Most liberal arts majors are familiar with the essay “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell. For those who haven’t read it, here’s the link to the short essay here. It’s not that long but for those who don’t want to read… Here are some of the key rules he discussed in his short essay.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell thought complexity and obtuse language equated to smoke and mirrors, hiding the reader or listener from the real point at hand. “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.” His essay was an attempt to provide a set of guidelines to increase the accessibility of topics discussed in political discourse.
As an undergrad, I was a total champion of Orwell and his teachings. I thought academic writing was too complex, policy wonks used technical jargon to keep their jobs, and simplicity was the ultimate measure of intelligence. In all honesty, a majority of my resentment for complexity and complicated stemmed from my hatred of the unreasonably long research papers I had to read and write…But I digress. In theory, yes, less is more in the political sphere, but what we’ve seen in recent years is the deliberate use of simplistic thoughts and talking points to create false and sometimes dangerous arguments for political benefit.
To be clear, both sides of the political isle use simplistic frameworks, analogies, plain talking points, and basic language to shape and frame their positions. This election cycle, we’re exposed to a great case study of how simple language can be detrimental to political discourse.
At 4:02- Donald Trump begins to discuss one of the central parts of his immigration policy…building a wall between Mexico and the Southern Boarder of the United States. Politics and practicality aside, listen for the words he uses. “We’re going to build a big wall… and its going to be beautiful.” Using Orwell’s set of rules, this passes for great rhetoric. He uses short and straight to the point words to define that he’s building a wall. Its going to be a big wall and it will be beautiful. From a listeners point of view, it leaves a lot to interpretation but it also assures the listener that it will cover their requirements… Big and beautiful. Take a step back for a moment at the implications. How many states does the wall go through? What is its height? How beautiful are we talking about here? I used this as an elementary example of Mr. Trumps word selection in policy and his speech. They are simple words but they leave leeway for creativity when put in the position to execute.
Bernie Sanders is known for his progressive politics and hard line stance on Wall Street. Politics aside…Listen to around 1:18…
“We bailed out Wall Street”
A couple of things to think about here. Who are Mr. and Mrs Street and why did they name their child Wall? Is wall street an established entity? If so, can we go talk to them about how they feel about being bailed out? The truth of the matter is that Wall Street and similar labels simplify the complexity of parties involved and the outcomes. Labels make it easier to vilify people or groups and create an us vs them mentality. We all know its way more complicated than we bailed out “Wall Street” but we allow and celebrate rhetoric that makes us feel like we are on the “right” side.
I could go on and on. There’s a lot of even better examples that happen everyday on CNN, MSNBC and Fox. We do ourselves a disservice by allowing elected officials (or those aspiring for it) to simplify complex issues so it can fit into sound bite or to hide the actual challenges involved. If Orwell is one extreme on a continuum and politicians today are all the way on the other end, I’m sure everyone would agree we need to move toward the middle ground where we respect the complexity of the issues we face.