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Politics and the (New) English Language

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In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell examined what he saw as a decline in writing, arguing that it was intertwined with a deteriorating political discourse. To him, bad prose wasn’t just an aesthetic problem. It signified foggy thinking and the avoidance of honest debate. Orwell criticized political jargon for its ability to make "lies sound truthful and murder respectable," pointing to the misuse of language as a tool to defend the indefensible.

This analysis was not confined to political rhetoric. Orwell also dissected the hollow prose of journalists and academics, highlighting their reliance on clichés and "humbug." For Orwell, the misuse and degradation of language was both a symptom and a cause of a more profound decay in critical thinking.

Fast-forward from post-war Britain to contemporary America, and Orwell's concerns remain salient. In a political age dominated not by radio and slogans, but instead by social media memes and soundbites, evasive language continues to corrupt thought, even as sloppy thought continues to corrupt language.

While this pattern exists on all sides of the political spectrum, the language problems are most evident in relation to the politics of gender, race, and political economy. As a student at the 5Cs, or any elite colleges for that matter, you are likely to encounter this type of muddy language everyday. Many, for fear of retribution, avoid asking questions or clarifying.

One pattern is the attempt to evolve familiar terms in favor of more inclusive alternatives: Latinx for Latino, LGBTQIA+ for an array of sexualities and gender identities, and “womxn” for women. Like most neologisms, “womxn” starts from a place of good intentions: to create a more inclusive gender category that includes trans women. But in its obscurity and un-pronounceability, the term sends a message of exclusion more than inclusion. Get the fast-evolving political jargon right, it tells the uninitiated, or find yourself unwelcome in the conversation. The very use of these terms glosses over debates that proponents of the words aren’t interested in having. If you use "BIPOC" as a consolidated descriptor for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, you are folding in any argument about the shared outlook and interests of marginalized people, while skirting the question of who qualifies as a person of color, and what different communities do and don’t have in common.

Jargon often originates on the Left before being co-opted – and further corrupted – by the Right. This fate has befallen terms including “politically correct,” “fake news,” "woke," “critical race theory,” the investment term ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), and “DEI” (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). Woke, which once signaled an awareness of social injustices, has been contorted, politicized, and is now used almost exclusively as a hammer to bash progressives (itself a term Orwell deplored in the 1940s). "Critical Race Theory," a theory with academic roots taught primarily in law schools, often finds itself misused as a blanket term for any discussion of race in schools. "DEI" too has primarily become an easy, bureaucratic-sounding target for those hostile to greater racial diversity.

We then come to the category of more abstract political ideas. There’s no better example than “neoliberalism,” a term so vague and imprecise that it’s used to describe political leaders ranging from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Historically, this term referred to an extreme vision of unregulated, free-market capitalism -– the worldview of Milton Friedman. Now, its contours have been broadened and blurred to such an extent that it tends to mean, “anyone more fiscally conservative than I am.” It has become a catch-all used attribute blame and bypass discussion.

Words like “colonialism,” “stolen-land,” “genocide,” “apartheid,” and even “violence” are all at risk of a similar fate. If you want an illustration, have a look at the horrifying recent statement on the attacks in Israel from Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP): “This uprising is part of continued decolonial struggle and an affirmation of Palestinians’ unwavering fight for liberation.” SJP assumes Hamas represents most Palestinians despite not holding an election since 2006, obscuring actual questions about justice and democracy in Palestine. The italicized words are meant to preempt natural revulsion at the massacre and kidnapping of civilians, including children. They make savage “murder sound respectable,” by piling radical cliché upon cliché.

“The invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases…can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain,” Orwell wrote. Meaningless words abound, intentionally or inadvertently suffocating genuine debate and discussion. Those who aspire to think more critically must attend to their terminology.


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