On the Uses and Abuses of Political Language

Why everyone in politics should read more Orwell, or at least heed Biden’s call for “No Malarkey”

George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” is a blistering broadside against the academics, journalists, and politicians who employ deceptive and confusing language to obscure their ideological goals. Reading it today will make any writer cringe at his or her poor skills and violations of normal language use.  It will shame any advocate or “thought leader” who employs jargon and emotional hooks to mislead the public.

Good analysis and advice abounds in Orwell’s essay. For example, I could improve my opening paragraph by avoiding adjective laden prose and simply writing, “Orwell’s 1946 essay asks people to use everyday words and to be honest about what they write.” Sometimes a writer needs to jam more ideas into a sentence or paragraph. But generally, fewer words, more factual description, and plain language will serve a writer’s purposes best. 

Orwell describes the basic sins of political writing as follows:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. 

Seventy-five years later, Orwell’s basic criticisms of political writing remain valid. And the consequences of misused political language for democracy are growing as poor language helps to fuel declining trust, rising polarization, and partisan gridlock. Without agreement on what is going on in the country, or even how to describe it, Americans and their political leaders will face difficulties forging collective action to overcome our biggest challenges, most importantly on the pandemic and economic crisis. 

The left and the right in American politics today both have their own problems on this front that fall into three main categories that Orwell might recognize:

Confusing language or “doublethink”

Let’s take two contemporary examples in the news. First, the Biden administration’s new “equity” agenda which turns concrete issues of discrimination and poverty into abstract ideas that many people probably can’t follow. 

Although President Biden genuinely cares about racial equality and equal opportunity—and his administration has many good ideas for improving the lives of people of all races across the country—his new executive order on equity is impenetrable in written form: 

For purposes of this order:  (a) The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality. 

What exactly does this mean? What is “systematic and just”? And who exactly is included or not included? 

If the Biden team means to eliminate concrete forms of discrimination in housing, education, criminal justice, or employment, just say so. If it wants the fair and impartial application of all laws to all people, just say so. If the goal is to reduce or eliminate poverty, which affects people of all races, just say so.  

But the vague use of “equity” to describe what in traditional civil rights terms is full equality under the law plus the dedication of federal resources to help chronically poor and underdeveloped communities, makes this executive order confusing and open to misinterpretation. Many Americans will hear this order and think that equity means favoritism—money and help for this group and no money or help for mine. 

This is not news. Ask ten people to define “equity” and you will get ten different responses

In contrast, we have entire civil rights bills and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that explicitly lay out how governments can ensure full political equality, basic living standards for all, and anti-discrimination measures to eliminate racial bias and prejudice. Why make politics more confusing by importing academic jargon to describe a basic commitment to fairness, impartiality, and equal opportunity backed up by the power and resources of the federal government? 

Second, on the right side of the spectrum the issue with political language today is more what Orwell called “doublethink” in 1984—purposefully contradictory language that obscures actions that are hypocritical, inconsistent with commonly understood interpretations, or purposefully designed to hide lies and ideological goals.

The most recent examples of this are stark. Think of Trump-defending conservatives like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, or the majority of the Republican House caucus talking about “constitutionalism” and “law and order” as they seek to overturn the results of a legitimate election with lies about fraud and then incite a violent attack on the legislative house of government and then pretend none of it happened. This is an abuse of democracy—and an abuse of the English language—to associate these actions with constitutional order and the rule of law.

Likewise, John McWhorter explains how the right today abuses the term “Orwellian” itself to hide its behavior and falsely claim victim status, such as Fox News contributor Jeanine Pirro recently pronouncing that the de-platforming of Parler for failing to curb blatantly racist and insurrectionary propaganda is like “Kristallnacht”.

The Founders would not be proud of this behavior, and George Orwell would give them an ‘F’ for language misuse.

Inflammatory and emotional speech

If you’re like me, you probably get dozens of political emails a day outlining the latest outrage and moral turpitude of some opposing politician or group. The intent of these emails is almost always to arouse anger, claim victimhood, and get people to give money or time to a cause. They are rarely measured descriptions of events or proposed legislation or political values.

The content varies but most of these missives follow a basic formula:

Did you see what Representative X said about Y? An unbelievable assault on our people that puts us at risk and promotes Z-ism.  

We need to band together to fight against these efforts to isolate, marginalize, and attack our people.   

Can you rush a donation to [ACRONYM GROUP] now to make sure we can expose these lies and stand up for democracy?

Political emails are not well-reasoned treatises obviously. But citizens are pummeled all day by the same methods used on social media, in texts, and through partisan news outlets.

If politics remains little more than dumb virtual combat using meaningless words designed to inflame and arouse emotional (or financial) reactions, there is little hope for more productive discourse based on the rational consideration of facts and constructive disagreements about what to do.

Misuse of evidence 

Orwell wrote before the proliferation of social scientific facts and data collection collided with the Internet to produce nonstop misinformation and disinformation in politics.

Facts and data are critical to knowledge. But in the hands of ideologues, facts and data are not always enlightening or informative.

This excellent spoof by The Onion does a good job of explaining how political writers and commentators constantly misuse evidence and facts to make ideologically predetermined points, or just to self-righteously claim, “Here’s why you’re wrong.” Too many people in politics today throw up charts and data points that seem profound but upon deeper examination are confusing, contradictory, or unrelated to the point being made.  

The misuse of evidence goes hand-in-hand with the overall limitations of experts in conveying useful information in a neutral and trustworthy manner not tainted by ideology. Think of the advice of self-appointed experts throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Masks aren’t necessary; everyone should wear a mask, or maybe two of them. Kids can’t go to school yet indoor dining is fine, especially in this particular state. Mass gatherings of any kind spread the virus but these particular gatherings are exempt. 

The unfortunate result of the abuse of facts and language—or the nonsense that Joe Biden likes to call out as “malarkey”—is a confused and angry population skeptical of politics at all levels. 

If we want to address our nation’s chronic problems, we first need to settle on how to describe them in a manner that helps people understand what is going on and offers honest perspectives and proposals about what to do in response. 

Or to be more precise, we all should read more Orwell and fewer political emails.