The Limits of Clear Language

Orwell worried about polluted language, but polluted information is more toxic

Can there be a political writer who has not fallen in love with George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”? Part of its appeal is what’s appealing about all of Orwell—its directness and honesty, its plainspokenness, its faith, against all evidence, that human affairs can be conducted morally, its sense of being on the side of ordinary people, not of the sophisticated and powerful. The only people Orwell attacks by name in “Politics and the English Language” are two celebrated academics, Harold Laski and Lancelot Hogben, not the kind of minor-grade politicians and bureaucrats who would have made easy targets.

“Politics and the English Language” begins as a lesson, and quite a good one, in how to write well (delivered in the form of an attack on people who write badly), and ends with the hope that better writing can engender a better society. What idea could be more attractive to writers than that what we do, if improved along the lines Orwell suggests, can improve not just our readers’ experience of our work, but the lives of everybody? To Orwell, the connection between the English language and politics was that the debasement of the latter requires the corruption of the former. “In our age,” he wrote—meaning, the age of the rise of totalitarianism—“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.” But saying this generates the hope—highly qualified, as hope always was in Orwell’s work—that better, clearer language could rob bad politics of its voice, and thereby might bring it to an end.

Orwell began work on his masterpiece, 1984, not long after “Politics and the English Language” was published (the essay owes some of its resonance to the way it foreshadows Newspeak, the great literary device Orwell invented for the novel). Although “Politics and the English Language” is probably the best known of all Orwell’s essays, at the time he wrote it—for Horizon, a magazine edited by his old schoolmate Cyril Connolly—he was an extremely busy freelancer. The essay was one of more than a hundred pieces Orwell published in 1946. Even as it advocates care and precision in the use of language, it is more passionate than systematic.

To produce 1984, on the other hand, Orwell, by then a dying man, removed himself to a location about as far from the setting of the book as one can imagine: a house on the sea, at the end of miles of unpaved road, on the remote Scottish island of Jura. Newspeak is a fully worked-out system, far more horrifying than the examples Orwell gives us in “Politics and the English Language.” Its aim is to make individual, independent thought impossible by depriving the mind of the words necessary to form ideas other than those fed to it by the state. Newspeak at once radically limits and shortens the number of words available to people (so that everyone has to operate at the linguistic level of a three- or four-year-old) and turns all words denoting concepts into long, incomprehensible, bureaucratized euphemisms, devoid of meaning and unable to provoke debate or resistance. Take away words, and you have taken away mental function; take away mental function, and you have taken away the possibility of political action.

Because Newspeak is an aspect of a fully realized work of art, it has the quality of seamless, self-contained perfection that art often has: it exists literarily on terms that make it powerful and inarguable. “Politics and the English Language,” because it is farther from perfection, is more interesting to think about today. Its conceptual roughness makes possible a real consideration of Orwell’s proposition that bad language always produces bad politics (and good language can produce good politics) in a way that Newspeak does not.

The primary villain in “Politics and the English Language” is the kind of fancy, pretentious, imprecise prose that is usually purveyed by intellectuals (Orwell’s particular targets were intellectuals on the left), not the state. Nobody who has read the essay can ever use a formulation such as “not unlike” again with a clear conscience. Throughout the essay, Orwell wanders into what seems to be a blanket condemnation of all use of abstractions in political discussion. Life without “democracy,” “justice,” “science,” “class,” and “equality” is a lot more difficult to contemplate happily than life without “not unlike”—these are not, after all, terms purposely made incomprehensible in the manner of Newspeak.

Although Orwell’s language is wonderfully clear, his thought, on this crucial point, is not. Sometimes he seems to be saying that his despair about virtually all political discussion is an artifact of a bad historical moment—which would mean there is hope. But in concluding, he writes, “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” That sounds pretty hopeless. Orwell is so uncomfortable with big, complex societies that it’s hard to tell whether he would ever approve of political writing that seeks to make observations conceptual, rather than concrete and specific. Bad writing is, unfortunately, eternal; surely there is even more of it today, by weight, than there was in 1946. As a writing guide, “Politics and the English Language” is, more than sixty years after publication, absolutely useful. Whether Orwell’s idea—that better writing, and clearer language, can actually improve politics—applies today is a tougher question.

