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Words’ Worth

Politics and the English Language (in the 21st Century)

Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 Ð 21 January 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an influential English author and journalist, c. 1940
(Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 1946, George Orwell wrote a very influential essay with a very bland title, “Politics and the English Language,” in which he described how contemporary political writing had gone soft, falling victim to imprecision and cliché.  Some of the examples he cited were merely products of their time. Ring the changes on and take up the cudgels for are not expressions one encounters much anymore.  And his attachment to linguistic relativism—the belief that language constrains thought—has not aged well. Nevertheless, many of his bugbears continue to haunt our political discourse. Contemporary journalists looking to beef up their prose often inject it with the same portentous phrases that irritated Orwell in the forties, including render inoperative, militate against, take effect, and give rise to. Today, Orwell is something close to a secular saint, and “Politics and the English Language” is probably his most famous essay. You can find it discussed in podcasts, TED Talks, and the pages of the New Yorker magazine.  Yet the principles he articulated are being disregarded, particularly on Orwell’s own political left.

The worst offenders are academics, who love to wallow in muddy syntax, but that’s been true for decades. Professors write for their peers, not the public. Terms like epistemic, methodologies, and disciplinary norms are the codewords they use to let members know that they, too, are part of the club. The fact that academese is difficult even for many academics to understand is simply a bonus. Your ideas can’t be debunked if your sentences can’t be deciphered.

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What’s surprising is how far of late gobbledygook of this sort has spread outside the academy. In the past ten years, the argot of the classroom has escaped the lab and begun infecting popular books, magazines, and even corporate seminars. Here, for instance, is author Robin DiAngelo, who doubles as an anti-bias coach for companies wanting to give their employees racial reeducation: “When there is disequilibrium in the habitus—when social cues are unfamiliar and/or when they challenge our capital—we use strategies to regain our balance.”  That’s from her 2018 book White Fragility, which stayed on the New York Times Best Sellers list for more than a year. You might think that DiAngelo is an outlier—and, when it comes to sheer syntactical chaos, she is—but she’s got plenty of competitors. Consider Ibram X. Kendi, whose book How to Be an Antiracist supplanted White Fragility on the bestseller list. Unlike DiAngelo, Kendi doesn’t write like someone trying to flunk the Turing test, but that doesn’t mean he’s a pleasure to read.  His work is littered with exactly the kind of dying metaphors, pretentious diction, and vague language that Orwell condemned eight decades ago. “Racism,” he writes, “is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.”  Well, thanks for making that clear.

DiAngelo and Kendi are both academics, although their books are written for a popular audience, and perhaps for this reason we should be lenient with them. The problem is that their worst habits are being adopted by many people who ought to know better. Take New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino. Her 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror, was not only a bestseller but a sensation with critics, who compared it to the works of Joan Didion and Michel de Montaigne. Yet it includes passages like this: “At the same time that ideologies that lead toward equality and freedom have gained power through the internet’s open discourse, existing power structures have solidified through a vicious (and very online) opposition to this encroachment.” And that’s not a one-off, either. Trick Mirror is a veritable thesaurus of modern lefty slang, including late capitalism, accelerated capitalism, hyper-accelerated capitalist, anti-blackness, male power, and patriarchal logic. It’s incredible that an essayist as gifted as Tolentino allows her prose to be polluted by such clichéd cant.

Not all bad writing, of course, is found on the left, and anyone who doubts this should try slogging through one of Ann Coulter’s screeds. Nor are all leftists bad writers. Ta-Nehisi Coates may be many things—a casuist, a race essentialist, a ham—but he’s never a dull writer. His metaphors are fresh, his syntax is clear, and his imagery is superb. In his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, which he composed as a letter to his son, Coates states, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels.” Elsewhere, he writes, “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.” Are those statements true? Probably not, but they’re well put.

