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I think the political warnings given by George Orwell in his novels and essays are now of less importance than those he gave about misuse of language.
We have totalitarianism. The media has been the message for some time and now often replaces it. Politicians and businessmen misuse language in virtually the same way no matter what end of the political scale they cling to. Misleading language enables all seekers after power to gain their ends and whether it’s for the right or the left makes no difference, the wrong is the same.
Manipulative language can be classified into:
1) advertising, if the end result is transfer of money
2) reassurance, if appeals are made to prejudices
3) rhetoric, if concealment of wrong doing is required
4) paranoia, if mob control is desired, and of course
5) nonsense, if no meaning is conveyed.
Orwell was well aware of misuse of language as a device of manipulation. Nineteen Eighty Four introduced Newspeak and its mental corollary, Doublethink.
Newspeak is an artificial but official language with a limited vocabulary designed to control people’s thoughts. If there is no word for it, there can be no thought of it. (The origins of this lie in political orthodoxy and political correctness, both Doublethink).
Acronyms, technobabble (use of engineering abbreviations like ‘gig’ for example without a clear idea of their meaning), euphemisms, and appeal to emotive but undefined abstractions are all part of the language we use, and signify the presence of Newspeak.
This is quite a separate device to languages such as slang or dialect or jargon, all of which convey information more swiftly than conventional language. Newspeak’s primary aim is not to communicate. It is to control.
To do this it strives to eliminate thought. Literature is rewritten in a simplified way, or converted to video or comic book form. Words are systematically replaced by images, and people are encouraged to rely on photographs, movies and image aided presentation media which convey not ideas but emotions, as happens with the use of most social media.
For there to be control there needs to be a controller. It is interesting to see the way control has evolved over time. It all begins with successful politicians who were also successful soldiers.
These were called “the great”, as was Alexander the Great. Alexander killed more residents of the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire and various Indian kingdoms than anyone else, so he is “the Great”. (Had he attacked and killed Europeans, where the historians came from, he would have been Alexander “the Terrible”). ‘Imperator’ (Emperor) was Augustus Caesar’s title, which meant victorious commander of the army. Augustus was also known as ‘Princeps’, first citizen (which suggests Orwell’s “all citizens are equal but some are more equal than others”). This is also the meaning of ‘President’. Napoleon started his takeover of France by calling himself ‘First Consul’ or chief official. The leader can be recognised by his talk of ‘efficiency’ and his claims to fight corruption and restore order.
The idea behind these nomenclatures is that the leader (in German ‘Führer, guide or leader) is just one official among others, just a bit more equal than anyone else. This is to avoid the title of ‘king’, which suggests absolute rule over subject peoples, totalitarianism.
The reality of total control is now accompanied by a title which suggests the opposite. Doublethink.
The leader of whatever party refers to the traditions of the past and claims to restore them, without being specific: he’s not going to abolish sewage or electricity though, but ‘moral decay’, ‘infiltration’, and most of all, ‘corruption’. The aim is to defeat the threat of racism/Islam/atheism/communism/organised crime/drug addicts/non whites (take your pick). Why is he offering to do the job of the police force and church ministers?
Here is a current example. No resemblance to any historical figures is intended.
Richard Spencer is the President and Director of the National Policy Institute, “an independent non-profit think tank dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States and around the world [associated with the term Alt Right]. I consider myself an Identitarian.
…Islam—at its full flourishing (for instance, Wahhabi or Salafi Islam [a Saudi sect with 20% of Sunnis as adherents: opponents of Islam often gloss over sect divisions]—Islam as a political ideology)—isn’t some peaceful denomination like Methodism or religion like Buddhism. It is an expansive, domineering ideology, and one that is directed against Europe. Islam is a grave danger for European peoples.
…Current crisis in the West has multiple causes: the warfare-welfare state creates crises abroad, accepting the results of those crises—migrants and refugees—at home, while benefitting globalist elites with transnational capitalist interests. This perpetual cycle occurs against the backdrop of moral and cultural degeneration: from entertainment culture to suicidal “tolerance.”
We must address issues and crises on this level; in this sense, we must think and act racially”. (Excerpts from an interview which originally appeared in Europe Maxima 15 February 2017, interview by Thierry Durolle).
Note the harmless title: the man is a mere Director of a “think tank” (I wonder what that means?). He calls on the unidentifiable and impossible-to-verify unity of “European race” to identify his followers (the elite). He reveals a global enemy – Islam – and regrets the moral decay he would correct in order to win the future conflict he foresees. An unrelentingly Big Picture which alarms then reassures. Seems to be pulling them in in the USA. (Wonder how he feels about Jews?). Spencer’s remarks seem to fill all the categories of language I mentioned above.
