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Do George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English language’ and his novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, which features Newspeak, inform present day concerns over the quality of political communication?

Do George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English language’ and his novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, which features Newspeak, inform present day concerns over the quality of political communication?

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Tom Sheppard. Originally submitted for DN012 at University College Dublin, with lecturer Colum McCaffery in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Tom Sheppard. Originally submitted for DN012 at University College Dublin, with lecturer Colum McCaffery in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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09/23/2014

 
Do George Orwell’s essay,
‘Politics and the English language’ 
and his novel
 Nineteen Eighty-Four’ 
, which features Newspeak, inform present day concernsover the quality of political communication?
‘Now…the next steps’, ‘We belong’, ‘Country first’, ‘real plans for real people’.These are all campaign slogans that have been used by various parties in Ireland andthe United States. In three of those cases, the party using the slogan was successful –  but what do any of them really mean? In his essay,
 Politics and the English Language
, George Orwell laments the decline of the English language and what thismeans for politics and political communication. His concerns found a fictionalrealisation in his classic tale of a dystopian future,
 Nineteen Eighty-Four 
, in which thetotalitarian state employed the language of Newspeak – a bastardized version of English which strictly limits the capacity to express thoughts beyond those of partydogma. This essay will examine whether Orwell’s concerns in these two works are pertinent today in the debates over the quality over political communication. In
‘Politics and the English Language’ 
, the thrust of Orwell’s argument is that the use of clichéd phrasing and hackneyed political terms has become so automatic that havelost their meaning, stemming from and reinforcing shoddy thinking, and it is this lossof meaning that allows manipulative political communication to disguise lies - asOrwell states: “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful andmurder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. In
 Nineteen Eighty-Four,
Orwell demonstrates what can happen when the debasement of languageis atone with the cynical promotion of the totalitarian state. The English language has been sheared of words which may express ideas contrary to those of ‘the Party’, and istherefore a method of thought control. I will examine modern political communicationwith regard to these concerns. Orwell’s fear, seen in both
 Politics and the English
1
 
 Language
and
 Nineteen Eighty-Four 
, was that certain terms would lose all meaningonly to become pejoratively positive or negative. I will examine this fear in terms of modern political communication, firstly by looking at campaign slogans andelectioneering; secondly, by looking at more general political prose – how, as Orwellstates, political speech is often the defence of the indefensible. Finally, I will look atthis issue with regard to the perspective of the media, and decide whether dominanttrends in political communication stem from politicians and their culture, or whether the media has had a defining role, be it active or passive.Orwell’s fear that political language was becoming vague, generalised positivity (or negativity) pandering to an anticipated but inchoate emotional response is wellexemplified in political slogans. The four campaign slogans I introduced at the beginning of this essay are prime examples of political communication at it’s mostvacuous. They range from the absurd – “real plans for real people” (from George W.Bush’s 2000 Presidential campaign) – to trite “country first”. (from John McCain’s2008 run). Taken as a whole, there is strange mixture of the vague haziness whichOrwell bemoaned, but also of the strangling specificity of Newspeak. Orwellidentifies Newspeak as a vocabulary “constructed as to give exact and often verysubtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish toexpress, while excluding all other meanings…This was done partly by the inventionof new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by striping suchwords as remained of unorthodox meanings”. It is this mixture that gives rise to aclass of slogans which mean nothing, but a very specific nothing. While thesecampaigns slogans mean almost nothing in and of themselves (how many candidatesresolve not to put “country first”?), the language used is aiming to appeal to a specific2
 
 portion of the electorate for whom a nod and a wink coming from the candidate withthe right credentials (i.e. conservative, liberal etc.) is enough.A good example of this is George W. Bush. He rooted much of his politicalimage in the notion of a ‘real America’ – removed from big-city intellectual snobberyand leftism; someone understood traditional family values. “Real plans for real people” is supposed to demonstrate that Bush’s plans are designed with this realAmerican in mind reflecting his or her values and supporting his or her interests, andthat they were aimed at the ordinary, everyday American – the real American. Thiscaptures George W. Bush’s basic ideology in five words, which is the purpose of a political slogan, but the slogan itself is an absurdity. While one may stretch anargument about ‘real plans’ as opposed to those invented for the campaign, the notionof ‘real people’ is extremely difficult to define. Ultimately those who would constitute‘real people’ are people who share George W. Bush political beliefs. The phrasingand choice of words is an attempt to reach out to fundamental beliefs – Richard Nixonmay have begun the notion of a ‘silent majority’ but Ronald Reagan perfected it withhis market research into the ‘values’ of voters. As one Reagan media advisor stated,the research “provides image-makers with the best possibly guide to the effective presentation of policy, by creating a clear understanding of how voters make their choice of party. It also supplied them with a rich and subtle vocabulary of persuasivelanguage and motivating symbols” (McNair, 2003 p105). George W. Bush’s “real plans for real people” was an attempt to attract people by applying this “rich andsubtle” vocabulary and “persuasive language” - phrases that technically mean verylittle, but whose underlying significance ‘felt’ defines a candidate and draws in voters.3

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