Unfortunately, few (if any) of Coates’s disciples have his rhetorical grace. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project, is a better writer than either Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi, but, far too often she allows her sententiousness to smother her style. One of her innovations, which has now become standard procedure among progressives, is saying enslaved person rather than slave. Hannah-Jones explained her reasoning thus: “We have to stop letting the language hide the crime.” But Hannah-Jones has fallen for the same relativistic fallacy I mentioned earlier, assuming that, if she alters the word, she’ll alter its connotation. Linguists call this Whorfianism, named for Benjamin Lee Whorf, an early-twentieth-century fire inspector who studied languages in his spare time. Whorf surmised that, because the Hopi language has no past, present, or future tenses, the Hopi people have a very different conception of time than, say, the English or the French. Whorf’s understanding of Hopi was rudimentary.  The language, in fact, does have tense markers, and, besides which, even when significant differences can be found between languages, Whorf’s theory doesn’t hold up particularly well. The Herero people of Namibia use a single term for green and blue. However, as the linguist John McWhorter points out, this doesn’t mean they think leaves are the same color as the sky. “The language-as-thought idea vibrates in tune with impulses deeply felt in the modern enlightened American’s soul,” McWhorter writes. “Ethnocentrism revolts us.... Attractive, then, will be the idea that each language is its own mind-altering cocktail... Under Whorfianism, everybody is interesting and everybody matters.”

In 2014, McWhorter published a delightful little book, The Language Hoax, explaining in detail why Whorfianism is bunk—not total bunk, mind you, because linguistic relativism has some validity in minor edge cases, but bunk in the mind-altering sense that Hannah-Jones assumes. Slave doesn’t have a negative connotation because the word itself is bad. It has a negative connotation because slavery is awful. If Hannah-Jones wants to show that antebellum slaves were not merely beasts of burden but vibrant human beings, then she needs to do that, rather than filling her paragraphs with additional adjectives. One of the best rules for writers—which, incidentally, Orwell endorses in “Politics and the English Language”—is: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” The slave–enslaved person illustrates precisely why this rule is so apt.  Not only is Hannah-Jones’s coinage too long; it also trades a perfectly serviceable noun for a much less euphonious phrase.  There’s a reason why Michael Jackson didn’t write a song called “Enslaved Person to the Rhythm.”

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Orwell dubs constructions like this verbal false limbs. Writers, he explains, use them to pad sentences, giving them the appearance of symmetry. These days, writers also use them to flaunt their own virtue.  Enslaved person is one example. Unhoused person is another. The word that’s being avoided in the latter case is homeless. Yet, as the blogger Freddie deBoer recently pointed out, there’s no good reason why homeless should be discarded: “[u]nlike a term like ‘redskin,’ it contains no intentional offense; it’s used every day by people who intend no harm, indeed by many people who intend to end harm. Worse, ‘unhoused’ makes the work of progressive politics harder, not easier. As in so many other evolutions in liberal mores, avoiding the word ‘homeless’ is ostensibly a matter of avoiding stigma.” It's also an example—albeit a very tame one—of what’s often called Newspeak, in reference to the dialect of English spoken in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is meant to keep the people of Oceania from thinking subversive thoughts. The word homeless, advocates for the homeless assume, has a foul odor, so they suggest a substitute, not realizing that whatever alternative they use will quickly become malodorous as well. As deBoer points out, retarded was supposed to be the kinder, gentler substitute for imbecile and moron.

Other than its clunkiness, there’s nothing wrong with unhoused person. But that’s not always true with Newspeak. Just because language can’t constrain our thoughts doesn’t mean it can’t be used to mislead us, which is what Newspeak is supposed to do. Democratic politics is, to a large extent, a battle of words, in which lawmakers look for catchy phrases to demonize their opponents and glorify themselves. In the U.S., for the past fifty years, conservatives have generally been better at this than progressives. Specimens of right-wing Newspeak include welfare queen, limousine liberal, enhanced interrogation, death tax, death panels, black-on-black crime, deep state, fake news, alternative facts, locker room talk, ballot harvesting, and groomer. Lately, though, the left has amassed its own arsenal of Newspeak: birthing person, mansplaining, whitesplaining, white-adjacent, white fragility, systemic racism, systemic oppression, hegemony, rape culture, cultural appropriation, cultural genocide, implicit bias, antiracist, heteronormative, social-emotional learning, and toxic masculinity, to name a few. In each case, the expression is vague, dysphemistic, or euphemistic, hiding at least as much as it reveals.

Perhaps the most pernicious example of modern Newspeak, though, is the phrase gender-affirming care. On the surface, it sounds innocuous, even compassionate. Who wouldn’t want to affirm the gender that another person feels most comfortable in? Left unsaid is the fact that gender-affirming care can include giving children puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and non-essential surgery (i.e. sex change operations). Putting the obvious dangers of surgery aside, many of the long-term effects of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones remain unknown. What is known is that such drugs may cause massive bone density reduction as well as a host of other side effects, including permanent infertility and the inability to achieve an orgasm. Despite these downsides, some doctors continue to recommend puberty blockers to children as young as eight, fearing that the alternative—ongoing gender dysphoria—will be more traumatic. If administering puberty blockers to preteens under the banner of gender-affirming care isn’t Orwellian, then nothing is.

