George Orwell warned us in a 1946 essay that imprecise political language leads to corrupt thought. He was concerned about how governments and politicians covered up the evil they were doing. Euphemisms made atrocities sound like mundane occurrences. Jargon and pretentious words lent an air of unwarranted scientific validity to ideas. Meaningless words camouflaged lies.
Orwell’s essay cites many examples of political speech in what he called a “catalogue of swindles and perversions.” Most of those examples are equally applicable 75 years later. Most striking are words he describes as “meaningless,” such as patriotism, socialism, democracy, and freedom. Those words are meaningless, said Orwell, because people don’t agree upon definitions—and likely don’t want to agree. In his time, the term “Fascism” had simply come to mean “something not desirable,” while democracy was ascribed to a wide range of regimes, presumably, those that were strategic alliances.
Today’s political discourse continues this dishonest use of meaningless words—maybe even takes it to a new level. Words and phrases are used as weapons. Instead of reasoned arguments, political speech has become the art of calling up hazy prejudices by linking an issue, policy, or person with a meaningless word, a hodge-podge of negative images, an unpopular public figure. This works well with people who don’t read much, people who are too busy to study issues or listen to speeches, people who tend to stick with one party or care only about one issue.
Read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language here.