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October 18-24, 2006

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George Orwell

Ownlife: While Orwell presaged the manipulation of language in politics, 'Orwellian' is now meaningless.

New Speak

You can't fix an old dog with a new dictionary

By Andrew Potter


If a couple of linguists have it right, the Democrats will be out of power in the United States for the foreseeable future.

In the middle of the 2004 presidential election, George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at UC Berkeley, published a book called Don't Think of an Elephant. He argued that the success of the Republican party is due to its ability to dictate the meanings of the words used in political debate. In Republican hands, social conservatism becomes "family values," anti-abortionists are "pro-life" and the estate tax becomes a "death tax." Lakoff advised liberals to reframe these concepts to reflect their own agenda, for example recasting big government as "effective government" and higher taxes as "investments."

The book was a massive success. Democrats bought up bushels of copies to pass around Washington, and Lakoff became a bit of a guru, offering hope of brighter things to come for a party devastated by a second consecutive loss to the so-called monkey from Texas.

Indeed, it did so well its central arguments have been restated by Stanford linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg in his new book Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show (PublicAffairs; $26).

Nunberg says the Republicans owe their success to their control of the public meanings of words like "liberal" and "elite." Following Lakoff, he claims the presidential campaign of 2008 will be a fight over the commanding heights of rhetoric, and he suggests Democrats adopt this two-step strategy: (1) take back the dictionary; (2) take back the White House.

It is hard to imagine worse political advice being seriously offered.

The idea that elections are won and lost at the level of symbols only reinforces the worst tendencies of American liberal thinking, and will ultimately work in favor of the Republicans.

Blame it all on George Orwell--specifically on 1984, a book that has alerted generations of students to the manipulation of language for political ends. Today, the political left tends to spend as much energy objecting to the terms that conservatives use to describe their policies as it does objecting to the policies themselves.

In what is now a well-established ritual, when conservatives introduce neologisms that portray their activities in a positive light--"Operation Enduring Freedom," "compassionate conservatism"--liberals get outraged, conservatives ignore them and the cycle repeats. It doesn't seem to matter how often their opponents complain about such abuses; conservatives keep doing it, either not knowing or not caring about the violence they inflict upon the English language. No more, say the linguists. It's time to take the rhetorical fight to the Republicans.

Orwell would not approve. He knew that when it came to the abuse of language for political ends, the left was as guilty as the right. Implacably opposed to fascism, he was still irritated by the way the term in his era was variously used to describe shopkeepers, fox-hunting, Kipling, Gandhi, homosexuality, women and dogs. A similar fate has befallen the formerly precise term "war criminal," as well as the word "Orwellian" itself. The latter gets tossed around with careless regularity, to the point where it now means little more than "a use of language I don't like."

What Orwell was most concerned with was clarity. In his essay "Politics and the English Language," he wrote that political speech and writing are largely offered in the defense of the indefensible--policies such as the Russian purges or the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. It is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

The Lakoff/Nunberg project for a revitalized Democratic party gets the causal chain of American politics exactly backwards. To put it in the terms of 1984, the Party does not get to rule because it invented Newspeak; it gets to impose Newspeak because it rules.

The GOP's current domination is the result of a 40-year effort that involved a tremendous amount of grassroots politicking. Dedicated activists knocked on doors, licked envelopes and built a powerful broad-based coalition. Meanwhile, conservative intellectuals worked at think tanks and at small universities, slowly developing a coherent and robust political philosophy. If it wants to get back in the game, the Democratic party will have to do something similar. It has a lot of work to do, and the first item on the agenda should be to show the linguists the door.


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