Why is this currently such an issue for progressive writers?  The answer, I suspect, lies in the gentrification, if that’s the word for it, of the political left. In 1980, the Democratic candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, won the vote in just nine out of the hundred highest-income counties in the nation. In 2020, Joe Biden won over half of these counties, along with 84 percent of the counties in which residents are most likely to have a college degree. This trend has coincided with, and at times amplified, an equally important development: the increasing exclusivity of newsrooms. As local newspapers and small magazines have gone out of business, the behemoths like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, have become more selective in their hiring. It’s simple supply and demand. When there’s a surplus of workers and a shortage of jobs, employers get picky. In the 1930s, only three in ten journalists had finished college. Today, about nine in ten have. Of the approximately 150 news interns who worked at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Politico, and the Chicago Tribune in the summer of 2018, 65 percent came from the most selective universities in the country. Because entry-level positions at these publications tend to be low-paying, the people who get them generally come from wealthy families. As Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon laments, journalism has gone from being a blue-collar trade to “something akin to an impenetrable caste.”

And like all exclusive castes, journalism has its own jargon, so members can demonstrate that they are part of the smart set. In this case, that means not just other journalists but other wealthy, well-educated folk, too. Ninety-three percent of New York Times readers have finished college, as have more than 70 percent of NPR listeners. (Among the general U.S. population, that figure is less than 40 percent.) Four out of five readers of the Wall Street Journal have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and half own liquid assets of $1 million or more. New York magazine claims to have 2,224,000 “affluent magazine readers monthly,” 76 percent of whom have a household income of $150,000 or more. Words like praxis, patriarchal, problematic, subjugated, triggered, deconstruct, endemic, systemic, equity, fetishize, marginalize, problematize, power, erasure, exclusion, reckoning, silencing, nexus, and trope are familiar to them because they, too, are also intellectual Brahmins. There’s nothing wrong with these words in and of themselves—except perhaps for problematize, which is both pretentious and ill-defined—but they’ve been desiccated by overuse. Instead of enriching sentences, they give them a precooked flavor, as can be observed in this passage by columnist Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times:

racism does not survive, in the main, because of personal belief and prejudice.  It survives because it is inscribed and reinscribed by the relationships and dynamics that structure our society, from segregation and exclusion to inequality and the degradation of labor.

And this one, from Rebecca Traister’s 2018 book Good and Mad:

Anyone who wants power within a white male power structure has been asked to quell anything that sounds like wrath, to reassure that they come in cooperative peace and are not looking to mete out repercussion against those who have oppressed or subjugated them.

And this one, by Keegan O’Brien, in Truthout:

Homophobic and anti-trans violence are long-standing and present features of American society, a product of institutionalized and structural oppression endemic to capitalism’s regulation of gender and sexuality, most intensely experienced at the intersections of class and race.

You wouldn’t know it from reading those quotations, but Bouie and Traister, at least, are talented writers. They’ve simply allowed their artistry to be highjacked by their ideology. “Orthodoxy,” as Orwell observed, “seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Since the debut of ChatGPT in November, there’s been an enormous amount of agita about the death of the author, and it may well be justified.  If developments in artificial intelligence continue apace, wordsmiths may soon go the way of blacksmiths and broomsquires. But if our end is nigh, we writers owe it to ourselves to put up a good fight before the machines replace us. We shouldn’t be writing like robots ourselves. For one thing, it’s boring. No one wants to read prefabricated prose, and no one should want to produce it, either. The essayist who uses locutions like the degradation of labor, white male power structure, and institutionalized and structural oppression has turned himself from an artisan into an assembly line worker. For another, it’s poor strategy. If progressives want to win political arguments, they should articulate their ideas in the most persuasive way they can, rather than playing word games amongst themselves. The causes that Bouie, Traister, and O’Brien are pushing—ending racism, sexism, and homophobia, respectively—are genuinely noble causes and ought to have eloquent advocates. George Orwell, too, was a man of the left, and he expressed his ideas so well that they still stir readers today. We can’t all write as skillfully as he did, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

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