The War of the Wor(l)ds – IV

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“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (Politics and the English Language)

 C. R. W. Nevinson, The Soul of the Soulless City, 1920 (Tate Britain)

The Thought of the Thoughtless Citizen

Here we are, back again,

In the last week’s paper, I tried to explain how, according to Orwell (first in his book “Politics and the English Language” and then in his most famous novel “1984”), thought and language influence each other, creating a vicious circle that each of us perpetuates in a more or less conscious way, and in a more or less acute way, in the course of his life, even in mundane, everyday, conversations.

As stated in the previous article, we are not dealing with the issue only as a matter of linguistics or psychology: we are looking, above all, at the Political side of the problem and what derives from it. If, as theorized by Paul Watzlawick, one cannot not communicate, and every act, even silence, is an act of communication, and we add to this Orwell’s statement: “every issue is a political issue”, it will be easy for you to understand that we are constantly moving through a minefield.

We have seen how, beyond the different theories on how language and thought influence each other, Orwell identifies a specific problem in our way of communicating, especially when the discourse is a political one: insincerity.

Using words to mask one’s thoughts is the central point of the theory that Orwell intends to expose: in “Politics and the English Language”, we have an invective against the constructions of unnecessarily complex periods, full of pomposity, misplaced technical terminology and long laps of words that could be replaced by a single word: which usually Is the one you don’t want to pronounce. In “1984” we have “Newspeak” instead, with an extremely simplified grammar, sentences that use as few terms as possible (which in the novel are knowingly eliminated), excluding any nuance or “deviation” from simple thoughts with a clear meaning (even if, in literary fiction, predetermined by IngSoc).

The apparent contradiction of inveighing against an excessively complex language and then satirizing an excessively simplified one is resolved in an easy way if we are not thinking about the structure of the language, but instead about its purpose.

In both works, the author wants to warn us against the fraudulent use of language, and how this process affects our way of thinking. It doesn’t matter if the person doing it uses one variant or the other, “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style” (Politics and the English Language).

There is essentially no difference between an abstruse Communist political statement in a 1950s newspaper and the slogan repeated by a contemporary politician on a Social Network, since both of them pursue the same aims: the first is to conceal one’s own intentions, or the surrounding reality; the second is to impose a “model”: the diffusion and the mechanism of imitation created by the continuous use of certain words, phrases or expressions, according to Orwell, slowly leads to the cancellation of thought itself.

The moment we begin to speak through the words of others, whether this is imposed on us or not, we begin to think with the words of others, and, progressively, we inhibit our cognitive process, allowing the words and expressions of the “model” to do the work for us. This is what I was referring to when I spoke of “automatic constructions”: when we try to formulate a thought, to answer a question or to analyze a situation, we often do not see it for what it is, but we filter it through a “model” of language that forms thoughts automatically for us.

This prevents us from thinking clearly, calling things by their names, and ultimately seeing them for what they are.

Edward Munch, Evening on Karl Joan Street (1892),
KODE Art museums and composer homes

This is all the more true (and harmful) when it comes to “abstract” concepts. As Orwell states in “Politics and the English Language”:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable”. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

If we wanted to borrow terms from Linguistics or Semiotics, we could speak of Signifier and Signified. To put it simply, the Signifier is the “word” we use to describe something, which is the Signifier (or the meaning, if we want).

As long as we talk about “concrete” objects, the problem basically does not arise: a chair is a chair, it doesn’t matter if we decide to describe it starting from the legs or the back. In this case the question is elementary: first we start from an object and then we use terms to describe it, we have the “obstacle” of concreteness that gives us little room for “movement”.

The exact opposite happens, instead, when we talk about abstract concepts: in that case we must necessarily think starting from the words, and it is there that we associate “our” Meaning, in the best of cases, or that of someone else, which we believe Is equal to ours, to the Signifier.

Or none at all, in the worst case scenario.

This is because the ultimate result of this process, whether we like it or not, is precisely the absence of thought behind what we want to write/talk about. When there is no conscious choice when formulating a sentence or delivering a speech, is there that the words we have “swallowed” over the years (from books, newspapers, radio, TV, internet, it doesn’t matter) assemble themselves together in a construction that only makes sense in appearance, but which in essence is empty, since no reflection was made when it was formulated, no words were considered, but they were only stucked together to give the “impression” of a meaning behind the whole thing.

“In a way, the world-wiew of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it. They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening. By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind.” (“1984”)

As already mentioned, fiction is fiction, and there is no “IngSoc” that is striving to take over the World (Sorry, conspiracy theorists). But we see the process described in the quotation above at work every day, since imitation is a human phenomenon and because so many little “Big Brothers” are concerned with imposing their own vision of the world on those who have become progressively unable to “fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them”. You can choose the version you prefer: long and abstruse press releases or advertising slogans: the result will not change.

I am reasonably sure that each of you has seen this process in action, no matter how old you are and how much you love public debate. You have certainly spoken or listened to someone who has gone through this process very strongly. You recognize them easily because it is impossible to reason with them about anything: since their thoughts have progressively been replaced by “automatic” words and phrases, whether they are the slogans of some imaginative Spin Doctor or a long and articulate speech taken from a book of philosophy. Even when logic seems to breach a remote part of their mind, even a few minutes are enough to make them go back into the comforting arms of unconsciousness.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it seems to be talking to some kind of robots.

Thats because they cannot rework the concepts they have “swallowed”, because they have never made them their own but they have taken and repeated them as they were; they cannot elaborate new ones because due to the imitative process their ability to think autonomously has atrophied (or, in the case of the elderly, stopped at a certain period, which corresponds to the one in which the process began); they cannot give it up, as this would involve an enormous effort to rebuild their entire worldview.

This is the weakness that Orwell exposed seventy years ago first in “Politics and the English Language” and then in “1984”: the lifeless imitative style undermines the basis of our ability to think for ourselves, which in turn annihilates our ability to relate to the surrounding world, making us manipulable like weather vanes.

This is what ultimately replaces our sense of citizenship, and brings society more and more to the brink: how can you fight Fascism, if in your head it is only synonymous with “undesirable”? How can you defend Democracy if you are unable to define what it is? How can you preserve your freedom, if the dictatorship is already inside your head?

The responsibility of perpetuating or not all this falls on our own shoulders: schools of all types and levels will not protect us, better newspapers or any other kind of “Good Media” will not raise as mushrooms, and all the culture you can promote will not be enough to block the mechanism. We created the IngSoc, it’s our duty ti destroy it. Because although apparently huge, this phenomenon was and is a human phenomenon, and therefore reversible like others. The last article in the series will be dedicated specifically to this:

What can we do to reverse the process?

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