Don't be beguiled by Orwell: using plain and clear language is not always a moral virtue

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Orwell season has led me back to his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, first published in 1946. It is written with enviable clarity. But is it true? Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skilfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense. Hence the artifice becomes invisible – just as a truly charming person is considered nice rather than “charming”.

There is a new puritanism about the way we use words, as though someone with a broad vocabulary or the ability to sustain a complex sentence is innately untrustworthy. Out with mandarin obfuscation and donnish paradoxes, in with lists and bullet points. But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another. The political class now speaks as it dresses: in matt navy suits and open-necked white shirts. Elaborate adjectives have suffered the same fate as flowery ties. But this is not moral progress, it is just fashion.

The same techniques have infiltrated the literary world. Popular non-fiction has evolved using quotidian prose style to gloss over logical lacunae. The whole confessional genre relies on this technique. “Gladwellian”, properly defined, is the technique of using apparently natural, authentic and conversational style to lull readers into misplaced trust: disarmed, we miss the sleights of hand in the content.

As a professional cricketer, I learned the hard way that when a team-mate said, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, he was about to be neither straight nor my mate. The most consistently dishonest player I encountered spent much of his career beginning conversations with engaging declarations of plain-spoken honesty. His confessional, transparent manner helped him get away with years of subtle back-stabbing. When another team-mate thanked him for sitting him down and saying, “Look mate, I’ll be straight with you because nobody else will”, I felt a horror of recognition: another one duped.

If I’d studied Shakespeare more closely, I wouldn’t have been so easily fooled. Othello’s tormentor, Iago, is seen as an honest and blunt man (though he does confess to the audience that “I am not what I am”). His public image derives from his affectation, his sharpness of speech. Iago is believed because he seems to talk in simple truths.

In King Lear, Cornwall and Kent argue about the correlation between directness and authenticity. Cornwall (wrong in this instance but right in general) argues that straightforwardness often masks the most serious frauds: “These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness harbour more craft and corrupter end than twenty silly-ducking observants that stretch their duties nicely.”

Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game. The way we speak and the way we write are both forms of dress. We can, linguistically, dress ourselves up any way we like. We can affect plainness and directness just as much as we can affect sophistication and complexity. We can try to mislead or to impress, in either mode. Or we can use either register honestly.

Philip Collins, the speechwriter and columnist, has written a book about how to persuade an audience. The Art of Speeches and Presentations is a superb primer, full of erudition and practical wisdom. Collins holds up Orwell’s essay on politics and language as a model of sound advice. But deeper, more surprising truths – contra Orwell – emerge from his arguments. He explains how using simple, everyday speech is effective but he also quotes Thomas Macaulay’s argument that “the object of oratory is not truth, but persuasion”. Following this logic, there is, unavoidably, a distinction between ends and means. Whatever the moral merits of your argument, it is always best to present it in the clearest, most memorable style. Disarming linguistic simplicity is a technique that can be learned. But how you deploy that technical mastery – the authenticity of the argument – is quite a different matter.

There is a further irony about “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell argues that the sins of obfuscation and euphemism followed inevitably from the brutalities of his political era. In the age of the atom bomb and the Gulag, politicians reached for words that hid unpalatable truths. By contrast, our era of vague political muddle and unclear dividing lines has inspired a snappy, gritty style of political language: the no-nonsense, evidence-backed, bullet-pointed road to nowhere.

Orwell’s essay is rhetorically persuasive. And yet it makes little attempt to prove its central thesis. The reader, having nodded at a series of attractive and catchy stylistic observations, is tempted to accept the central thesis. In fact, Orwell’s combination of masterly style and under-examined logic is the perfect refutation of his own argument.

 

An image from the 1965 adaptation of Orwell's "1984". Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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