The War of the Wor(l)ds – II

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“In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

(George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)

A Struggle for Everyone

Welcome back,

In this second part of the series “The War of the Wor(l)ds” I would like to analyze more in depth one of the four points taken into consideration by George Orwell in his paper “Politics and the English Language” where he builds the theory that would influence his later works, and which I find extremely actual, as only a writer like him could be.

I will not start from the first point I listed in the previous article, but from the third, that is:

  • How the problem exposed is not a question of “Sentimentalism”, “Archaism” or “Linguistic Luddism”, which only affects academics, but a political question of primary importance;

The motivation behind this choice is simple: we have never been used to considering language as something relevant in our life, but as a mere communication tool. Its study, and its uses, have an esoteric fashion and the speeches on the language are considered “academic” at best. So the first criticism that will come to mind when reading this series of writings will be something that evokes the image of professors locked in their own “Ivory Tower” arguing how many toes God has.

Nothing could be more wrong. And dangerous.

Ten years after the writing of this pamphlet, and five after Orwell’s death, i.e. in the mid-50s, what became known as the “Cognitive Revolution” began: an interdisciplinary work of psychology, linguistics, neurology, anthropology and philosophy that has radically changed our way of conceiving the mind and its processes. Scholars like George Miller or Noam Chomsky, just to name two, certainly need no introduction: since then our approach to the study of the mind and human behavior has been completely reversed.

But we will talk about this in later articles.

Six or seven decades later, however, the problem of the decay of language and how it relates to the decay of our society is still there, both as a case study and as a concrete problem. This in my opinion is due to the fact that massive academic efforts are not matched by as many educational efforts, thus bringing us back to the “Ivory Tower”.

How was this possible?

This vicious circle has reasons that go beyond the “pure” scientific dimension, and that we can understand more clearly if we look at them from a historical point of view: language is related to politics and economics (and, we will see, vice-versa), which in turn are linked to the Rule of Law and to what was once called “Civic Sense”. In recent years, at least the last thirty, under this point of view we have definitely let ourselves go.

T. Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom. Russia, Europe, America (Penguin, 2018)

In one of the latest works by the American historian Timoty Snyder, there are two concepts that could help us better understand the question: the first is named “Politics of Inevitability” and the second “Politics of Eternity”. In my opinion, these are two very important concepts, which we do not, however, have the opportunity to analyze in the way they deserve (which perhaps can be done later. For the moment we are only interested in the first of the two, and the definition given by the author in his book:

“The sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done. In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness.”

In this passage Snyder refers to what the Western world felt at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and thus to its victory at the end of the Cold War. If in 1945 Orwell described a world that was preparing itself for that confrontation, and for this the language “suffered” in the emergence of an ideological war, in this case we have the reverse process: language suffers from the lack of confrontation. If the future is predetermined, not only is there no need to do anything, but there is no longer need to think about anything.

If in Orwell’s book we find a critique of a language constructed in a complex, pretentious way, full of paraphrases, courtly metaphors and technical terminology out of context, aimed at hiding the ideas and intentions of those who write or speak, today we can say that the problem it is exactly reversed: the political discourse is made up for the most part of slogans, clichés and ambiguous statements which, in addition to hiding ideas and intentions in the same way, above all serve to hide the absolute emptiness that generated them.

In the same way, those who ask for a good use of the language, in 1945 were branded as an incurable romantic, one of those people who prefer candles to electric light, while today he is a “technocrat”, one of those who want to tangle and cheat the people with their “Latinorum”.

It is for this reason that, as stated at the beginning, the struggle for a correct use of language (and this too we will talk about later) is not a question that concerns only philologists or linguists, but is an integral part of the modern political struggle, one of the few ways in which we can really act, as citizens, towards the state, political and economic power.

If we are not able to preserve this, and we can only do it ourselves, we will never be able to stem the “bad atmosphere” that seems to have take control over our society. If we are not able, soon we will no longer be citizens, but subjects: the process of degradation has already been going on for a long, long time, and it is time to begin to climb the dangerous slope in which we are slipping.

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