Thursday, February 21, 2013

Orwell, clarity, language and power

There is an odd strain of 'anti-Orwellianism' starting to appear, as evidenced in this essay in the New Statesman, in which the author argues that Orwell's famous correlation between insincerity and long words is no longer true, that indeed,"When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity."

I have some sympathy with the view that:
There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another.
And I tend to agree that literary language is sometimes needlessly austere, as is the mantra to show and not tell.

But, having been confronted with a fair share of official bullet points and managerial language, I would say that bullet points can be perfectly deceptive in their plainness, and that the language of policy remains one of vagueness, distortion and opacity, where acronyms, keywords and catch-phrases (plain though they may be) conceal intention as surely as Latinate phrases.

Although Orwell favoured clear, plain language, I'm sure he was under no illusion that short words and blunt sentences in and of themselves could not be used to conceal political intentions. Long words, circumlocutions, were in Orwell's time the marker of political deception. Now talking points, market-speak and bullet-points have the same function. My only reservation is that the later also corrupt and diminish thought, making the liar duller rather than devious -- but then this is what newspeak was for.