Lesson 7: Truth and the Crisis in Language (Part 1)

Newspeak- Thought PoliceBecause we are confronted every blasted day with a new manipulation of truth, it might help to trace the development that has led to this perilous situation. Many believe it was first brought to our attention by George Orwell who introduced “newspeak” in his novel 1984 (1949). This is a fictional language created by the authorities to keep the public under their control. Newspeak removed any words that might promote freedom, rebellion, or alternative thinking, replacing them with those without any shades of meaning. This left only simple dichotomies, such as pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, goodthink and crimethink. In doing this, newspeak limited the ability of the masses to think and react in ways that the authority deemed dangerous to the establishment.

Orwell certainly describes what the Nazis did when they redefined and invented words to disguise the immoral nature of what they were doing. However, our own government has done the same with concepts such as “enhanced interrogation,” “collateral damage,” “unlawful combatants,” “security detainees,” and, increasingly, “credible evidence.” These are always justified as attempts to be as accurate as possible, but it does not take long to see that they are removing words from their real contexts to prevent us from discussing what is really happening. “Enhanced interrogation” seems to be police questioning stepped up a bit to protect many good people from a few bad ones, not inflicting unbearable pain on a living human being, the kind of torture that used to appear at the beginning of ethics textbooks as an activity that all civilized people could agree was evil. “Collateral damage” sounds like an ethically justified practice rather than the bombing of innocent children. Why would anyone suspect that “deficient spending” might be a term invented by the financial community to show that the present financial crisis was caused by government spending? Or that the “trickle down” theory was invented by the wealthy to justify economic practices that have continually widened the gap between the rich and poor since 1972.

Way back in 1985, Jacques Ellul claimed the managed control of newspeak was no longer the greatest threat to language. He thought the modern technological society changes the nature of words in far more subtle, hardly detectable ways. Rather than humans using words to shape and give meaning to their environment, now the artificial environment of technology shapes words and their users to fit the system.

Elull spoke of “commonplaces” that he felt were far more dangerous than newspeak. Unlike cultural wisdom that informs and inspires, they stimulate compliance to the global technological system. They consistently trump traditional cultural teachings. Here are a few of the 33 “commonplaces” that Ellul lists: “You can’t act without getting your hands dirty,” “The main thing is to be sincere with yourself,” “Modern man has come of age,” “Nobody can help anybody else,” “Freedom is obeying necessity,” “The machine is a neutral object and man is its master,” “No more words, give us action,” “Work is freedom,” “Women find their freedom through work,” “The spiritual side of life cannot be developed until the standard of living is raised,” and “You can change anything to suit yourself.” As these slogans replace the myths and narratives of our culture, they come to serve as wisdom.

If Ellul was correct, most have responded that a number of these commonplaces are true. He would ask us to give a little more thought, believing we then would come to see at the most they are half truths that can be used to short circuit more profound thought. But this is just the beginning, let me continue next week with the continued development of the crisis in language.

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2 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Sarah Haavind says:

    Hello Fritz,
    Cannot help but thank you for this articulation and also add that dark examples have plagued women in many societies by making horrible activities socially acceptable with generic language/descriptions, for example in history text books, long before our recent politics of “alternative facts.” The US Marines’ current scandal and challenges highlighted recently regarding the age-old problem of on-campus rape culture are just current examples. I think that “back in the day (my very feminist days)” you and I discussed Mary Daly and her analysis across many societies in Gyn/ecology –
    on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Gyn-Ecology-Metaethics-Radical-Feminism/dp/0807014133/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1489588616&sr=1-1&keywords=mary+daly

    Not to minimize the shocking nature of what is unfolding here in the US right now, but well, it’s very familiar 😀

  2. John Myers says:

    I would add that these examples of ‘fake’ language are not limited to government speak. We use this language everyday when referring to ourselves, or other persons, causes, or things dear to us. Jefferson once said to “speak in honest language”. “Honest language” starts with the unvarnished truth. To do so, we must first be honest with ourselves.

    We want to be viewed by others in a positive way, so we deliberately and carefully craft what we say and how we say it. We’ve even created fake verbs to do so. An example would be when one is dismissed from work, or has been ‘Layed off’. This translates to friends and spouse as I’ve been ‘downsized’, transferring their plight to victimhood.

    Much of this can be supported by understanding the emotional side of negative life events, and that some have more difficulty than others with the truth. Denial is more comfortable. A famous movie line is “You can’t handle the truth”. Denial may be more comfortable, but only the truth will set you free. I think the same is true for ‘Government Speak’ – they think we can’t handle the truth, so they create dis-honest euphemisms and yet we still know what they mean. I think they are patronizing. I would rather live in a world of painful truth than in a world of la-la land.


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