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Caveats on Orwell

Caveats on Orwell

From almost six years back, Ed Smith has some interesting insight on the subject of deceptive speech and Orwell’s Politics and the English Language:

Orwell argues that “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.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.

There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion.

Obviously, this is not so much a claim that Orwell’s essay was wrong as it is an observation that Orwell’s criticisms were incomplete… at least it is not a compelling refutation of Orwell, as Smith tries to make it (” Orwell’s combination of masterly style and under-examined logic is the perfect refutation of his own argument”). From a brief and uncomfortable exposure to the world of sociology and social psychology, Orwell’s claims were not merely true in his time, but prophetic of ours. Smith’s ability to point out exceptions, or clever ways to use simplicity in a misleading fashion, misses the point, which is that clear language helps us think more clearly. Ironically, his point about “misleading simplicity” is actually addressed in Orwell’s section on meaningless words, wherein he complains about the vagueness of apparently simple words, such as romantic, values, justice, democracy, and fascism.

Orwell’s point was not the superiority of simplicity, but of clarity. To this end, simplicity can be of help, but it is not the same thing, as Smith (and Orwell) identify. Unfortunately, Smith’s confusion over these two words prevents him from being able to fully appreciate the purpose of the essay.

However, Smith is still right that the preferred method of deceptive speech has shifted, at least in the realm of politics. Scientific and academic writing is still nearly unintelligible much of the time — usually not for want of sincerity, but due to the accumulation of jargon over decades, allowed to build up like mold within insular research cultures. Politics, on the other hand, suffers the opposite problem. By attempting to speak to everyone, they reduce their language to the lowest common denominator, which almost eliminates the ability to say anything of substance.

In any case, Smith’s observation about deceptive simplicity is still one worth bearing in mind while reading George Orwell, as the style of imprecise language has, indeed, changed in the 72 years since Politics and the English Language was first published.

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