“[…] And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must! The sooner the better! It is essential — I know it.”
(E. Zamyatin, “We”, 1924)
Definitions and Reality
In the past month we have talked about words, their fraudulent use, and their influence on our life. We also talked about the human desire to be part of something bigger, and how many totalitarian regimes in history have done nothing but offer this possibility to millions of people. In this short interlude I would like to ask a question that partly concerns what we have discussed.
The question I would like to ask is inspired by the Italian political and social situation, but this does not mean that it can be less valid for those who live in other countries where a similar situation is present. The question is:
If a Country where the misuse of language has led to a situation of social pressure such as to question freedom of expression, without the use of real coercive means, but only through strong social harassment, can that country still be defined a democracy?
The first answer I would have to give, if asked to me, would be simple: “The vote is secret, so where is the problem? Nobody would ever know if you say that you vote X and then you vote Y instead”. As an old, anti-communist slogan of the Christian Democrats in the postwar years states: “In the secret of the urn, God sees you, Stalin does not”.
And that’s a good observation. Almost.
But let’s consider the whole thing from a broader perspective.
Let’s think about what is created in the time before one enters that cabin. We have talked about the insincerity of political language and the confusion it creates when it spreads between civil society: how conscious can a citizen be, considered exercising his or her right under this form of “self-hypnosis”, to which society, media, parties, colleagues, friends, family subjected it? How much social pressure can the average individual withstand? And how much democratic institutions can?
Electoral propaganda has always been part of the game, since politics has existed.
But in this case we talk about confusion caused on purpose. To what extent, empty a word (or, well, many words) of their meaning, can undermine democratic institutions to the point that they can no longer be considered such?
Democracy derives from the Greek (δημοκρατία, dēmokratiā, from dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’) and, over the centuries, its political theory has developed up to our concept of liberaldemocracy, with the balance of powers, the rule of law and the individual rights. But the basic concept remains: rule of the people. And what happens then, if the people have developed and internalized a different “Meaning” of all this? Or worse, if it is not aware of any meaning at all?
In short: if the “meaning” of Institutions and basic democratic principles had been profoundly altered, can we still claim to be in a Democracy?
[Obviously the subject is complex and will certainly be treated in further writings. This short piece is intended to ask the reader a question that I have been asking myself for quite some time. I would be really happy to know what your thoughts are in this regard.]
“Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.” (“1984”)
The Last Man in Europe(Is not Alone)
Welcome back, my Friends
Having expounded, in the four previous writings, George Orwell’s idea of how writing and thought influence each other, creating that vicious circle which he believed was inexorably leading to the slow decay of our society, and which is initially exposed in a small 1945 pamphlet “Politics and the English Language” and then in his best known novel, “1984”.
The “Imitative Lifeless Style” that we absorb every day from the surrounding world, and which we replicate as two-way radios in daily life, leads us to speak / write worse and worse, which in turn leads us to have thoughts that are increasingly trivial and automatic, until it is not these linguistic prefabs that think for us, leaving our brains in the blissful world of unconsciousness.
As the philosopher Karl Jasper said:
“In the broadest sense, involuntary imitations belong to suggestive phenomena… The individual loses control of himself in the crowd. Not because he gets enthusiastic about himself, but because the crowd infects him, so passions spread; fashions and customs have their origin in this imitation … We judge, evaluate, take a stand, simply resuming, against the will and without knowing it, the judgments and evaluations of others. We have not evaluated, judged, taken a stand by us at all, and yet we have the feeling of taking a personal stand. This adoption of the judgments of others without one’s own judgment is called the suggestion of judgment … But the suggestions can also be intentional” (from “Allgemeine Psychopathologie” [General Psychopathology], 1913)
And after all, what do we primarily use to do all this? Our words and expressions, in short, our language (verbal or not).
Imitation is a human phenomenon, and it is what for a certain part makes us what we are. It cannot be ascribed as a positive or negative itself, but it can take on catastrophic dimensions when it lacks of elaboration, or when it lacks empathy.
The various propaganda posters, taken from four dictatorial regimes of the 20th century, show us the answer to a need that many feel in their life: to be part of something greater than themselves. Each dictatorship primarily aims to constitute a cohesive and obedient group (apparently threatened on all sides, but we will talk about this another time). And what better foundation than a base of people who do not think, using all the same words to “hypnotize” each other, in a trance that has only one Body, because it has only one Voice?
The worst thing is feeling excluded from it, and therefore in return destined for mortality, oblivion. It is no coincidence that one of the provisional titles of “1984” was “The Last Man in Europe“. Language is something we need to connect with the rest of the world, interpret it, make it our own, but it can be used, even involuntarily in the worst case, for the opposite process: it is it which “makes us his”, imposes an interpretation of the world and to ensure that everything that is not “within the parameters” is excluded.
