Political Language is Like a Bag of Potato Chips

11 Oct

potato chips

A recent set of statistics published in the Atlantic reminded me of the powerful role language plays in politics. It also reminded me that George Orwell’s insightful observations about English usage still hold true 67 years later.

Although language may seem like a silly subject to examine during such hazardous political times, I believe that its power to shape the way we perceive people and companies, issues and countries is often unfortunately overlooked. Politicians and others in positions of authority use specific phrases and diction because the words one uses and the way they’re arranged greatly shape an audience’s understanding of a bill, article, statement, or passage. When language becomes abstract or convoluted, those of us unable to decipher the hidden meanings are left mislead, worked up, and confused.

“Leading Questions” from the Atlantic Monthly, September 2013:

Percentage of Americans who believe that in cases of incurable disease, doctors should be allowed to “assist the patient to commit suicide”: 51  Percentage who believe those doctors should be allowed to “end the patient’s life by some painless means”: 70
Percentage of Americans who believe “gun control laws” should be stricter: 47  Percentage who believe “the laws covering the sale of firearms” should be stricter: 55
Percentage of Americans who believe “having a baby outside of marriage” is morally wrong: 36  Percentage who believe “an unmarried woman having a baby” is morally wrong: 26

It’s amazing that a seemingly minute shift in language can increase support for the same issue by as much as a 19%!

Have you ever noticed how the type of language most commonly used by politicians, officials, executives and the like contains the flimsiest content? Like a bag of chips that appears large until it’s opened to reveal the airiness of its fillings, a politician or corporate spokesperson seems to speak for so long, and yet ultimately says so little. That’s because in modern society, people are often rewarded for their ability to avoid relaying direct information.  A knack for obfuscating the naked truth would make you a great president, lobbyist, senator, executive director, etc.

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, published in 1946, George Orwell refers to what he coins “the decline of language”. Who’s guilty of this abuse? Politicians of course. Well, politicians, and a bunch of other folks.

This change in English usage is characterized chiefly by a departure from clarity of meaning in the use of English. The elimination of simple verbs, pretentious diction, the use of abstract and meaningless words, defaulting to tired metaphors and ready-made phrases: These are some of the habits that contribute to a notable loss of meaning in language. Many examples of this lazy, circumventing communication can be found in modern American media, from the ramblings of a local academic to the statements of major political parties.

Orwell’s explanation of the departure from concreteness in language is strikingly familiar:

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed…”

Indeed, many of the words that stock a politician’s verbal toolbox are virtually devoid of meaning, and simply turned to as mere filler to drum up general feelings of goodness or badness. Although one may not always catch the literal gist of a politician’s speech (assuming there actually is one), their words are not altogether powerless, because although they offer little substance, they leave the reader or listener with distinct feelings of disappointment or anger, fervor or pride.

Orwell reminds us that many of the words used in politics are difficult to pin down with any universal denotation, and therefore relatively devoid of meaning. But this doesn’t stop them from leaving us with the sensation that something’s been said:

“The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice [and today’s liberty, capitalism/ist, democrat, liberal, liberate, republican, conservative, terrorism, etc.] have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it…”

Especially in the case of political talk, these words are used in a deliberately dishonest way in order to make direct statements as minimal as possible.

“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.”

Just as misleading language was adopted to sugarcoat upsetting issues and actions like colonial rule, so too is it used today to discuss subjects such as Syria and Healthcare.

This means that it falls on our shoulders to approach information with an attention to the way that language is used to subtly direct our support or opposition—to notice when so many words add up to so little meaning, and appreciate the straight talkers among us.

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2 Responses to “Political Language is Like a Bag of Potato Chips”

  1. Toni Malanaphy-Sorg October 11, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Well said.

  2. lotusgreen October 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    While Orwell predated TV, I’m tempted to think that part of each individual’s tendency to use obfuscatory language is based on the same thing that makes our little girls (and their dolls) look sexier at younger and younger ages, the Culture of the Image. On TV, the less sexy woman is almost never the star.

Do tell.

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