I often joke about living in an Orwellian dystopia but since Donald Trump’s election as POTUS, that joke feels just a little too real.
Trump’s campaign has been scrutinized for its use of contradictory language and outright lies. A recent example is Sean Spicer’s claim that the Trump’s presidential inauguration audience was the largest in American history, a fact disputed by any sighted person since the crowd was significantly smaller than that of Obama’s inauguration in 2009. (Kessler)
The lie itself is not newsworthy since political campaigns are generally propped up with untruths and empty promises. The aspect of this story that has captured the attention of so many is how Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, justified Spicer’s lie. Conway claims that Spicer offered “alternative facts” in his press release and that it is not the media’s place to question what is said by the President or the Press Secretary. CNN’s Chuck Todd was quick to point out that “…alternative facts are not facts, they’re falsehoods.” (Bradner)
A quick search in the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that an alternative fact is a logical impossibility since, by definition, each word contradicts the other.
Fact: noun a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Alternative: adjective (of one or more things) available as another possibility or choice.
As much as I might like to vilify Trump, the above mentioned irrational rhetoric is not unique to the current president’s campaign. Political language is and always has been peppered with these kinds of contradictions because it allows whomever is in power increased control over the population.
George Orwell’s 1949 publication 1984 illustrated the tactics and motivations of political language in a way that captured the imagination of his readership because it seemed like a plausible extension of the political landscape in postwar Europe. Trump’s obvious employment of political rhetoric has reignited the public’s interest in Orwell’s writings and has launched the book to #1 on Amazon’s best seller list 68 years after its original publication! (Amazon)
This blog is not meant to discuss politics in any great detail, it is meant to illustrate all the ways that writing matters everyday for everyone. Rather than focus on the semantics of any particular president’s speeches or representatives, I want to look a little deeper into the nature of political language in general and how the individual might start to overhaul this system through the mindful use of his/her own language.
In addition to his speculative-dystopian fictions, Orwell also wrote an essay entitled “Politics and the English Language” in 1946 where he states,
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”
He suggests in this essay (as well as in his fictions 1984 and Animal Farm) that one way political language is insidious is the way it is appropriated by everyday language. There are certain turns of phrase and idioms that have particular semantic content (via definition but also connotation and historical context) that seep into the social consciousness of the public and become commonly used in a mindless way that allows for the connotations and concepts associated with them to take hold within the society.
Some of the terms that Orwell points to are: bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder, Achilles’ heel, melting pot, acid test, and jackboot (Orwell, 120). These are all turns of phrase that were popular in the political speeches of Orwell’s historical context. Some that might be more familiar to a modern reader are phrases and idioms such as: entitlement programs, Obamacare, welfare state, collateral damage, reform, middle class, fiscal responsibility, war on terror, drugs, poverty etc. These are all forms of political jargon that are commonly used but have intentionally vague and obscure meanings.
In his essay, Orwell suggests that one way to help clarify political jargon and to make the ideology of politicians known, is to be mindful with our individual use of language. To understand that words have consequences because they are the essential way we have of communicating with one another.
Orwell provides six simple rules for using language that “…demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable” (Orwell, 119).
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it.
- Never use the passive, where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So, let’s not be shortsighted or naive about Donald Trump’s political language. Let’s accept our own responsibility in allowing our language to become muddled, vague, and obscure because of our fondness for emotionally charged jargon and our laziness where it comes to reusing cliché figures of speech.