Showing posts with label George Orwell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Orwell. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Towering Babble

 

Back in 1946, George Orwell expressed his doubts about, Politics and the English Language in an essay with that title. If he was correct then that politics was corrupting  language, it's even more true now. Only today, it's not just politics. Social media and a tribalized electorate isolate Americans into conflicting subcultures.

Those who spout unreasoned political nonsense abuse both language and factuality. But one only needs to look toward academia to find serious language corruptors. Academicians abuse language by making it inaccessible to the more than two out of three Americans without college degrees. I suppose academicians coin new terms as a substitute for new ideas. It's a dangerous practice.

Take the term, critical race theory. What does it mean? The term invites attack. If instead, one promoted teaching the history of what really happened, who could object?

Another term I can do without is systemic racism. The word "systemic" bothers me. Without knowing which system, political, social, financial, or educational, is under discussion, it's impossible to address the problem. If I said instead that racism was culturally embedded, I'd be providing a better description of the problem. The seeds of racism are found in children's rhymes, folk tales, ethnic jokes, and locker room talk. Racism is embedded in American culture and that is where it must be sought. Only by understanding its cultural manifestations can we understand how it's embedded in different systems within our culture and its subcultures.

Reminder: my book is free from Amazon beginning Thursday, July first.



 

Friday, March 05, 2021

Orwell and the costs of free speech

 

"We are living Orwell's 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few,” said a son of wealth and privilege about a company enforcing its policies.

He's mistaken. Here in the U.S.A. we don't live in Orwell's "1984." It's a bit different—perhaps as bad—probably worse. Orwell's dictatorship, fueled by hate and ever-changing 'facts,' has not replaced our democracy. Instead, our democracy hangs upon a fine thread.

Perhaps three fourths of Republicans and a third of independents believe what some are calling "the big lie." If those calling it that are correct, then a sizeable portion of the American public is already living in an Orwellian reality while America's majority struggles to maintain a more balanced, dialog-driven reality.

In "1984," Orwell showed how language could be used for social manipulation. He also addressed language prior to writing that book. Should Americans decide to live in a shared reality and begin to construct one, they could learn from George Orwell's 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language

Those who take time to ponder English usage, Orwell begins, "would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it." Orwell questions this belief, "Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." People can and do shape their language, Orwell argues. He believes they should do so intentionally instead of unconsciously.

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible."

No one sets out to become a drinker. Careless actions lead to forming careless habits and before a drinker realizes it, he's an alcoholic. But what careless actions lead to careless speaking habits? "Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer." If language decline is caused by political and economic conditions, we can cultivate precise language to change those conditions:

"If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

Orwell analyses several examples of contemporary writing:

"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged."

The tricks Orwell lists include pretentious diction and meaningless words among other items. He provides details that I am omitting here. In any case, the language problems Orwell describes have only worsened through the years. Orwell must have known only print and radio. Television hadn't become popular before he died, and the internet was unheard of. Radio and TV are no longer regulated by the Fairness Doctrine and social media isn't regulated by mandate, only by the views of its owners. Further, tricks that were unconscionable in Orwell's day are played regularly today.

Language trickery has become so commonplace that I wonder if some of its users are even aware that they're using it. I wonder if Junior realizes when he wrote, "Free speech no longer exists in America," he really meant, "Free publicity no longer exists in America?" After all, Twitter only took away Dad's free publicity, not his freedom of speech. And that had been a privilege, not a given right.

We need to work on our language skills lest we revert to being cave people. Here's a few quotes from the essay: 

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."

"The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. ... Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way."

"As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

"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."


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Help, I'm a cop

Burmese Days
George Orwell
Fiction, 291 pages 

"It's a drag being a cop" ~ Frank Zappa, "Help, I'm a rock"

George Orwell was brainwashed. This happened in Myanmar (formerly Burma) during his five years as a policeman. He was brainwashed by the pukka sahibs’ code. The code of imperialist occupiers. The code of colonial hypocrisy. A code similar to the one currently protested by the BLM movement.

The protagonist of "Burmese Days" is not a policeman. However, John Flory has seen through the code and now belongs nowhere--not in Burma, nor back in England.

"It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you, Pink’un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus’, and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus."

John Flory's story isn't a pleasant one. It's a story of a conflicted man wanting, but unable, to do the right thing. I wonder how many good cops feel this way, wanting to improve society but hampered by their coworkers. The code of silence they follow prevents them from reporting bad fellow officers, just as the pukka sahibs’ code prevents John Flory from confronting the racism of Burma's imperialist occupiers. As always, George Orwell delivers.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

All art is propaganda

Propaganda refers to the use of persuasive information to influence public opinion. Such information is often distorted, based on rumors and allegations, or simply untruthful. But that isn’t always the case. Governments often release persuasive public service announcements based on factual information. And that, too, can be called propaganda insofar as it promotes and spreads information persuasively. Generally people think of propaganda in its negative sense, as a tool of corrupt governments and institutions. However I think W.E.B. Du Bois, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, and George Orwell intended the word in its broader sense when they considered art as propaganda.

It raises serious questions, but pared down to the bone their meaning is clear: art attempts to persuade others of an artist’s viewpoint using factual, fictional, or even biased information. Its function is to propagate a viewpoint. It is therefore propaganda.

I began to take a fresh interest in George Orwell when I saw “Down and Out in Paris and London” on a must-read list. While reading his, “Burmese Days” I wondered what else he’d written. I found a compilation of Orwell’s essays titled, “All Art is Propaganda”. Intrigued, I requested it from the library. Once I got it home I looked for the essay with that title. There wasn’t one. So I went online to look for the quote.

It turns out that Orwell wasn’t the only writer who’d made such a statement. George Bernard Shaw is credited with, “All great art and literature is propaganda.” Prolific author, Upton Sinclair, said, “All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescabably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.”

W.E.B. Du Bois addressed propaganda during a 1926 lecture. He tells us, “The apostle of Beauty thus becomes the apostle of Truth and Right not by choice but by inner and outer compulsion.” He continues, “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

In Orwell’s case, the comment about propaganda is made in reference to Charles Dickens, “But every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message’, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.”
Have I been writing propaganda? It’s something to ponder.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Online spelling and grammar

Yo, Illiterate! Yes, I mean you. I suppose you figure that you don’t need to proofread your writing before you post it online. You think I won’t notice. Well I do. In fact, I notice it everywhere — on blogs, newsgroups, why hell, even on television station websites.

If you’re not using grammar and spell checkers, you should be. And, if you are, then you need to acknowledge their limitations. Proofread, damn it.

English is a language full of quirky rules and still quirkier exceptions to those rules. This queer old aunt of a language must be preserved in all her peculiar glory. Your wholesale online abuse of English must stop at once. If you don’t mend your ways, then no one will respect the rules of English and God help us, writing will look like this:

“Then saw I all the half y-grave with famous folke's names fele, that hadde been in muche weal, and their fames wide y-blow. But well unnethes might I know any letters for to read their names by; for out of dread they were almost off thawed so, that of the letters one or two were molt away of ev'ry name, so unfamous was wox their fame.”

That was Geoffrey Chaucer. His English is not up to modern day standards. Some of you writing on social media are destroying what remains of those. Your disregard for grammar rules is diminishing its preciseness. Your sloppiness allows carelessness to creep into your thinking and that of your readers.

George Orwell would be appalled to learn how on social media emotion laden yet fact-free phrases substitutes for thinking that doesn't go deep enough to even get wet. Reverse course, oh slipshod scribes before it's too late.