Against Orwell

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 9 2008 12:16 PM

Against Orwell

The Urtext of Rick's pseudo-anti-intellectual anti-pseudo-intellectualism is, as he notes , Orwell's famous essay "Politics and the English Language," possibly the worst thing Orwell ever wrote, which, depending on how you read it (it's not very well written), argues:

1.  People should write clearly rather than badly. —Thanks for that.

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2.  Bad writing conceals bad ideas. —Perhaps, but if so, it is self-limiting. No one who starts reading the five examples of bad writing provided by Orwell could possibly finish them; so, what have their authors accomplished? We should instead condemn people who by writing excellent prose make bad ideas sound good. The prototype here is Leni Riefenstahl, not Harold Laski. People with bad ideas who can't express themselves persuasively also can't have any influence.

3.  People will support brutal military actions and other acts of injustice if the government uses bureaucratese ("a pacification campaign") rather than plain language ("slaughter of innocents") to refer to it.  —The trick here is to insist that governments that believe they have good reasons to choose a policy that is regrettably but unavoidably brutal speak as if they are delighted by the brutality. This has nothing to do with clarity in the use of language, nor would any reasonable government engage in such self-defeating conduct.

Jargon, stale metaphors, empty rhetoric—all serve important purposes even if they can be misused. Politicians can rarely speak clearly because they must keep together diverse coalitions in a heterogeneous society. They avoid certain words and redefine others to avoid legal categories or moral taboos that interfere with good policy. Government officials, academics, and other specialists improve communication among themselves by using technical words with stable definitions. That these words, through repetition, lose their emotional impact is hardly surprising and probably beneficial, for it allows experts to maintain emotional distance when pondering sensitive issues of great complexity.

If politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals always spoke plainly, would the world be a better place? Would we all choose wiser policies if we said fetus-killing for abortion , war against radical Muslims for war on terror , and employment advantages for minorities for affirmative action ? I doubt it. The contrary view depends on a sentimental, un-Orwellian (not in that sense of Orwellian) assumption that we'd all agree on everything if we just spoke plainly. Not until the revolution! Bad writing is bad, and bad politics is bad, and someone who puts bad writing to the service of bad politics commits a double offense against ethics and taste, nothing more than that. And they should at least get points for weakening the force of their own arguments.

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law. Follow him on Twitter.

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