George Orwell’s call for honesty and clarity

By | February 20, 2010

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 political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless 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.

George Orwell, from his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”

Language, Clarity, & Honesty

A few years ago a fellow humanist, Harry Becker, passed me some LATimes articles (11/04/07) under the heading “WHY ORWELL MATTERS.” The articles dealt with themes found in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Mr. Becker suggested that perhaps I could write a short article on Orwell’s essay and circled the following sentence by Orville Schell:

Above all what is needed is to let the meaning choose the words, and not the other way around.

(Schell’s LATimes article, “Follies of Orthodoxy”, 11/4/07)

Schell’s advice was puzzling to me; so I looked into Orwell’s essay for help. Mr. Orwell stresses the need for clear, simple language that uses words evoking concrete images instead of relying on abstract, Latin-based terms that fail to convey clear meaning. If we take his advice, our primary aim (in any discourse) will be clarity of meaning; whenever practical, we will choose simple terms which convey concrete images, instead of plugging in some obscure jargon to do the work for us, i.e. not let the words ‘choose’ the meaning.
To illustrate his point, Orwell imagines a professor defending Soviet totalitarianism, who is reluctant to make the straight-forward assertion that Soviet policy allowed the “killing off your opponents when you can get a good result from doing so,” and chooses instead to make the long-winded, obfuscating statement:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the rights to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

(Orwell, 1946)

Not only is this pretentious and obscure, it also shows a speaker’s dishonesty and insincerity. As Orwell wrote,

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns to …long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting ink.

(Orwell, 1946)
But this abuse of language often evolves into a more sinister use of language. As Orwell illustrated in various books, political propaganda routinely converts ‘war’ into ‘peace,’ and ‘peace’ into ‘war’; critics of government policy are branded as subversives and enemies of the state.
But it is not only in politics and defense of war policy that we use language routinely to twist the facts and transform falsehood into truth, and the converse. This happens too frequently in any discourse (spoken or written) in which ideology and value judgments play prominent roles; for example, discourse concerning economic systems, or governmental policies regulating individual activity, or issues like the right-to-life vs. right-to-choose, or those concerning the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the schools, or the separation of church and state, or the various issues regarding the opposition between religious and secular values.
In my field of philosophy, some people are very aware of the need for clarity and honesty in discourse, since a fair amount of philosophical literature has traditionally been written in complicated, sometimes very obscure language. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote concerning a few German philosophers, “They muddy up the water to make it appear deep.” Unfortunately, large areas of philosophical writing, especially in areas of metaphysics, religious apologetics, and political thought, can be described as projects that “muddy the water” to make it appear deep.
There probably is no guarantee that we can completely avoid the abuse of language in politics and ideological debate or the sophistry of certain philosophical styles. But, we can heed Mr. Orwell’s advice and hopefully not fall too often into those ‘muddy, stagnant waters,’ which can choke off any meaningful dialogue. One way is give ourselves the discipline of a formal study or self-study course in critical thinking. In addition, extensive, critical reading of relevant works of history, philosophy (the clear kind), the sciences, and literature can also help.

10 thoughts on “George Orwell’s call for honesty and clarity

  1. JNIW

    Yep, good quotes and fine article however this seems way too simple for me. Not the issues around clarity which are well presented but around honesty. And I am not being humorous. No mud either.

    Honesty has many aspects, briefly: Honesty can be culturally determined and relative as a consequence, honesty can be a "form of expression" issue, consequently honesty can be a perception/hearing issue on both sides. Just to mention one aspect of honesty.

    "What is it that forbids us to speak the truth laughingly?'' Horace, as a simple example.

    Our individual perception can mean ignoring a fundamental tension in honest communication.

    1. jbernal Post author

      Yes, you’re right. The call for honesty and the one for clarity can be differentiated, and I don’t doubt that one can reflect on what we mean by “honesty” and find a strong cultural element. Obviously one can be honest and find clear expression very difficult. However, I think that at least one way of taking these “virtues” in literature is to see them as closely related. It seems that Orwell does this.

  2. jbernal Post author

    Not yet. For now I’m going with simple text. I don’t aim to entertain readers; can’t compete with all the ‘entertainment’ available on the net.


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