America’s Orwellian Problem: Political Language and Democracy

He said it better...

He said it better…

Every undergrad in America today knows the term “Orwellian.” It’s pretty quickly inserted into the armory of would-be political scientists and armchair philosophers as a means of describing discourse that is designed to serve political ends and obfuscate truth. And like any good political term, can apply in a variety of places depending on one’s proclivities. Of course, George Orwell himself probably wouldn’t have been so flexible in his use of it. He was a forceful critic of public writing, and contributed greatly to our understanding of the coded meanings behind words. His most famous work, 1984, was a thesis on the topic of political communication and its role in supporting the unsupportable in public life. That the term “Orwellian” is best applied to the most monstrous terms (collateral damage, quantitative easing, or my personal favorite, irrational exuberance; I once got out of a speeding ticket by describing my recklessness in such terms) is a testament to the enduring power of his insights, though one wonders how he would feel about his name being appropriated in such a way.

Of course, Orwell’s concern was with totalitarianism. He was greatly impacted by the fascist and communist moments that grew out of the chaos of the early twentieth century, and particularly his disillusionment over the failure of the international communist movement under the yolk of the Stalinists. For most people, these events have lost all context in light of what followed, but during Orwell’s lifetime, the struggle was still a very real one.

His insight was simple: the language of totalitarianism must be obtuse; it must encourage loyalty while committing to nothing. At its most sophisticated, the ideal totalitarian society is able to slip around meaning like and ice cube in a skillet. Totalitarians need to reshape the linguistic landscape in order to serve their own ends. After all, hierarchies take a lot of energy and attention to maintain, and language can make a highly effective cage. Of course, notwithstanding paranoid delusion, an open society like ours would struggle to develop a system as profoundly corrupting as INGSOC or Newspeak simply because the necessary political will and centralization of power cannot exist in a country as big and diverse as the United States. As such, our experience is different. American totalitarianism is the somewhat accidental development of our inherent populism. Our most Orwellian practices are an outgrowth of our mass politics, and derives from the inherent laziness of both those who communicate and those who listen.

Consider the word “freedom.”

The word is a blanket. It’s warm, reassuring, and total in its coverage. It’s also devoid of any real shared meaning. No two people will ever define such a lofty condition the same way. Imagining freedom is a lot like imagining heaven or the perfect Sunday. When a presidential candidate declares that “freedom works” or a public figure puts forth the idea that “my obligation is to [my fellow man’s] freedom,” they practice American Orwellianism. After all, freedom means something to me, but in the end, it doesn’t mean much. It is an ideal; an airy, almost purposeless word designed to separate the world of the “free” from the “not free.” Perhaps it makes some sense in the context of crime and punishment, but when used to describe public life or the outcomes of policy, the term is completely meaningless. When politicians abuse these terms, they must believe that they speak a language that Americans understand. They’re purpose is to rally the public and earn broad support for their ideas. But that very ambiguousness transmutes the word instead into a point of public controversy. “Freedom” becomes a touchpoint from which all dialogue can break down, and conflict can rule over debate. This is how power can remain unexamined in a democracy: by stripping the content from words and by turning debate into hollow ritual rather than an exercise in problem solving. Cheer when they champion “liberty,” scream when they talk about “hope.”

And this is what Orwellian language really looks like in the United States. We establish political orthodoxy not by remaking minds, but instead by allowing them the freedom to range around the broadest of platitudes. Rather than seeking to create consensus, we use language to hollow out debate. Why persuade, when the darkness of ignorance is so much simpler? The language we speak around politics becomes hopelessly vague and incapable of communicating meaning at all. Instead of concentrating power through the reinvention of concepts, American Orwellianism divorces words from any meaning whatsoever. The language of public life, rather than conveying anything as complex as Doublethink, simply chooses to say nothing with great fanfare.

Nowhere is this problem more evident in the debate over religious freedom in the United States. How is it that both sides of this argument can seem to have so much fuel for their position? Surely, one side must be demonstrably correct. But they aren’t. The real debate is over the idea of freedom; ill-defined, poorly conceived, yet beyond criticism. The word is designed to gin up feelings without reflectio, and hope without aim. We should all be very frightened when politician promises to provide us with actionable “freedom.”

But the abuse of English doesn’t stop there. You could go on at great length: Conservative, Liberal, the Family (picket fence or tenement?), Hard-Working Americans (that’s you right?), concepts like “the American Way.” These are coded communications to individuals designed to invoke certain predictable, often antagonistic reactions. They’re also useless generalizations. Totally doubleplus ungood. And we throw them out like antibiotics with almost the exact same effect on the mind of the body politic: they leave us defenseless in the face of reality.

Of course, the problem of American Orwellianism becomes apparent when you try to define these things as policy platforms. But I don’t seek to point the finger of blame at any particular set of people. No matter what side of a political issue you come down on, it’s likely that you are, at some point, trapped by an idea whose very meaninglessness supports a whole range of nonsense. Such self-deception is a form of faith that sits at the heart of the American political dialogue. It also strips the voting public of any way of communicating effectively with itself, an essential component of a democracy.

Now, did you nod your head, or did you find yourself wondering what I meant by the word “democracy?”

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