There are really two distinct kinds of bad political writing: the overcomplicated, unclear kind, and propaganda. The first kind is dangerous because people in power can use it to fuzz up what they are doing and thus avoid accountability—think of a word like “rendition”—but it is usually not persuasive, because persuasion is not its intent. Propaganda, on the other hand, is often quite beautifully and clearly written. When it works, it works by virtue of being simple and memorable. What is dangerous about propaganda is that it is misleading. But its success seems to disprove Orwell’s implication that all bad ideas must be clumsily expressed. Consider the following extract from President Bush’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, in which he unveiled the “War on Terror”:

On September the eleventh, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars—but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war—but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks—but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day—and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.

This would strike many people today as practically the locus classicus—as Orwell surely would not have put it—of the kind of language we call “Orwellian.” (At the time, it struck almost nobody that way.) Bush was responding to a successful terrorist attack by declaring war, not against the attackers themselves but against unspecified “enemies of freedom.” Thus, as in 1984, the United States was in a war without a definite beginning or end point, against whomever Bush wanted it to be against. Still, the speech wasn’t exactly Newspeak—its rhetoric was neither purposely obscure nor flat and simple to the point of meaninglessness. It was meant to have a genuine, persuasive emotional effect, and it did. Neither, except in its violation of Orwell’s proposed ban on the word “freedom,” is it representative of the kind of rhetoric “Politics and the English Language” was aimed against. It was vivid and (to quote Orwell) “all its words are those of everyday life.” The one exemplar of good writing Orwell singled out for praise in “Politics and the English Language” was the King James version of the Bible—a text that Bush and his chief speech writer at the time, Michael Gerson, obviously also admired and tried to use as a model. The challenge that “Politics and the English Language” puts before us today is in determining how far we can get politically through linguistic reform.

All politicians use slogans. Most significant legislation is given a meaning-obscuring name, for instance, the USA patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind Act. The way we respond to these uses of language is partly conditioned by our political preferences. Conservatives, who admire Orwell today no less than liberals do, find Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (pretty names for great expansions in the charter of the federal welfare state) to be Orwellian uses of language. Every recent president has seemed to his opposition to have used political spin at an unprecedented and alarming level, and every party out of power believes that if it can only use language more effectively (as opposed to more honestly), it will win again. Is there a set of rules we can propose for the honest use of political language that transcends ideology, and that would stand up to the often unlovely exigencies of campaigning and government in a free society?

There is nothing wrong with Orwell’s advice in “Politics and the English Language”: simple is better than complicated; concrete is better than abstract; careful is better than sloppy; think before you write. The experience of the last few years would lead me to add that in political language, function is far preferable to emotion: the words used to denote something the government does should have to do with the activity itself, not the values it is meant to embody or the feelings it is meant to activate. (The war in Iraq, yes; Operation Enduring Freedom, no.) But this would get us only part of the way.

There are real limits to how what’s wrong with politics can be fixed linguistically. Many people participate in politics through group membership, not through consuming messages delivered through the mass media. People in interest groups, whether they’re environmentalists or beet farmers, usually come to politics with their minds already made up, or at least with a frame of reference so powerful (legal abortion is like the Holocaust) that it lies completely outside the bounds of the general public debate. They are not susceptible to persuasion, but that means they can’t easily be misled or brainwashed, either. The targets of political language are the marginal players, not the committed ones. Conversely, active and widespread political participation decreases the importance of language, and thus, for good or ill, reduces the role of writers, intellectuals, and propagandists in the political system.

To my mind, an even more frightening political prospect than the corruption of language is the corruption of information. Language, especially in the age of the Internet, is accessible to everybody. Some users of language are more powerful than others, some are more honest than others, and some are more adept than others—but the various ways of speaking about politics can at least compete with each other in the public square, and we can at least hope that the more honest and clear ways will triumph in the end. Information, on the other hand, is much less generally accessible than words. When the process of determining whether the facts of a situation have been intentionally corrupted by people in power (whether, let’s say, Saddam Hussein had the ability to produce nuclear weapons, or whether a new drug has harmful side effects), there often is no corrective mechanism at hand, as there is in cases of the intentional corruption of language. Intellectual honesty about the gathering and use of facts and data is a riskier and more precious part of a free society than is intellectual honesty in language. We ought to guard it with the same zeal that animates Orwell’s work on political speech.

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Nicholas Lemann is Pulitzer-Moore Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and a staff writer for The New Yorker