Tag Archives: Philosophy

The U.S. Elections and the perils of the Illiberal Democracy

“In cauda venenum”

(Latin phrase traucibile as “The poison [is] in the tail”)

Protest groups have gathered outside vote counting centres across the US

Welcome back my friends,

This week, it was impossible not to deal in some way with the American elections of 2020, and as far as I am concerned I would like to do it in a particular way, exactly as this election was, which, I’m afraid, did not end here. On this blog we have dealt very often with those political systems called “Illiberal Democracies” or “Hybrid Systems”: a classification used to define those countries in which there is an authoritarian politics that for one reason or another enjoys strong popular support. We generally find this system in the countries that were part of the Soviet Bloc, but also in other realities around the world.

But this time it’s different: today we see this phenomenon at work even in completely different realities, with an important history of democracy behind it. This article aims to be a reflection on their development and on some of the factors that lead to the development of Illiberal models also in the West.

I decided to follow these elections closely for a “personal” matter: I wanted to verify as closely as possible what was happening in the United States, and, in the three days of counting required before Joe Biden was officially declared the winner, something I, and maybe nobody else, did not ever expected, happened.

Outgoing President Donald Trump announced he would give a speech, and, in unified networks, declared that the elections were rigged. Pandemonium has broken out. The television stations were even forced to interrupt the live broadcast, not being able to cross-question the president on his serious statements, and obviously fearing that there was an exaggerated reaction among the Republican electorate.

In a few minutes the word “Fraud” was on the lips of half the world, American and foreigner, for or against President Trump. Never expected such a thing, even from Trump. And it is even stranger, if I think of my country, Italy: here politicians and political parties declare electoral fraud before, during and after the elections, even if they win elections, not to mention all the times that somebody yelled for an ongoing coup d’état, obviously withouth any reason, and, needless to say, without any proof.

During the night (for us, in GMT +01) then, I came across this very good article by Professor Zeynep Tufekci published by the newspaper “The Atlantic”. In her article, Professor Tufekci highlights the “anomalies” of the Trump presidency (in the American context): its over-the-top TV star attitude, the compulsive use of social networks and the ever more striking promises, never realized. In addition, let us not forget, to far more dangerous ideas, such as his heavy abuse of presidential prerogatives, together with the diffusion of an idea of ​​State based on the concept of “herrenvolk democracy”, or rather on its ethnic-religious characterization (in this case, WASP), which should have “priority” over minorities, especially in matters concerning access to the welfare state and, in turn, to institutions.

In the article, a comparison is then made with other leaders who the professor considers somewhat similar to Trump: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. The warning that is thrown through this brief comparative analysis is that a more capable, future politician, without Trump’s grotesque excesses, might be able to inherit his legacy but without discredit, carrying out identical policies but with a “public figure” which is more institutional.

And it is at this point that the question finds me both in agreement and in disagreement.

Let me explain: the warning that Professor Tufekci launches is sacrosanct, since one of the main problem of the “Trump phenomenon” lies in the identification with the person. Those who support him, identify themselves with him, rather than in a political project or view. And the silence (or, worse, the support) that in recent days many Republican leaders have given in response to his narcissistic delirious is eloquent, it shows us how they do not know how to turn back, once supported all the abuses committed in recent years, and above all how to behave with their’s own electorate, which from now on will hardly accept someone more “moderate”.

Furthermore, this is not just a problem of a political side: Biden will have, for the next four years, to deal with more than 70 million voters who consider him a President detestable at best, and abusive in the worst. At the time I write, Trump has not yet conceded him the victory, despite his lawyers being turned down in every court they appeal to.

This involves two things: first It puts us in front of the “personalization” that this electoral campaign has had (I can only vote for Him vs I whould vote for everyone except Him), and the fact that the former President has decided (he or whoever for him) to launch his latest poisoned “tail shot”, creating a very dangerous climate of institutional delegitimation. These two factors, together, are the keys that open the doors to Illiberal Democracy.

Where is my disagreement, then?

It is in the models taken for example, which, in my opinion, are strongly decontextualized and fail to give an idea of ​​what can happen within a democratic system. Don’t take it as an academic habit: understanding “where” your country is going can really make the difference. And don’t take it as some kind of “prediction” either, because it’s happening right now, in the meantime you’re reading.

The countries cited as an example, rather than having intelligent politicians who win elections, all have in common a historically undemocratic background. Putin, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan were not necessarily “better” or “luckier” than Trump: they were instead able to exploit that illiberal streak already present in their society (even in those who opposed them) to take power. But on the contrary, the United States discovered this vein recently, or at least it became evident when someone went to dig to get it out. With it, however, also a strong opposition movement emerged, which in the end managed to prevail.

Unfortunately it is my opinion that the problems have only just begun.

And here is where the example of Italy comes in handy: despite the complete diversity of political systems (and their “scale”), Italy has had, and have (over time always to a lesser extent, unfortunately) a democratic spirit in its own way, and, although not as strong as in the US, it has withstood tremendous blows for decades, and now is on the verge of collapse. The United States is experiencing a phenomenon similar to the one that, for about twenty years, has gripped my country. Yes, I’m talking about Silvio Berlusconi and his legacy. Maybe you’ve heard of him (just in comparison to Trump) or maybe not.

