Showing posts with label free speech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label free speech. Show all posts

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 privelge 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."