps out of fear of reprimand. Clear speech, in this day, is considered unsafe and triggering. We have a society that seems to prefer the inoffensive padded buffer of meaningless abstraction.
You probably think this doesn’t really matter, all of this language discussion. But I’d disagree. Language does matter. It affects how we think, and how we control the way other people think.
Orwell noted in his essay that “the decline of language must ultimately have political causes” explaining that “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Orwell explained this phenomenon using the example of a man with a drinking problem who drinks because he feels like he is a failure and then, because he drinks so much, becomes an even greater failure.
In a sense, we speak problems into existence through language, even if that problem does not exist. It’s the antifa goons speaking against fascism in a way that creates fascism. It’s the protesters who insist there is rampant racism in a community and end up creating it. It’s the protesters who talk about protecting the water and end up leaving more than tons of trash on the shores of the river. We can, in this way, speak things into being.
This is a problem in a world in which people think they can create solutions by incessant talking about issues for the sole purpose of creating awareness. They may, unwittingly, be creating the problem they say they want to avoid.
Bauerlein, Mark. “Back Page.” First Things. April 2017. Print.
Lewis, C. S. “The Death of Words.” On Stores And Other Essays On Literature. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017. Pp. 165-176. Print.
Orwell, George. "Politics of the English Language." George Orwell: A Collection of Essays. New York: Harvest Book, 1981. pp. 156-171. Print.