In that case, a small summary may be useful to better understand why we are in this situation now. Berlusconi came to power with slogans that today would be called “anti-enstablishment”: he represented the outsider who challenged a sclerotic political system overwhelmed by corruption scandals. For twenty years he was, for better or for worse, the undisputed protagonist of our national politics, regardless of whether in power or not. Not unlike Trump, he treated “public affairs” as his property, he appeared as a showman, a histrionic television entertainer, a testimonial who had to sell a product, which was none other than his Party. He has never hidden his sympathies towards illiberal regimes (one above all, Vladimir Putin, but also, Muhammar Gaddafi) and his acquiescence towards the extreme right, of any kind, and he himself has always governed on the edge of the institutional context, pushing the powers of the state to clash on each other for personal pourpose.

For its part, the opposition merely said to its constituents “we are not Berlusconi” and little else. Surrendering on income and only managing to bring together coalitions and coarse and quarrelsome governments, without a vision other than to send the Black Man away and restore “national prestige”. It will be precisely in those years that an increasingly illiberal feeling will begin to manifest itself even in the opposite field: anything was lawful in order to strike Him.

For two decades the country was clearly split in two, and all attention was focused on the figure of Berlusconi.

When, at the end of 2011, he was forced to resign for bringing the country to the brink of bankruptcy in the context of the European Debt Crisis, we all (myself included) thought it was truly over. We were wrong. The drastic measures necessary to stem the economic problems he created throught the years allowed him to return to the fore one last time: conspiracy theories about “foreign interference” or a “White Golpe” orchestrated to make him resign became part of the mainstream debate (in fact they already were, but not to an extent so marked) and thanks to the promise to bring everything back as before (i.e. Make Italy Great Again) he was one step away from winning the elections again. Neither Berlusconi nor his party managed to regain the hegemonic role of the past, but the climate of constant confrontation remained, and this cancer had metastasized in Italian society.

But the worst was yet to come.

In fact, Berlusconi was out of the political game, but was quickly replaced by far more aggressive and undemocratic heirs. The personalization of politics and the de-legitimization of any institution had opened the doors to unscrupulous individuals, ready to do anything to enter the vacuum of power. Much more virulent and demagogic than their worthy predecessor, it took them just over 5 years to conquer the whole country, whit the help of new technologies and a more viral “marketing”, based on fake news (the good, old, lies) and conspiracy theories.

Even the most traditional media, such as newspapers and televisions, have done nothing but continue with the same behavior as before, but with new subjects who represented the “novelty of the day”, contributing with an “idiotic equanimity” putting intellegible debate and conspiratorial nonsense on the same level, when they did not directly leave these subjects free to speak, and to spread their “ideas” without any contradictory.

To date, they have a majority in parliament and in the country, while the democratic opposition has dwindled to a flicker.

Now the United States is facing a similar problem: a pathologically narcissistic President, after losing regular elections, has decided to poison the wells by claiming that there has been electoral fraud. Now 70 million of its supporters are more or less convinced that the System is rigged, empathizing with a character who presents himself as the victim of an unfair world, just like them. An explosive mixture, of which, observing what surrounds me every day, I can already anticipate the results.

In a Democracy, Society creates Institutions, in a Dictatorship, Institutions create Society. In an Illiberal Democracy, Society is viewed split into “Us and Them” and the institutions were used to increase the level of confrontation, necessary to strengthen the Parties involved and their respective electorates. Be aware that the real war begins now: if Americans (not just the President, or the politicians) fail to cut off the climate of perennial confrontation and delegitimization, together with the personalization of politics, they will not find themselves with another “more institutional Trump”, but with 70 million Trumps, narcissists, bullies and prone to victimization, and at that point it will become difficult to hope that they will simply go away.

In conclusion, the question is not whether or not the GOP is organizing itself to field the next Trump, and who he may be, the question is whether or not they can do otherwise. The other question is what can be done now to prevent the same situation from happening again, and thats a matter for all the american civil society. If the sole purpose of this election was to beat Trump, then in four years we will see another, and then another, until the phenomenon infects all politics in a game in which electors become mere “supporters” and democratic competition will have no purpose other than victory itself.

Paraphrasing Giorgio Gaber, a famous Italian songwriter: “Don’t be afraid of Trump himself, but be afraid of the Trump in yourself”.

I hope you found it interesting these few lines, and have made you understand what I mean (it would take the books, but at the moment we lack). Also a heartfelt thanks to all those who followed and commented with me during the election days, and to Professor Tufekci for the inspiration.

Stay Vigilant. Toghether.

The War of the Wor(l)ds – V

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.

From left to right: Particulars of “St. George and the Dragon” (1917); “Picture With Archer” (1909); “Composition 6” (1913) all by Wassily W. Kandinsky

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.”

(George Orwell, “1984”)

The War of the Wor(l)ds – IV

“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?

The War of the Wor(l)ds – III

“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.”

Mural of the painting “Guernica” in the eponymous city, Copy of the painting by Pablo Picasso

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.

The first italian edition of 1984, whit a prefaction by Umberto Eco (Mondadori)

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]