The alienation of the individual is the strongest weapon in the hands of an authoritarian policy, and hitting a wall of “imitations” is as alienating as waking up in a country whose language we don’t know at all. The stronger the misunderstanding becomes, the stronger the loneliness, the exclusion, the sense of no longer being welcome in one’s home. Because speaking that thoughtless imitative language will not be the members of an esoteric sect, but your friends, relatives, parents, neighbors and loved ones.
Always keep this image in mind.
You have to keep it in mind because the only point from which we can start again is ourselves, and, more than others, those who decided that would make words their job.
Orwell, in the ending of “Politics and the English Language”, proposes six rules to follow when writing or composing a speech. But I do not intend to expose them in this paper: it would only result in a long discussion on how much, how, and why they could (or not) fit to our presente situation, and it is not what interests us, nor ultimately what Orwell would have wanted: repeating a series of “commandments” and using them as a sort of guideline for writing is nothing more than trying to escape from an “imitative style” to take refuge within another.
However, there are two specular issues on which, after this long reflection, we can find a starting point: what the defense of language implies and what does not imply and all that follows:
The defense of a language does not imply questions of Archaism and the preservation of obsolete terms and expressions, but rather shuns their use, having exhausted their usefulness in formulating a “contemporary” thought; it has nothing to do with the correct use of grammar and syntax (not that knowing how to make use of faults, but you can write perfectly and still trigger a “negative” imitative process); it has nothing to do with the excessive use of “foreign” terms or with having what is called a “good style of prose”.
Instead, it has to do with something that often escapes us, precisely out of habit and imitation: it is from the meaning that we must start choosing the words, and not the other way around.
We have to start from the base, even when we speak in an abstract way, let’s take it as if we were talking about an object: what are we describing? What are we talking about when we write justice, freedom, democracy, equality, dictatorship, oppression? And if we’re not the ones talking, ask: don’t let an expression or term pass for good, just because we all take it for granted that we all mean the same thing.
From definitions it is more difficult to escape with slogans or long turns of words. Try this experiment with yourself.
The adversaries to be fought are insincerity and the confusion it generates: these are the two elements that lead to the imitative process to take off, and subsequently to perpetuate itself within politics, the media and society as a whole. Altering, or canceling, our thinking, they modify our perception of reality, which however does not stop existing, and sooner or later it will present to us a salty bill from which we will not be able to escape by taking refuge in unconsciousness.
It is a political and social issue that can no longer be ignored. Every day, every hour, every conversation made in this way eats a piece of our freedom of thought, and do not consider yourself too intelligent or cultured not to fall into it: this same text is full, like the previous ones, and as it was in the ‘ 45 “Politics and the English Language” of these structures.
I said that the process of deterioration is reversible, but it will not happen in a year, in a decade and perhaps an entire generation will not be enough: we cannot change things alone and we certainly cannot force others to change suddenly. But we can start with ourselves, with our habits, from writing and speech and with writing and speech. If we do not leave “the Last Man in Europe” alone, he will cease to be such, and to feel irresistibly attracted to an all-encompassing reality in which he can “disappear”.
I would like to conclude the last post of this series with what for me represents the summary, in a few simple and short words of what Orwell wanted to express, and of what I tried to explain to extended, perhaps with non-witty words but I hope the same understandable. A sentence that accompanies me from the days when I was immersed in an already quoted dystopic novel, and that I try to always keep in mind, like a lantern light facing towards the overwhelming darkness outside:
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
“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)
The Thought of the ThoughtlessCitizen
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.
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:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the […] language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Our Linguistic “Vicious Circle”
Welcome back to the third part of this series of writings. Today we will analyze what we could define the cardinal principle of this little pamphlet:
How language and thought influence each other, creating an “organic” system and not a simple communication system;
The last time we left with a post that wanted to explain how the “linguistic question” is not just a problem related to academics and professors, but is part of a social and political struggle that we carry on our own every day. This concept was put forward as a premise given the highly academic nature of the debate, which we do not intend to enter, but to involve you and make you reflect on the issue from an “everyday” point of view.
For clarity, I will introduce the concept known as Linguistic Relativity or “Sapir – Whorf Hypothesis”, which states that the structure of language influences the knowledge and vision of the world of the speaker / writer, and that, therefore, the perception of the world that people have is relative to the language they speak.
It was formulated at the beginning of the twentieth century by the two scientists from which it takes its name: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (although the two have never actually written anything together) and is usually presented according to two different principles:
The strong version says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories (and for this Is also known as “Linguistic Determinism”)
The weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.
