The War on Words
Brutal days, to be resisted, often demand brutality inkind.
In such times, marked as they are by the fear anduncertainty that naturally metastasize out of truth’s debasement, there is but one bold act from which all other acts of dissent may precede.
That is to tell — with utter, brutal frankness — the truth.
The most potent means of reckoning with uncomfortable truths are stories. Horrors become recognizable as such only when they are remembered and recounted. “Others,” whether seeming or actual, become familiar solely through the telling of tales that bridge like with unlike. And stories — powerful, enduring stories — are surely impossible to craft without language.
Language is among the defining achievements of the human species. It alone enables ideas to make the near-impossible leap from one mind to another. It is the medium of our weightiest thoughts. Without this genius for sharing thoughts, humanity would be no different from any other ape: the absence of language would mean no stories, which would mean no culture, which would mean no memory, which would mean no identity. We are bound up in the narratives that we claim as our own, and in the words that we use to tell them. The essence of individuality — our relationship to our very selves — depends inextricably on language.
So, when language is abused, we expose our most intimate selves to further and wider abuses. The erosion of the meaning bestowed on words leads to the erosion of our ability to articulate our thoughts, both to others and to ourselves. This erosion, in turn, leads to the destruction of our critical faculties; of our ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood.
Finally, when truth and untruth bleed into one — when we look from truth to untruth, and from untruth to truth, and from truth to untruth again; but already it is impossible to say which is which — we become unable to discern what is moral from what is immoral. And when we can no longer distinguish between right and wrong, the gates that protect our freedom, decency, and autonomy — all that allows us, by right, to fulfill our potential as human beings — are left open to the wolves.
How can we best arm ourselves in defense of truth’s vitality? To tell and safeguard the truth, it is necessary to be able to identify its opposite. First, we must recognize its enemies.
ENEMY No. 1: Disappearing and Bastardized Words
The most profound horror of George Orwell’s harrowing final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is also its most real. It is the horror of a language decimated to the degree that thought itself becomes impossible outside ideologically permitted limits. In the novel, an all-ruling party-state (“Ingsoc”) decrees everslimmer official dictionaries, with the aim of replacing traditional English (“Oldspeak”) with its barren bastard, “Newspeak.” “The purpose of Newspeak,” wrote Orwell, “was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible”:
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever.
To that end, words such as “free” could no longer mean “intellectually free,” or “free to speak,” but could be used instead only in contexts such as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” Words such as “bad” were eliminated completely (and replaced with vile contortions such as ungood). Other terms — thoughtcrime, doublethink, Big Brother, and memory hole — endure in the (somewhat paradoxically) enriched English language of reality.
Though based on the totalitarianism to which he bore witness during the twentieth century, Orwell’s insights are no less relevant to the twenty-first. Today’s parlance is riddled with inanities such as “alternative facts,” “post-truth,” and “fake news.” They have replaced the following perfectly good, honest descriptors: “lies,” “lying passing as a normal and respectable habit,” and “lies told by the (real or purported) media,” respectively.
Even the once objective notion of abstract numeracyis under threat. Patently false yet doubly defended claims of Donald Trump’s having drawn “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period” bring to mind the absurd doublethink phrase “two plus two equals five,” belief in which is enforced by Ingsoc to demonstrate complete and slavish and arbitrary obedience to the Party’s doctrine. Nineteen Eighty- Four’s protagonist, Winston Smith, wonders whether widespread belief in the slogan is proof that it is true despite his misgivings. This fallacious logic is typified by Trump’s redoubled justification for racist comments made on Twitter (wherein he suggested that four nonwhite congresswomen “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came”): that “many people agree” with his sentiments.
Winston correctly noted the danger of this sort of thinking. “Freedom,” he noted, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” The barbarity of the tyrant is made plain by his linguistic savaging of truth. The first sign is the disappearance and bastardization of words.
ENEMY No. 2: Sinister Euphemisms
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell took issue with writing “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”:
[P]olitical speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism … Defenceless 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.
Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
It is thus that Venezuelan “Operations for the Liberation of the People” have resulted in the unlawful torture and murder, at the hands of death squads, of thousands of civilians. It is thus that Chinese gulags for the suppression of ethno-religious minorities are termed “re-education” centres. It is thus that xenophobia, intolerance, and supremacy masquerade as “heritage,” “tradition,” and “pride.” It is also thus that refugees are derided as “illegal aliens.” Furthermore, it is thus that the current climate crisis has, without much complaint, come to be known more mildly as “climate change,” and its deniers as “skeptics” — as if to imply that “change” might not be so urgent after all, and that deniers’ claims differ justifiably (instead of ignorantly) from the scientific consensus.
In the same essay, Orwell wrote that “[w]hen the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” Similarly, for the “atmosphere” (here, meant both metaphorically and not) to improve, language must also be saved. To that end, insidious euphemisms must be outed for what they truly are: attempts to slyly make that which is intolerable seem tolerable.
