Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Language vs. thought

`POLITICAL language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.'' George Orwell's trenchant commentary, ``Politics and the English Language,'' points more compellingly now than ever to what has become a serious problem: the corruption of clear thinking and intellectual honesty by the manipulation of images and the use of evasive and diversionary language to support policy goals. Managing the news, of course, is an old game in Washington. But things are getting out of hand. In foreign policy, particularly, there has seldom been so much obvious nonsense, distortion of fact, evasion, illusion, and so many flights from reality. Fallacies are stated as fact and become conventional wisdom by endless repetition. Reality is simply described the way officials would like it to be. And honest and clear thinking has a hard time surviving in this woozy climate of rhetoric and artifice.

The most insidious part of all this is not so much evasion and deception from the government outward, but the enormous amount of self-delusion and self-deception within government.

About these ads

This is not unique to this administration, even if it has been carried to new heights. One has only to go back and look at the Vietnam record to see how people succumbed to the perils of technical language, euphemism, and imagemaking in order to take refuge from the consequences of their decisions and opinions. The language that fills government cables, memorandums, and reports has become language that avoids acknowledging its meaning clearly, and that leads those who speak it to avoid acknowledging that meaning themselves.

How tempting it is to avoid pain and difficulty by resorting to euphemisms. How easy it is to substitute analogy and buzzwords for thought. Just say ``vital interest'' or ``dominoes'' and one can avoid the need for rigorous supporting analysis. It is more comfortable if we think of support for an insurgency as ``raising the cost'' to an adversary rather than as killing people and destroying property. It is less disturbing to us if we use demonizing terms to describe adversaries than if we think of them as human beings. And when words get too close to reality, we can escape discomfort by entrapping them in quotation marks, like ``bleeding'' an enemy. Consider how fond we are of the term ``scenario'' to indicate papers setting forth actions of great and even dire consequences, as if we were writing fictional movie scripts. In the bureaucratic language of policy planning there is very little flesh and blood.

``If thought can corrupt language,'' Orwell wrote, ``language can also corrupt thought.'' Rhetoric and image manipulation, jargon drained of meaning, artifice and technicalities that mislead, analogy and euphemism - all add up to a chilling totality that goes a long way to explaining how decent and honorable people can so persistently engage in folly.

Nor is this confined to government. One has only to ponder the level of current political campaigning, the prose of advertising and corporate business, the ``think tank'' briefs and ideological advocacy that masquerade as objective analysis, the mental shortcuts and mind-stopping labels of the information media. It is little wonder that the average person seems increasingly anesthetized to the growing risks to thought and sense and decency that are involved.

Tragically, none of this is unique to our time, either. How dismayingly apt and relevant to today is Thucydides' description of the Corcyrean Revolution, written some 2,500 years ago: ``Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense.

``The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended.''

Do we ever learn?

About these ads

Viron P. Vaky is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and former United States ambassador to Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.