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 But one method of avoiding awkward truths has been replaced by another.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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Netflix’s Gilmore Girls trailer is here – but could the new series disappoint fans?

The new trailer does give us some clues about what November might hold in store.

The new Gilmore Girls trailer is here, clocking up over a million views in just hours. Netflix also offers a release date for the new four-part mini-series, Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life – 25 November 2016.

It is, of course, ridiculous to judge a 6-hour-long series on just over a minute of footage, but the new trailer does give us some clues about what November might hold in store.

We open with a series of nostalgia-driven shots of Stars Hollow in different seasons set to familiar la-las – the church spire in the snow, Luke’s Diner in spring, the Dragonfly Inn in summer, and the (pumpkin-festooned) bandstand in autumn – before zooming in on Lorelai’s house, the central setting of the show for seven seasons.

“Seasons may change, but some things never will,” read the title cards. These moments feel as though they could have been lifted straight out of the original series – what GG fan won’t feel some wistfulness and excitement watching them?

Then we cut to Rory and Lorelai sat at their kitchen table, surrounded by pink pop tarts, the music ending abruptly as Lorelai asks, “Do you think Amy Schumer would like me?” If it’s meant to make a contrast with the more expected opening that preceded it, it does. Rory and Lorelai run through the reasons why not (she loves water sports), Rory pointedly interrupts the conversation to start googling one of her mother’s trademark obscure references on her iPhone. Welcome to Gilmore Girls in 2016, with updated references and technology to match!

It feels too on-the-nose, a bit “I’m not like a regular Gilmore Girl, I’m a cool Gilmore Girl”. One of the funniest things about the proliferation of pop culture references in the original series was how un-trendy they were: including nods to Happy Days, The Menendez Brothers, West Side Story, Ruth Gordon, Grey Gardens, Paul Anka, Tina Louise, John Hughes movies, Frank Capra, and Angela Lansbury. It suited the small town out of time they lived in, and gave the sense that Rory and Lorelai, with their unusually close relationship, had their own special language.

Name-dropping Amy Schumer and John Oliver feels out of step with this. But, of course, there’s no evidence that this tonal shift will be a prominent element in the new series. So much of the trailer feels perfectly in keeping with the old show: the corpse flower line, the terrible fashion sense, the snacks dotted around every scene. Reading an actual physical paper in 2016 seems extremely Gilmore.

I still have some questions (Why are there three vases of flowers in shot? Who believes Lorelai Gilmore would put pop tarts on plates?) but overall, I’m keen to see where the show takes Rory and Lorelai next. I will follow!!!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.