Orwell and Language

Author: Gary Hart

1984There is a lack of seriousness, especially where national security is concerned, among those who focus all their attention on a particular language or set of words they favor while more important issues are neglected.  Take, for example, the recent inside-the-Beltway taffy-pull over whether President Obama does, or does not, use the phrase “war on terrorism.”
Serious people care more about the policy and its effectiveness than the rhetoric surrounding it.  It is important to note that those most concerned with the current president adopting the language of his predecessor are following the line of oppressive political figures of the extreme right and left who have understood over the years that he who controls the meaning of words, and who dictates the language to be used, also controls the outcome of the debate.
George Orwell, among others, has most effectively, and frighteningly, pointed this out.
Since Vietnam there has been a concerted effort on the part of some to suggest that one party cares more about national security than the other.  They do so despite the fact that the party presumably weak on defense led us through World War I, World War II, the Korean war, and much of Vietnam.  Nevertheless, if you start from that notion and convince enough people that terrorism is a function of war, then people must conclude that the party supported by the language hawks alone is equipped to respond to it.
The real issue behind this linguistic taffy-pull is what methods are to be used.  If counter-terrorism is a “war”, then traditional military measures, including big armies in the field (Iraq and Afghanistan) and invasions, are required.  If terrorism is a somewhat sophisticated form of criminal activity, it will require special forces trained in irregular, unconventional warfare to combat it.
So, as inconsequential as the language tussle seems, it does have political and military consequences.  How you characterize or describe a problem will usually determine what methods you use to address it.  The more the language hawks prevail in demanding their special vocabulary, the more they will dictate our policies.  For some of us the proof is in the policy not the words.


11 Responses to “Orwell and Language”

  1. Jon Vaughn Says:

    Senator Hart is exactly to the point. This article is one of the most cogent observations I have yet heard/seen about the nature of political “dialogue” (or more accurately, jibber-jabber) outside of Lakoff’s treatment of the issue. Hermaneutics is perhaps the least attended intellectual discipline. We (tend to) live in our meanings, and the unscrupulous (particularly you, Karl…) cynically exploit this to the great detriment of the Republic.

  2. Jeff Simpson Says:

    We had the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs, The Gulf War, and now the War on Terror. Did Congress ever give the executive branch an official declaration of war in any of these events? No (I recall that the Gulf War and the some other recent actions had votes of support, but no actual declaration of war).

    And so we must have a new type of war, if we are to call it a war at all. These new wars do not require the public to purchase war bonds, to endure rationing of gas or sugar, or, most notably, the surrender of our sons and daughters to conscription. The sacrifice is limited to those unlucky enough to be within the easy reach of the DoD (and the taxpayer, but prices paid in dollars pale in comparison to those paid in blood). This disproportionate distribution of misery allows a majority to live insulated from the horror that war begets. Success in maintaining war as an abstraction results in voter indifference, thereby mitigating outcry and making questionable policies easier to implement.

    The root of the problem is greater than posing current events as a War on Terror, the problem lies in that we still rally in support of anything branded as such without requiring the proper invocation of concomitant constitutional processes. That is, we are all guilty of tolerating a hypocritical, uneven, and chimeric transition to a war mentality.

    In reality, this is not a war. Those that wish to call this a war should called upon to implement the full measure of what war means, and of course the public will react accordingly in revulsion.

  3. Haydn Reiss Says:

    In 1994, shortly before the Kerry/Bush election, I produced a DVD, ‘How Democrats & Progressives Can Win: Solutions from George Lakoff’. Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berekely, was an expert on the use of language in politics. The DVD showed how the right had (up to that time)much more successfully than the left understood the language component in politics. We covered subjects such as ‘Framing'”Values”Reaching the swing voter’. This short work was aimed to improve the communication skills of those working for political change on the left. It was used in hundreds of gatherings. If the good senator would like a copy, please let me know. A trailer from the film is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vo4whfUDPcU
    Best wishes, Haydn Reiss (friend of Nancy and Miles Rubin)

  4. Jo Bobenhouse Smithn Says:

    I just had to drop by from Huffington to say a million and one thanks for this column. I haven’t read anything more timely and targeted than this since Obama was elected! What did I like, you ask?
    Most of all the bumper sticker pharase “linguistic taffy-pull”–I can now go forth and respond on all manner of comments with this one phrase. It’s genius. THANKS, again.


  5. Michael Califra Says:

    Just look at the size of the US defense budget compared to other major powers (combined!) and you’ll see just one of the political and military consequences of the use of language. But in addition to the language itself you have to add a media establishment that passes along the Right’s incindiary propaganda unchallenged and a Democratic party that seems to have given up even trying to get a contrary message out.

  6. Jim Burnett Says:

    I would add that if you control and limit the context of an historical event, you can also control the outcome. The civil war was the last one started by a Republican and that one was to end slavery. To simply say that a Democrat got us out of WWI, WWII and Korea is to understate how we got there in the first place. The majority of historians agree that the wars were the product of multiple influences and that America’s entry was a given. It took Democrat presidents and Congress to actually get us in and it likely took Roosevelt looking the other way to make the WWII entrance acceptable to a country against involvement in another European War. And as it relates to the Gulf wars, my recollection is that it took a majority of Democrats to agree.

  7. Hart on Orwell and Language « just joe Says:

    […] is a fantastic and important statement and can be found here. 38.809779 […]

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    I thank all the thoughtful commentators here and want to respond particularly to Mr. Burnett. My argument was not who got us into or out of wars but merely to point out that the political party characterized in recent years as being “soft on defense” had considerable credentials on defending the nation and on national security issues.

  9. Dave Nelson Says:

    Off-point somewhat, but relative to language and the use of verbal communication, be it intentional or not…..Sarah Palin on Oprah: in response to a comment by Oprah that her career has sort of gone full-circle, having begun in broadcasting and now joining the FOX cable team “My parents are like, finally, she’s gonna put her college education to work”……this from the woman who was the Governor of Alaska…..:0

  10. Dave Nelson Says:

    The statement by Mr. Burnett, that the Civil War was begun to end slavery, is historically inaccurate…Lincoln was responding to the attempts by the confederacy to secede…his major concern was preservation of the fledgling republic & the supremacy of federal jurisdiction over states rights. Slavery became a banner issue as the struggle progressed.

  11. Robin L. Ore Says:

    One aspect which deserves more attention concerning Orwell, 1984 and language was the focus of the book on “double speak”. “War is peace”, etc…

    While those who wrestle with language for the law related to paperwork, the public is moved by words and ideas that ignite them to follow a leader. Those who were the most destructive, like Hitler, used double speak as propaganda. He said one thing while doing another.

    Today, we can see that the double speak is in full force and effect. One has the impression that our government is in charge, while the reality is the corporations and their “shadow” government are. No longer is there a choice to follow, as mind control technologists dictate to followers what they will do directly to their minds.

    All systems of Democratic principles assume choice. In 2010 and beyond, “Freedom is Slavery”.

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