The Meaninglessness of Our Political Discourse: A Lesson from George Orwell

By Randall Smith

In his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” “When one watches some tired hack on the platform,” wrote Orwell,

mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. . . . And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

“Bestial atrocities,” “iron heel,” and “bloodstained tyranny” were the hack phrases of Orwell’s day, not ours. We look back on them with the amusement hindsight offers. We are less likely to be aware of our own sins against the English language, precisely because we are so close to the words and phrases that have become an automatic part of our vocabulary that we no longer realize how meaningless they are.

What if, in writing or speaking about important public matters, we have a similar problem using words or phrases that are meaningless?


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