Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English language’

Words. Tools with which meaning is devised, described and derived in this incredibly complex world. We use them to think, and use them without thinking; we use them honestly and dishonestly; powerfully, inspiringly, simply, confusingly – and when we really get pissed off with the motherfuckin’ system we sometimes use them offensively. They mediate and define our existence, and are vital to most that we do. We take them for granted. In the arena of Politics and Media this is a grave concern.

Politics is a minefield of language games and deception. It is filled with slippery rhetoricians who peer out through a veneer of PR and spin; theirs is necessarily a vague vocabulary. One that subtly legitimises wars, evades blame, and presents itself in digestible chunks with the use of prefabricated phrases that get lodged in even the most rational mind. This is the language of “peace processes” – when there is actually little peace and not much of a process; the language of “wars on terror”, whatever that means; or even the vague notion of “financial crisis”, which actually more resembles a crisis of capitalism. It is undoubtedly a creative verbal landscape of euphemism but is far from precise, or helpful. Arguably, we should expect little else from politicians considering their nature, and the nature of their work. But the truly alarming thing is how this quietly deceptive language permeates the common argot, with stale and misleading phrases thoughtlessly recycled in everyday speech. Much of the blame for this unnecessary trend lies at the feet of the Media – the megaphone of politics.

The problem of language is certainly not new, but has been made all the more pertinent to the political process by the proliferation of Mass Media. Particularly in the age of voracious 24 hour news coverage, which sees the only legitimate sources as ‘official’ ones and with an onus in commercial efficiency, we are bombarded with these pre-packaged phrases and they inevitably shape our perception of the political. Plus a salacious word often sells more than an accurate one. And so the media become complicit. Not necessarily in any corrupt or conscious sense. But not only do they somehow overlook their vital role of actually exposing the hokum that lurks behind this empty and elusive phraseology: they also reproduce it unquestioningly. And so do we.

This issue of parlance has been variously noted from George Orwell to, more recently, the great contemporary journalists Robert Fiske and John Pilger. As with their warnings, the intention of this Post is not to inspire any profound action. It is enough to simply illuminate the trend of our slovenly use of political language, along with the less visible issues that lurk behind. A word or phrase is rarely just a ‘thing in itself’, it is pregnant with meaning and that is its power. To use the phrases prescribed by those in Politics and the Media ourselves makes us inadvertently complicit: carriers of a dormant disease. Words and phrases which appear innocuous enough actually form a weave in a wider fabric of domination, imperialism, inequality and exploitation. As Orwell notes, use of a “dying metaphor” actually undermines its purpose. A metaphor is there to conjure an image; a borrowed metaphor used without thought does nothing of the sort. But all we need do is extend our analysis of what is said to the way it is said. Once aware of these language games examples begin to burn brightly from the page and screen and it becomes easier to be more discerning.

Language is important. It is rich and varied and there is no cause to fall back on the ridiculous and lazy vernacular of the media-political elites. From Foucault’s concept of the dominant discourse which is reinforced by social institutions imbued with power, to the theory of philosophers such as Richard Rorty which sees truth as a history of competing vocabularies, there is enough background thought to demand we take the issue of language seriously. But we need not over-intellectualise the issue. All we need do is think before we speak or, more pertinently, before we write. As Media move into an epoch of two-way flow, ‘citizen journalism’ and participation all of us who engage in Alternative Media (largely thanks to the internet) have a responsibility to live up to that name. So we must continue to give an alternative account of the world, one which exists outside of the limited and stifling Mainstream Media; part of that is ensuring that we are aware of the language we use and that it doesn’t mimic that mainstream just because it is convenient to do so. A responsibility to think before we write.

“Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English language’


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