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 But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another.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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The film for The Lost City of Z was flown back from the jungle – and it was worth it

Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.​

Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).

Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.

James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.

Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of ­fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”

The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last ­resident in her block, to sell up and move out.

We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.

Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.

The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution