The unfortunate thing about George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is that whilst it was intended as a warning against totalitarianism many today mistake it for an operating manual. The words we use and don’t use shape the way we think, and even more importantly, don’t think.
My thanks go to regular reader Alen who pointed out the latest BBC designation for those who wish to uphold traditional marriage. On the Sunday programme a few days ago such traditionalists were described with the loaded term, “opponents of marriage equality”.
“Opponent” has strongly negative connotations, an opponent in someone who obstructs, who hinders, who tries to frustrate. And what are these moral Luddites obstructing? Equality of course. What kind of moral imbecile do you have to be to oppose equality, especially equality in something as good and positive as marriage?
The use of language frames the way we think, the way we see ourselves and others. Which would the uncommitted listener want to be: someone who wanted to accord civil rights to the disadvantaged, or an obscurantist who wanted to disadvantage a minority group?
By framing the same sex marriage discussion in terms of supposed civil rights the programme quite deliberately took sides in an issue which concerns everyone and is seen by many as destructive of one of the foundational structures of our society.
In Nineteen Eighty Four we find that in Newspeak ”War is peace, slavery is freedom, ignorance is strength”. As Orwell said elsewhere , “Political language is designed so that lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
The other way of controlling thought by controlling language is to pare language to the bone. Recently the Associated Press added the word “Islamist” to their Stylebook.
This blog uses Islamist to differentiate between those Muslims who wish to impose sharia and Islamic government on the West, and the majority of Muslims who just wish to take advantage of Western freedoms and progress and to do so integrate as far as they can and get on with making a living for themselves and their families.
Unfortunately, Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America’s largest Muslim advocacy organization has called on the press to drop the word Islamist. Seemingly it is racist dog whistle language for those prejudiced against Muslims.
How then are we to describe those followers of the religion of peace who wish to violently destroy every freedom we have in the West and subject us to a Taliban style theocracy? If we describe them as Muslims or militant Muslims we will be guilty of smearing the millions of peaceable Muslims who live quietly and productively in our midst. If we call them Jihadis we will be guilty of distorting a word which can also be used to describe a Muslim’s determination to grow spiritually.
Excising words from the language is a means of excising thought from the mind. The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf theorised that “different languages impose different conceptions of reality”. So when words that describe a particular thought are completely absent from a language, that thought becomes more difficult to think of and communicate. If we do not have the language to articulate the concept of Islamic terrorism how can we communicate the concept?
It is normal for human beings to try to expand their vocabulary. The government in Nineteen Eighty Four realised how dangerous this is if the wished to control the populace. What they required was the reduction of vocabulary. One of the Newspeak engineers says, “[we’re] cutting the language down to the bone . . . Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year”.
To expand language is to expand the ability to think, conversely, to restrict language is to restrict the range of thought. For the Inner Party, the goal was to impose an orthodox reality and make heretical thought (‘thoughtcrime’) impossible. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible,” explains the Newspeak engineer, “because there will be no words in which to express it”.