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 But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another.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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Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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