Politics and Words

By John Murphy

Posted 10/7/08 at 3:52 AM


Image Journal’s website features a blog by Brian Volck on the slippery nature of words; more specifically, the language of this election season, and key words like “change.” Both parties claim to be the agents of change. What does it mean? How does a word or expression change in a given context? In politics, are words used to clarify or obfuscate? Can spin doctors contort and distort words to a shadow of their former meaning?

“Perhaps that’s one reason,” Volck observes, “why the political silly season rankles me: so many good words pulverized to processed junk, without affection for their natural history, cultivation, or provenance. Democratic traditions may build more quickly than topsoil, but both erode in great chunks if poorly tended.”

Volck’s blog post reminds me of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” Clear thinking is clear writing, is the argument the British writer put forward in that famous essay. By extension, clear language has moral agency, and deliberate euphemisms or contortions of language (say, the Nazis referring to the genocide of the Jews as “social restructuring”), contribute to the decay of language, and civilization:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”