While the first hypothesis was already considered wrong in the early 1920s, as a legacy of 19th century theories, the second has proved, with ups and downs, to be of some empirical validity.
In short, what the studies focused on was the comparison between the SAE (Standard Average European, a synthesis of the characteristics of Western languages) and completely foreign languages, such as the language of the Hopi Indians or the Inuit, trying to understand whether, and how the presence (or absence) of certain words or expressions could affect, and to what extent, an individual’s world view. The debate was very heated at first, and in some ways it still is today, after Cognitivism has “rediscovered” the studies on the subject, in particular those of Whorf. As already said, it is not my intention to go into this debate, but only to expose and explain the point of view of Orwell, who in his writing focuses only on the English language and compares several writings.
In his paper Orwell hypothesizes that the key factor through which the language we use affects our thinking is the lack of clarity in the act of expressing what one wants to say. In his own words:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” (Politics and the English Language)
So, while over the years scientific hypotheses have focused above all on the absence or presence of certain words or expressions within this or that language, which would therefore lead to a change in behavior and way of thinking, Orwell focuses instead on the use (conscious or not) that is made of certain terms, word or expression.
Both in “Politics and the English Language” and later, in “1984”, Orwell focuses strongly on this aspect: “[…] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. ” (Ibid.)
The decline he notice in the English language and society (but also within others) is perceived through the continuous use of “dying metaphors”, false verbal forms (ie the use of complex periphrases instead of simple verbs that could indicate the same meaning), a pretentious diction, a wide use of rhetoric and terms (often technical or scientific) completely out of context.
According to Orwell, therefore, not only is it possible that language influences thought, but also that this can be done (and is effectively implemented, especially when it comes to a political discourse) in a deliberate way, in the beginning by the professional writers. From there then, the bad attitude spreads until it becomes an integral part of current language, which, with its “Ugliness” (intended as the sum of the previously listed problems) ends up influencing our way of thinking and seeing the world, and consequently also our political action as Citizens (in the highest sense of the term).
Not surprisingly, when three years after “Politics and the English Language”, the novel “1984” is published for the first time, this discourse will be found once again, proposed to us in a metaphorical form, as the most powerful tool in the hands of the ruling class of the totalitarian state of Oceania. Orwell called this fictional language “Newspeak”, and imagined how the dominant party, the IngSoc (short for English Socialist Party), used this construct, consisting of a restricted vocabulary and a simplified grammar (in the idea, as we shall see , which “simple” is not synonymous with “clear”) in order to limit freedom of thought, self-expression and finally free will, considered as the greatest threats to the survival of the regime, and which were prosecuted as “Thougtcrimes”.
As I have already stated previously, the criticism that the writer makes to the decay of language has nothing to do with a criterion of “Aesthetics”: it is problematic as it goes hand in hand with the decay of thought and subsequently with the greater possibility that people can be manipulated, losing their freedom in a subtle, and essentially unconscious, way.
In the novel, the “Newspeak” is created in such a way to eliminate any kind of nuance of thought (under the pretext, paradoxically, of eliminating the ambiguities of the “Oldspeak”) and has a vocabulary in which single words have several functions. Speech itself has a “staccato” rhythm, with words short and easy to pronounce: all this with the pourpouse to make verbal communication a sort of automatism for which there is no need to think.
The division of the world imagined in “1984” obviously reflects the feelings of a writer who lived the dawn of the Cold War, with the world divided into enormous “super-states” (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) which have just one thing in common: the use of language as an instrument of control (but it would be more correct to speak of elimination) of thought.
And it is indeed curious to note how today, the adjective “Orwellian” never evokes this image or a reflection of this kind, but a terror directed towards technological control instruments or supranational entities. Not so strange anyway, if we accept the fact that this degenerative mechanism of Language continues to plague us even today, and that even Orwell’s work also ended up macerating itself within this perverse process.
Despite the (fortunate) absence of dystopian regimes, the main problem exposed by Orwell in his works continues to persist and grow larger, aided by the development of ever faster and more interconnected means of communication. Many small “dystopias” (which we have given the name of “echo chambers”) can develop within them, created by a fraudulent use of language.
Each of us has his own personal IngSoc, his own Newspeak and his own “Thougtcrimes” for which he will have to answer if violates Orthodoxy. Our personal “Big Brother” watches us and often prevents us from seeing things as they are, because it prevents us from thinking clearly, binding us through the complex web of language we use, no matter with whom or in what situation, and it is only our own task “to shake it off”.
If only we wanted to.
