Re-examining Orwell

Ed Smith over at the New Statesman has a rather good criticism of Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is often trotted out as justification for grammatical prescriptivism, probably because of the six simple rules for good writing that Orwell promulgates. It is only second to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in this regard. Of course, neither Orwell or the prescriptivists realize that Orwell himself runs roughshod over his rule #4, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” In the essay Orwell uses the passive voice in about twenty percent of his sentences, while most writers of his era used it in only about ten percent. It seems that Orwell (Strunk and White, too, but that’s another story) didn’t know what the passive voice is, or at least wasn’t very good at spotting it in his own writing.

But Smith skips the grammatical skirmishes and drives a knife into the heart of Orwell’s argument that plain English inherently makes for clearer communication:

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. [...] The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion.

And in doing so, Smith points out that Orwell is a creature of his era, and suggests that were he to write this essay today, the advice might be quite different:

Orwell argues that the sins of obfuscation and euphemism followed inevitably from the brutalities of his political era. In the age of the atom bomb and the Gulag, politicians reached for words that hid unpalatable truths. By contrast, our era of vague political muddle and unclear dividing lines has inspired a snappy, gritty style of political language: the no-nonsense, evidence-backed, bullet-pointed road to nowhere.

Good writing cannot be reduced to a few simple rules or universal principles. Much of what we consider good in writing is mere fashion. Clear, plain English is the right way to go in certain situations and contexts. To use an absurd example to illustrate the point, you don’t want a sign that reads, “Should an inflammatory emergency arise, it is advisable to use the stairs rather than the elevator.”

But, as Smith points out, plain English can also be obfuscatory and deceptive. Take this example from the 2002 State of the Union speech:

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.

Putting aside the “axis of evil” metaphor for a moment, there is nothing in these sentences that is untrue. All of the bad things that President Bush lists could have happened. Indifference would have been catastrophic. But the simplicity of the words masks the complexity of the situation and the fact that effectively addressing the threats posed by the three nations would require different tactics and strategies. The “axis of evil” metaphor, while simple, plain, and easily understandable, creates a Manichean mind set that joins the three nations into an alliance that is pitted against us and allusively compares that enemy with the Nazis. It predetermines a course of action that requires the use of any means to defeat the enemy; after all, one does not compromise with or tolerate evil.

My point here is not to criticize the Bush administration’s foreign policy or rehash decade-old policy arguments. My point is that the words used preclude any other option. They preclude even the consideration of options short of war, for any attempt at negotiation or peaceful resolution is appeasement, another Munich, and “letting the terrorists win.”

Bush’s speech is like Orwell’s essay. As Smith concludes:

Orwell’s essay is rhetorically persuasive. And yet it makes little attempt to prove its central thesis. The reader, having nodded at a series of attractive and catchy stylistic observations, is tempted to accept the central thesis. In fact, Orwell’s combination of masterly style and under-examined logic is the perfect refutation of his own argument.

[Tip o’ the hat to Jesse Sheidlower]

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