Revisiting Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’

By Will Jennings

Every once in a while I re-read George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘, published in 1946. It is a remarkable piece of work, both in revealing Orwell’s response to war and totalitarianism, and in its powerful discussion of the role of language in concealing certain realities or defining what is considered to be politically permissible or possible. While Orwell was not a political scientist, he preceded a modern generation of scholarship on political communication, such as the work of Murray Edelman (there is, of course, a much longer tradition on political rhetoric!).

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. (Orwell 1946).

Orwell’s essay provides a nice reminder about how it is possible to de-construct the meanings and interests embedded in particular representations of politics (which now circulate 24/7 in the era of Twitter), and the sorts of assumptions and values that are concealed in language which we accept without question. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of James C. Scott’s book ‘Seeing Like A State‘ and its account of the way in which centralised planning can impose political visions of reality on local populations with disastrous consequences (and the way in which those grand schemes are represented). As it is, Orwell provides a nice reminder that ‘All issues are political issues.’

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