Language and political nonsense

Language and political nonsense

In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argued that the use of simple language – free of pretension, foreign words and vagueness – would improve the level of political thought. Since then, almost anyone writing on the relationship between language and politics has referred to the 1946 essay, whether agreeing or disagreeing with it. In Greece, however, we see that the simplification of language can reach such levels of absurdity as to make a mockery of this theory – of the very issue of political thought and debate.

From twitter troll orgies to some announcements from the prime minister’s press office (but also in too many “speeches” in Parliament), we are witness to language that has sunk to such depths of vileness and aggression that we must conclude that those who debase language in this way either have no wish to take part in any political debate or know no other way of talking. Although both arguments may be valid, in the case of the prime minister’s press office, we must suspect that the second possibility is more likely. Because even if we accept that the frequent, adolescent attacks on political rivals are a tactical device – an effort to marshal the troops of the government camp – we cannot say the same about the level of verbal clash with Turkey. Even as the prime minister appears to wish to stay coolheaded, his press office has at times taken Ankara’s bait and got caught up in a slanging match. (Unless we believe that there is some great plan whereby the government is playing the tough guy so as to keep anyone else from taking the low road.)

The vicious and personal level of political debate confirms a desire for confrontation, a rejection of any possibility of consensus and cooperation with rivals. It reveals either overweening confidence in victory or fatalism – when the desire for no-holds-barred conflict reveals the hope that in the turmoil there will be neither winners nor losers. The result is division and stagnation. Orwell noted that when simple language is used, “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” The implication is that the speaker will want to avoid looking stupid. If we accept Noam Chomsky’s idea that language is not so much a tool for communicating but for thinking and interpreting thought, then we ought to be even more worried – seeing people in official positions proud of the nonsense they spout.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.