ENEMY No. 3: Censorship
Freedom dies in silence. The erasure of facts suspends, by default, their very evaluation.
And that is how censorship leads to self-censorship, which leads to silence, which leads to the death of freedom.
ENEMY No. 4: Cliché
Clichés are not only unoriginal; they are dangerous. Cliché is the thoughtless regurgitation of received ideas. To that end, cliché is among the ultimate instruments of ideology. In his study of “brainwashing” in Communist China, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote that “the language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché”:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. They become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.
Here, we find the intentions of Newspeak fulfilled. When language — the medium of thought — becomes reduced in its scope to a predetermined set of stock phrases, all independent and original thinking becomes impossible. All critical, all free thinking becomes impossible. This is the first decisive step toward unfreedom.
Hannah Arendt wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem (the book that birthed the notion of “the banality of evil”) of how, at his trial in 1961, titular Holocaust-organizer and Nazi war-criminal Adolf Eichmann confused the presiding judge with his inarticulate manner of expressing himself:
Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school … [Eichmann] apologized, saying, ‘Officialese … is my only language.’ But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché.
And of his inability to communicate at his trial:
… Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés … The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think … No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards [i.e., clichés] against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.
Finally, writing of then-common but specious “explanations” for the horrors of the Third Reich:
All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.
If the association of clichés with one of the twentyfirst century’s most abhorrent criminals (and two of its most ruthless regimes) is not quite enough, consider the following (softened) clichés: “immigrants are criminals and rapists,” “people of Middle Eastern origin are terrorists,” the same “wish to instate Shariah law in the West,” “non-white people wish to ‘replace’ the white race,” and so on. Most inflammatory, resentful, hateful, and generalizing rhetoric (in short, the open endorsement of ignorance) can be reduced to sloganlike clichés — again, according to Lifton, “brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed.”
By “simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in,” Orwell wrote, clichés can “construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you.” A language that is reduced to clichéd, bumper-sticker slogans is not the equal of thought — it is its pure, unmitigated opposite. And an unthinking person is the ideal vessel for corrosive, wrongheaded — and, yes, dangerous — ideas.
ENEMY No. 5: Cynicism
Cynicism is lazy fatalism dressed up as rational skepticism. The very nonchalance of the cynic betrays his apathy; it absolves him of any responsibility to act. “Why bother,” he says, “when there is nothing to be done that is worth doing?” Yet this is never true: there is always something to be done — however small the act; however dire the circumstances.
To be a cynic is to concede to the forces of wrongdoing. If a despot cannot successfully con you (for despotism necessitates an abuse of confidence), or if a naysayer cannot doom-and-gloom you into submission, then he can at least hope that you will give in to cynicism that is, to resigned passivity. “The government’s fucked. There are no viable alternatives. Why even vote?” “The planet’s fucked. Why not have a good time of it?” “The culture’s fucked and there’s no fixing it. Why participate in society at all?” No one who, in the face of adversity, has ever made significant change for the better has thought (except in moments of doubt) in this way. And many a cynic has abetted — whether unconsciously, indifferently, or secretly — the very wrongs that comfortably confirm his pessimism.
Cynicism belies fear: a cynic is too reluctant to stand for anything because, out of trepidation, he cannot think or act with conviction. Sunny, naïve idealism and the motivation to act are not synonymous; optimism necessitates hard work, and the tenacity to act in the face of overwhelming odds. Cynicism, however, demands nothing but the assurance and safety of renounced responsibility. It is the reaction of the shut-in.
Moreover, cynicism justifies ignorance. “If nothing that can be known can change anything, then why bother knowing anything?” The same trite manner of reasoning infects everything in the eyes of the cynic. “There is nothing so pitiful,” said Maya Angelou, “as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” To the cynic, everything — honesty and dishonesty, good and bad, facts and lies — is flattened to the same plane. The cynic’s ignorance allows him to believe nothing because he ignores the facts that would show his dismissive platitudes to be unfounded in — or rather, contrary to — the truth.
The integrity of language (and, by necessity, of truth) is facing a trial of hazards. Yet, if history offers any indication, language, and its ability to communicate the truth, have shown remarkable resilience, even if at times they have threatened expiry or been rendered dormant. It is a testament to the seeming will of truth that it has managed, like so many stubborn weeds, to crop up in the most hostile and unexpected of places, at the most inopportune of times (for its enemies). But this does not exempt any one of us from vigilance.
A phrase that dates from the Watergate scandal’s fraught days for truth (and which now serves as The Washington Post’s motto) bears repeating: “democracy dies in darkness.” Better yet: democracy dies in silence. If we cease to vocally defend the freedom of language, we will see a waning in the vitality of truth. Then, unfreedom will have its day. So, to prevent this day from ever following night, it is essential to take stock of the truth’s wellbeing and its safeguarding in a robust language. The brutal reality in which we find ourselves begs a brutal aesthetic to match: the aesthetics of resolute, unwavering truth.
— Trevor Clarke