Caring for Words, IV: Politics

The power of language can be directed toward many ends. One of these ends is yet another form of power: political control. In egregious cases, language is openly manipulated, degraded, and deformed. Politically-motivated language distortion, however, is rarely so transparent. More often, ugly realities are carefully obscured through strategic abstraction, while the indefensible is excused with distracting rhetorical flourishes. Many who’ve seen combat know all too well what the mind must do to rationalize killing another person. How often do we read or hear of lifelong racists who maintain cordial relations with one or two individuals of color? Political operatives can tell you how a well-chosen label frames an issue to their advantage. These sicken language in indirect and subtle ways, less likely to provoke resistance. Here’s the rub: the critical skills necessary for the “informed citizen” to tell rhetoric from reality depend on the language’s robust health.

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”

  • -George Orwell, 1984, Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak

“To bring oneself to kill individual human beings is not easy; but when those human beings are thought of merely as members of a class which has previously been defined as evil, then killing becomes a simple matter. Brown, Jones and Robinson must not be thought of as Brown, Jones and Robinson, but as heretics, enemies of God, Gentiles, non-Aryans, niggers, barbarians, Huns, fascists, communists, capitalists, whichever the case may be. When they have been called such names and assimilated to the accursed class to which these names apply, Brown, Jones and Robinson cease to be regarded as human beings and become vermin or devils whom one is justified in exterminating in the most painful way possible. All war propaganda consists, in the last resort, in substituting diabolical abstractions for human beings.”

  • -Aldous Huxley, “Pacifism and Philosophy”

“There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.”

  • – Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 7, 1993

Image: Benito Mussolini, Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv

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