Leaders absolutely demand followers. It’s lonely at the top otherwise. Followers will follow if i) they are told what to do (support me, join the elite), ii) given something to object to (they’re the ones to blame), and iii) persuaded the leader has the solution (eg eradicate corruption).
And everybody, followers as well as leaders, colludes in Newspeak or misleading language of control. Otherwise they’d all look foolish. Here’s what they say.
Statistics show that 90% of everything is now advertising. We’re all complicit in this language, and some still want to believe that if they buy twice as much as they need they’ll save 50%. (BTW have you noticed that your junk mail is now a ’newsletter’? We’re all part of the one big buying family, in which we give our money away). George Carlin sums up the language:
“Quality, value, style, service, selection, convenience, economy, savings, performance, experience, hospitality. Low rates, friendly service, name brands, easy terms, affordable prices, money-back guarantee. No cash? No problem! No risk, no obligation, no red tape, no down payment, no entry fee, no hidden charges, no purchase necessary. Limited time only, act now, order today, send no money. Batteries not included, mileage may vary, all sales are final. Don’t forget to pick up your free gift: a classic deluxe custom designer luxury prestige high-quality premium select gourmet pocket pencil sharpener. Yours for the asking, no purchase necessary. It’s our way of saying thank you”.
This type of barrage drives a wedge between language and meaning, and softens us up, makes us ready to believe anything.
Remember Mark Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”. That’s classic euphemism. Words that conceal intent, manipulate the hearers, and pretend to describe something they do not. Here’s an (edited) example of euphemism from http://www.iic.tuis.ac.jp/edoc/journal/ron/r6-2-3/r6-2-3j.html.
“While freely conceding that the regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement”.
Euphemism covers unpleasant meaning with reassurance, in the above instance suppression of dissidence to the regime by murder. Would you recognise “We have entered upon a period of uncertainty involving high mobilisation” (William Safire) as the opening of the Gettysburg Address, “We are now engaged in a civil war”.
There’re terms like ‘collateral damage.’ “The U.S. Department of Defense defines collateral damage as: “unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time.” In other words, the killing of innocent civilians. There have been between 139,934 and 158,483 civilian casualties since the Iraqi invasion, or if we are to speak in Orwellian political terms, there has been significant collateral damage”. (http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/6-most-meaningless-words-politicians-and-pundits-throw-around-and-should-be-abandoned).
Of course most Americans would be familiar with the use of euphemisms, such as “courtesy call”, “comfort stop”, and the invitation “have a nice day”. But euphemism goes further than hide. It can conceal an alternative meaning under a widely recognised term. Take the word ‘peace’ as an example. “Orwell writes: “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” As a political euphemism, then, the word “peace” has nothing to do with an absence of organised violence. In reality, “peace” denotes a condition that typically results after a massive use of organised violence, usually over an extended period, has eliminated all foreseeable threats to the established (or establishing) authority”. (http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/06/22/deciphering-political-language/). Think of the shifting meaning of terrorist/freedom fighter.
The thing about the grandiose abstractions we all use, such as ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, the ‘West’, ‘terrorism’, ‘fanaticism’, ’totalitarianism’ and ‘fundamentalism’, is that we all have our own definition of these words, and rarely spell them out to others. So they can be used to move us and manipulate us. Note the difference between the ‘efficiency’ referred to by centrist leaders, compared to the disorganisation of democracy.
Remember that in the 1930s the German people wanted Hitler. He told them what they wanted to hear. He had overwhelming support. True, he helped along that support with a lot of military and police action, but all in the name of ‘efficient government’. He identified the ‘cause’ of the inflation that was causing so much misery. It was the result of an ‘international conspiracy of Jews’. And he had the solution. He restored German pride by calling the people he ruled ‘the master race’, and provided ‘full employment’ by going to war with the rest of Europe. The Jews were allegedly deported to Poland, but stopped off at Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz camps. The German people waited for things to get better, and found that Hitler had no idea how to govern.
Totalitarian leaders only care about power, not about people, prosperity or even efficiency. And they keep popping up all over the world whenever there’s a crisis. No matter what they say, their speech is a means to control.
We are a highly organised intelligent species, and language makes us vulnerable to manipulation. Self interest makes us want to believe what’s most convenient to us. So we ingest a huge amount of acronyms, technobabble, undefined abstractions, euphemisms, appeals to prejudices, advertising hype, rhetoric and nonsense from the all pervasive media we are exposed to.
Words have meanings. Let’s be critical of those words we hear, especially when they’re from someone who gains from our compliance.
©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.