Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Swan Song Of The Octopus

One of the links I posted a few days ago was to a collection of essays, editorials and letters by George Orwell. There's one in particular that I think is as relevant now as on the day that it was written.

If you haven't read Politics and the English Language, then you can find it here. It's not very long, and it's well worth reading if you're a writer. Or a reader. Or a voter.

Because what concerns us as writers and readers? The words. The words, and the power that they have, the power to move us and the power to make us laugh, cry, shout, fling the book across the room - and the power that they have to change the way we think. Or the power that they have to make us not think, to bedazzle and hypnotise and redefine the redefinitions until all meaning is bleached from the language. To make us ignore what lies behind the words.

"Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

So the bloody deaths of families in cars are referred to as 'incidents', as if they are nothing more than a drunken scuffle in a queue for a taxi, cities are sanitised and smart bombs fall with precision, children are killed in the name of various gods, hands are wrung over collateral damage, and everyone, on every side, tell us that they're doing whatever they are doing in the name of freedom, because we all know that freedom is good - how could it not be - and therefore if we're doing things in the name of freedom they must be...good things.

Doubleplus good.

So torture becomes officially defined as only an act that leads to death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function. Which gives men of imagination and no soul plenty of scope for hours and lifetimes to be spent inside their rooms with bare walls and wires and buckets and chains.

The murderous oligarchs of China rule a People's Republic which is neither and which means that anyone who opposes them is an enemy of the people by definition, and if you call legislation the Patriot Act then what does that make anyone who argues against it? Exactly. Expect the Loving Family Act and the Honesty Act and perhaps the Kind To Fluffy Animals Act to follow.

"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. 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 and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

Use the right words, often enough, and you've got a bait and switch that means that people can even confuse entire countries with one another and go to war with one for revenge for the actions of others. You've got people in boxes who can't be treated as prisoners because they're prisoners of war and can't be treated as prisoners of war because they're not that either, just unprisoners.

So words are debased and degraded to serve these ends, and Orwell's essay shows how language is a canary, slowly sliding off its perch as we walk step by step deeper into the coal mine.

"One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs."



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