21 January 2008

Trivialising Orwell

In December, the Sunday Times carried a column by Minette Marrin in which she wrote that

we all need as much seasonal cheer as possible so I suggest a new Christmas word game. It’s called Political Lexicon ... The idea is to come up with as many examples as possible, preferably new, of government Newspeak ... [Something you will find helpful in playing the game] is the Centre for Policy Studies’ 2008 Lexicon, a guide to contemporary Newspeak. I feel slightly proprietorial about this. The Centre for Policy Studies is a think tank and, at a lunch there recently, I suggested they might consider publishing a Political Lexicon. They have rapidly done so, inviting contributions from various writers, including a few from me. This useful document will appear next week.

Judging by Ms Marrin’s examples, the “useful document” sounds like a repeat of the Dictionary of Dangerous Words produced by the Social Affairs Unit in 2000 — a mildly amusing rant against the habitual use of words such as ‘counselling’ or ‘fascist’ in a leftist direction.

What happened to the word 'institutional', as in 'institutional racism' in the Macpherson report, is alarming. Institutional means something that is part of an institution, as Christianity is institutionalised in the Church of England. Now it means something vague and subjective that is genuinely hard to define, but is a useful term of condemnation.

So the word ‘institutional’ is now supposed to have slightly sinister overtones. I’m not actually convinced this is so, except in very specific cases, but does this represent Newspeak? Surely the point is not that ‘institutional’ is an invalid expression, but that what it’s expressing may be an invalid claim: e.g. the claim that racism is not only endemic in the police force, but in some ways is actually built into that institution’s structures.

In rather the same way 'mental health' these days actually means 'mental illness'. A distinguished public figure wrote a letter to The Times mentioning the stigma of a 'mental health diagnosis'.

Is there something sinister about using the world ‘health’ to denote deviations from health? I find it hard to get worked up about that one.

Children in the care of the state are now officially called 'looked-after children'. In fact, looked-after children means children who are not looked after, owing to the incompetence of the relevant authorities, and who are far more likely than other children to be lost, prostitute, illiterate, unemployed or in jail.

There is more of a point here, but I’m not sure it is made particularly well. By referring to children in its care as ‘looked-after’, the state creates the automatic presumption that they are, indeed, looked after, when this should be treated as something which needs to be questioned and empirically demonstrated. It’s not that one should assume that children in care are treated badly, but rather that it should never be automatically assumed that they’re treated well.

'Address', as in address the real issue, means avoid the real issue.

Well yes, possibly. But haven’t governments always tended to use this kind of euphemism?

'Celebrate', as in celebrate achievements, means to use taxpayers’ money to promote the government ... 'Celebrate', as in celebrate diversity, means compulsory approbation. If you feel doubtful about diversity in any approved forms you are an unperson.

An example of anti-PC, expressed a little dogmatically. Worthwhile saying, and mildly amusing, but hasn’t this joke been made a number of times before?

There seems to be a mixture of two things here. A) Relatively tame euphemisms. We can all shake our heads and mumble about the misuse of language by politicians, without actually thinking about the more serious ways in which our worldview is being fundamentally shifted. B) Assertions that the official line is a lie: e.g. children are being abused by the state; references to ‘celebrating’ British culture are really about promoting the Labour government. While these assertions may be true, do they make people think about the broader misuse of language by all members of the cultural establishment, not just by Labour politicians?

Orwell’s point in 1984 wasn’t just about the corruption of words, it was about how a complete transformation of meaning can be used to prevent criticism. Cartoonising this observation — to make it something about how euphemisms can be used to conceal — blurs the issue, and detracts attention from the more important idea.

It is interesting, incidentally, to compare the position of organisations such as Oxford Forum with that of think tanks such as the Centre for Policy Studies. Oxford Forum has no political position, and it certainly has no ties with any political party. It exists to give a voice to intellectual perspectives which are being neglected or suppressed. The CPS, like most think tanks, has links to one of the political parties, and a fairly clear agenda. So explicitly right wing culture actually finds it easier to survive in a mediocracy than culture which is merely sceptical about the dominant ideology.

The CPS’s pamphlet seems a relatively unhelpful contribution to the debate, and one whose material doesn’t really deserve the description ‘Newspeak’.

I have more time for Steven Poole’s Unspeak, which at least shows evidence of analytical thought, even if it mostly seems to be of a blatantly politically motivated kind. E.g. from his chapter on ‘freedom’ (p.209):

markets, being essentially consensual hallucinations, depend on confidence, but calls to ‘reassure’ them on one point or another are often made for unstated ideological reasons, if not to disguise a simple motive of private profit.

Poole makes an interesting observation here, but misses the point. In an entirely free market, the state would not intervene at all, and ‘reassurance’ would be irrelevant. It’s the fact that there is a good deal of intervention by relatively opaque government agencies such as the Federal Reserve which leads to the need for clarification of their intentions from time to time, in order to avoid uncertainty. Information (provided it’s reliable) is generally a good thing, uncertainty/ignorance a bad thing, and information asymmetries may require a good deal of signalling where markets are concerned.

George Orwell died 58 years ago today.

Steven Poole replies.