“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
Here in the age of the 140-character missive, fabricated Facebook meme and passion-inflaming video, precise language is for pathetic has-beens. Only old people care if words are spelled “correctly” — they’ll all be dead soon, and so will all their lame, nostalgic attachment to words.
I’m still grateful that Dick Holm, an English teacher at Boulder High School, introduced me to Orwell’s remarkable essay, “Politics and the English Language.” I already believed that
words matter, but Orwell opened my eyes to the ways they can be used to manipulate and obscure, rather than clarify. As he wrote, “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
Thanks to the internet, the 24/7 “news” organizations desperately seeking clicks and a populace that often seems, in the aggregate, to be a thundering herd of startlingly ignorant, terrified and easily led dupes, language is becoming more and more meaningless. And that’s dangerous.
Consider the last few weeks of October, leading up to Election Day. The twin existential scourges of the Ebola virus and the Islamic State dominated screens and instilled terror in minds incapable of understanding rudimentary geography, math, science and probability — or, apparently, listening to anyone who was capable.
ISIS, the theatrically minded terrorist movement that knows just how to push American fear buttons, is “beyond anything we’ve seen,” said U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Entertainer Chris Brown opined to his nearly 14 million followers on Twitter — a medium uniquely suited to idiocy — that “this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”
Conservative political candidates launched horror stories of Islamic terrorists teaming up with Mexican drug cartels — yeah, there’s a realistic marriage; though it would be kind of satisfying to see the two groups in a rumble-to-the-death — to smuggle Ebola across the border. U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, always good for a laugh, declared that President Barack Obama is “letting Ebola from Africa in … as payback for slavery.”
Oddly, the day after the election, Ebola and ISIS were instantly transformed into the Incredible Shrinking Existential Threats and, despite an occasional news bump — the number of Americans infected with Ebola is now up to a shocking .00000003 percent! — are just so Nov. 3.
Obama has inspired an impressive run of taunts and insults that render the words used utterly meaningless. Never mind “communist” or “socialist” or “Kenyan anti-colonialist,” this president is “an enemy of humanity” (U.S. Rep. Trent Franks), his administration “has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they are just making wrong decisions for America” (U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert) and Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” (Dr. Ben Carson).
But we, the people, have been lured into the ant-lion trap of imprecise language, too. For example, every time the U.S. enters another in a series of dubious military engagements (kids, we used to call them “wars”), we’re fed, and millions repeat, declarations of the utter inhumanity of the enemy, whose face morphs one into the next. Saddam Hussein, a nasty tin pot dictator and long-time U.S. ally, was “the most evil man the world has seen since Hitler,” declared former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; “Psychopathic jihadists (ISIS) betray an evil not seen since Hitler.” Quick, somebody notify the ghosts of Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Mao!
Hitler comparisons are notoriously overheated, but most people don’t give much thought to “evil.” Applied to every designated enemy, its purpose is to dehumanize, but it is also symptomatic of an embarrassing comic-book mentality that often prevails here in the home of the allegedly brave. Presidents, police chiefs and generals routinely talk about “killing bad guys” and blithely suggest that “we” need only destroy the mastermind, evil genius or abomination — Osama bin Laden, Saddam, Lex Luthor — and all will be well. In the early years of World War II, Americans feared and respected the Nazi war machine but widely bought into the racist notion the little “yellow” Japanese would be easily defeated
On the flipside, Americans mindlessly declare that anyone who serves in the military is a “hero” (a manifestly phony, self-serving and ridiculous idea all but universally rejected by the troops and veterans alike). Yet for all the cheap adulation, we also like to talk about “boots on the ground” when sending other people’s sons, daughters, husbands and mothers off to fight wars we cheerlead but quite literally no longer pay for — an unsubtle synecdoche that neatly distances us from the fact that we’re talking about actual human beings, not cartoon heroes. Perhaps that’s why we find it so easy to ignore them once they leave the battlefield — I mean, they’re just “boots,” right?
Yes, words matter. Orwell again:
“This 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,” he wrote. And, “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained 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, the appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved.”
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