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November 26, 2007

Political Doublespeak: Why Orwell is Still Relevant Today


Nicholas Lemann's essay in the Columbia Journalism Review (about the political writing of George Orwell -- specifically Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language") raises some important issues about political double-speak -- ideas that have as much currency on this side of the border as they do in the U.S.

In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell describes how rhetoric can be used to give pretty much anything a positive spin -- a lesson politicians and political speech-makers have mastered and applied with disheartening brilliance. “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” write Orwell. (And this was before he wrote his classic novel 1984.)

Watch Your Language, Stephen Harper!

Harper is a master of the double-meaning: of being able to toss off a lone-liner that is true on one level -- like his comment this past weekend that Canada's voice was heard on the international stage ("For the first time in a very long time Canada's voice is being heard") -- but that simultaneously hints at a deeper and more significant meaning that may not ring quite so true -- or at least in the way one would traditionally read that sentence (Harper claimed Canada made a meaningful contribution at the meeting of Commonwealth nations when, in fact, Canada was widely criticized for its actions . According to the Canadian Press, one foreign diplomat called the Harper approach the perfect approach for ensuring nothing gets done.

This bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand is disturbing because it is so misleading. In that sense, it heads into territory Lemann identifies as a modern-day political peril -- intellectual honesty. (Lemann warns specifically about the political misuse of facts and data -- something we should be mindful of whenever a political committee tables a report that tries to use -- or misuse -- statistics, like the infamous Baird environmental graph.)

"Intellectual honesty about the gathering and use of facts and data is a riskier and more precious part of a free society than is intellectual honesty in language. We ought to guard it with the same zeal that animates Orwell’s work on political speech."

Here's why.

  • It disrupts the flow of real political information. (Remember how things played out last spring in The House of Commons? It was like Orwell's Ministry of Truth in action.)
  • It causes the public to lose further faith in politics and politicians. It's hard enough to get Joe Average Voter to tune into politics long enough to cast a vote, let alone to try to make sense of all the political double-speak dispelled at carefully orchestrated press conferences that try to control the flow of carefully packaged "truth."

And as for Harper's comments this past weekend? His comments shows incredible disrespect for the intelligence of the Canadian voter. Are we really expected to buy that line about the fabulous "contribution" we made this past week when Harper convinced other countries to agree to an environmental agreement that said nothing at all? And his long-standing pattern of interacting with the Opposition and the Media have shown nothing but disdain for them as well. We know that he's extremely tough on members of his own party, who aren't allowed to exercise the rights that many parents grant to their teenagers (Facebook, anyone?). It makes you wonder if he's been hanging out with the wrong people. Peer pressure is a powerful force, after all.

So what do you see as the impact of Harper's communication style on the political life in this country?


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