Friday, 29 July 2011

Newspeak Emergent

Nineteen Eighty-Four was one of those books I read as a teenager that helped shape my views on personal liberty. I'm not sure how much I still hold to those near-anarchic ideals, but individual liberty is still very much a concern of mine.

Of many of the themes explored in Orwell's classic, Newspeak stands out for me as the most striking. For those unfamiliar, Newspeak involved impoverishing the English language in order to control the thoughts of the population.

Any look at political language today involves such revisions, as it did back in Orwell's time. We, as a population, in general recognise this as political speak and are generally distrustful of politicians who use it. That top-down abuse of language remains a concern, though what I find more concerning is the bottom-up abuse of language - especially when it comes to words that carry moral condemnation.

When making analogies there are always some similarities between the two situations. The strength of analogies is they can help convey understanding by giving another way to look at it. Weak analogies have the problem of being easily misunderstood, and analogies that come with implied moral condemnation that may or may not apply.

Godwin's Law is the name for the idea that the longer a discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone being compared to Hitler. Yet in any sense that carries the implied moral condemnation, what behaviours could possibly fit the analogy? Giving people healthcare? Teaching evolution? Eating meat? Supporting legal abortion? Arguing against US military aggression*?

The moral outrage in all those situations is very real, but the whole point of those discussions is that there's disagreement between how people see those moral behaviours. Telling people their views are akin to a deliberate and vicious genocide is hardly fair - at least in all those circumstances. It's not like people are comparing people to Hitler when there's ethnic cleansing in Africa...

Words like homicide, sexism, racism, slavery, genocide, persecution, all mean something. Using them out of context, or stretching the definitions to include the moral condemnation is pushing language towards a state of Newspeak - a Newspeak of our own making, emerging from our personal disagreements and shifting the lexicon away from a sense of perspective.

The key difference in this case, is that while Newspeak sought to remove language that could convey concepts that would undermine the totalitarian state, we're participating in the devaluing of meaning. The words still exist, but become effectively meaningless. Any minor controversy being given the suffix "gate" has succeeded in devaluing what Watergate symbolised.

But we still value, and value greatly. We may value individual liberty or the rights of the animal, we may value autonomy or equality for all in a society. We may value security or the propagation. And it's because we value that the forces that look set to destroy such values as being fascist in nature. But it seems that the valuation is at the expense of the valuation of language itself, the importance only conveyed in such a way as to make what seem innocuous transgressions as grievous acts against all that is good.

In some cases such moral outrage is just stupid (universal healthcare**), yet that doesn't take away from the underlying pernicious nature of such arguments. We're left arguing in terms of moral outrage; not in terms of outcomes - moral or otherwise. We are creating our own Newspeak, and doing so with great enthusiasm.

* Back when I was a bit younger and new to internet arguments, I got photoshopped with a Nazi symbol on my shirt for arguing against US foreign policy.
** I'm still baffled by this, in what possible world can this even begin to make sense?


John Morales said...

Rhetoric, oratory and demagoguery are ancient arts.

If this sort of thing is problematic now, wouldn't it have been problematic all along?

Kel said...

You're right, I'm sure that there's nothing particularly different and special about the people of our time.

John Morales said...


Kel said...

We're in a different environment now, an environment where we're educated to think globally and consider the lessons of history. My contention is that we should know better than to do this because of our greater awareness and understanding of the events.