[The next article will be closely related to the present, and will further develop the theme, so stay whit us]
“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
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.
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.
“That was the ultimate subtlety:consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” (1984)
George Orwell’s legacy in the 21st Century
Who doesn’t know George Orwell (whose real name was actually Eric Arthur Blair)? Even just by hearsay, he is recognized as an author that had a primary role in the creation dystopian literature: his best known novel, “1984”, published in 1948, two years before his death, is perhaps the one that more than any other it is rooted in the collective imagination as a metaphor for the power, violence and control exercised by a totalitarian state.
I still remember that rainy night, in the bunk of a train while everyone else was sleeping, finishing that book in the light of a small flashlight. Looking back on that day, i can say it was, together with a few others, one of the few really significant books in my life. From that day on, there was no turn back.
The 117th anniversary of the writer’s birth occurred on June 25, and the following quote was popping up everywhere: “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act“.
The fact is, that quote is not from Orwell, but is only attributed to him.
This made me think. Of all the production of an intelligent, far-sighted and sagacious author, nearly everyone goes to get an “attributed” quote to pay him omage. Strange? Yes and no.
The next day I went to look for another of Orwell’s work in my library, a small pamphlet entitled “Politics and the English Language“, first published in 1945. Rediscovering this little book was a real pleasure, no doubt about it: in just twenty pages the writer’s pen traces what will become the theoretical framework behind his novels, and that today, 75 years after its writing, still shows the true problem of our society.
If you are thinking about surveillance cameras everywere, high-tech control instruments, spy smartphones, and all that “Big Brother Is Watching You” kind of imagery, you are out of the way. As the title says, the author’s reflection is on Language (in this case English, but anyone can safely think of their language and the reasoning will not change), what we do with (and to) it and what it does to us.
For anyone who assimilated the concepts Orwell wanted to express in his writings, the question was already glaring. For many others, however, the writer’s imagination has turned exactly into what he fought against: banal metaphors, sloppy writing, “imitative style”.
Considering all the time that has passed, obviously we will have to “rethink” some statements, which could seem “out of date”. The fundamental point is another, or how much Orwell’s sharp thinking has managed to grasp a mechanism that has accompanied the development of society (not only the British one, on which the writer dwells, but the world one, given the diffusion and development increasingly immediate and sophisticated communication systems, and the spread of the English language as a “Lingua Franca” over the course of seven decades.
Before introducing the fundamental concept, I would like to illustrate the four points that the writer takes into consideration to elaborate his theory:
How language and thought influence each other, creating an “organic” system and not a simple communication system;
How, already in the period in which the book was written, there was a phenomenon of “Automatic Construction” of the sentences and what this implies in relation to the previous point;
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;
What “Defending Language” means (and what it does not mean), and how (and if) it is possible to do so;
The four points listed above will be analyzed in detail in as many weekly articles: if it is true that everything is well expressed by the writer in a few pages, it is equally true that the issues deserve a more in-depth analysis, and also a “historical” look: as mentioned previously, almost eighty years have passed and, however “actual” it turns out to be analysis, Orwell was not a seer and certainly could not imagine any change that occurred within our way of expressing ourselves and any developement our society.
For my part, I believe that the focal point of this particular paper (and of Orwell’s subsequent production, up to “1984”) is that through language all of us, as a society, are fighting a War. A war which, like the others, is political, economic and social, and which even involves victims. Each one of us is, consciously or unconsciously, involved. And that if, as the author says, the fundamental goal of a “Good Writing” is to obtain “clarity and comprehensibility”, I can safely say that over the course of these decades we have lost many battles.
With this statement it is not my intention to instill a sense of depression or to declare surrender: only the point is made of a situation that is very compromised, and whose borders have grown larger and larger over the years: in some ways “fossilizing” and for others progressing at a staggering speed (in particular from a “technological” point of view). What I mean is that not only must we act, but we must do it critically, with strategy. To do this we must take back the legacy left to us by Orwell, and start from where he left us: observing and analyzing the language and its relationship with our reality.
The War is not over. We can still reverse the process.
I have a hard time imagining who and how he can take up such an appeal, or what idea he can make of it. But after all, I would like to reiterate that this is not a place to make “Proclamations”. I hope that as I have explained the different issues, everything becomes clearer. I believe that for now, obtaining intellectual contributions and observations on the phenomenon may already be a great step in itself and a way to resume observing a question which, I repeat, is not the prerogative of only the academics who deal with the “branch”, but it is something that concerns us very closely, from how we behave, express (or do not express), communicate and write every day.
Take this writing and those that follow not as a decadent criticism, but as an idea for a new beginning.