George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Politics, Propaganda, and War: the Debasement of Language in the 20th Century

November 22, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Both George Orwell and Stuart Chase agree that language is affected by the political atmosphere in which it is used. In the harsh times of ideological battle and violent warfare, language is especially vulnerable to manipulations and contortions that result from its misuse by the media, political parties, and propagandists. The two authors refer to this degeneration of meaning in language as “bad language,” mental miscommunication, mental vice, and many other names. In “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell projects that “when the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer” (Orwell 282). Chase reinforces this point in The Tyranny of Language, referring to the condition of American English: “from 1870 to 1914 in the United States this kind of thing did not make so much difference. Men were busy overrunning a continent, and words could not seriously deflect the course of hustling and impetuous action. But those of us who have lived through the Great War, the Great Boom, the Great Depression, and now observe the rise of the dictators abroad are not so easy in our minds as were our fathers…” (Chase 351). The actions which “our fathers” could carry out did not rely on political moralizing to justify its actions; justification seemed to exist as a given in the expansionist atmosphere of this pre-war, pre-20th century English-speaking world. During this time, America eagerly raced to tame its last frontiers as the British Empire continued to tighten its imperial tentacles over most of the world. Before the atomic bomb, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and the atrocities of trench warfare during the Great War, life seemed stable, almost idyllic compared with the ravaged landscape of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The heightening tensions of politics, however, soon changed everything. “In our age,” Orwell stated, “there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’” (Orwell 282). With the advent of more destructive forms of warfare, including machine guns, tanks, missiles, poison gas, the right formulations of language were imperative in justifying such atrocious action. Orwell acknowledges this fact, revealing how “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. This political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Orwell 281). In government authorities’ attempts to cover up the horrors of “necessary” political and military maneuvers throughout the various conflicts of the first half of the 1900’s, language had to be stretched to its extremes. Political leaders from Hitler to Stalin used this malleability to their advantage to such an extent that Chase came to believe that “Bad language [had become]…the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues” (Chase 21). By the end of World War II, these categories had become so stretched out that no boundaries of referential meaning remained for words like democracy, fascism, totalitarianism, capitalism, socialism, and communism.

This total decay of language has its roots in political acts writings, but it manifests itself most clearly in more popular forms of news media, where the debasement of language trickles down into the everyday communications of the public. Chase details the all-encompassing effect of this “failure of mental communication…[It] is painfully in evidence nearly everywhere we choose to look. Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you will find many of the articles devoted to sound and fury from politicians, leaders of industry, and diplomats. You will find the text of the advertising sections devoted almost solidly to a skillful attempt to make words mean something different to the reader from what the facts warrant” (Chase 19). Even advertisement and consumer culture has been affected by the skewing of language that had arisen from the political complexities from civilizations at war. Even when it comes to the commonplace products one notes in a magazine or newspaper, what you see is not what you get. Society has proved itself, at last to be a “swindle,” to use Orwell’s beloved diction.

In this atmosphere of deception and unreliability, little hope of making progress is apparent. As Chase concludes in the last chapter of The Tyranny of Language, “we have no true picture of the world outside, and so cannot talk to one another about how to stop [confusions in communication]” (Chase 352). He does however, place faith in what he calls “the discipline of semantics,” which, if studied properly can bring about a “broadening of the base of agreement” that we humans collectively hold (360). How to begin undertaking such a massive endeavor is left to us as individuals to figure out. Chase and Orwell alike shift the responsibility of righting “bad language” to us.

Works Cited in this Blog Post:

Chase, Stuart. The Tyranny of Words. Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc. New York: 1938. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and The English Language.” All Art Is Propaganda. Comp. George Packer. Boston/New York: First Mariner, 2009. 270-86. Print.


Works Cited in Presentation:

Hodson, William Allan and John Carfora. “Stuart Chase: Brief Life of a Public Thinker.” Harvard Magazine. Harvard Magazine, Inc., Sep.-Oct. 2004. Web. 20 November 2011.

Kent, Roland G. Rev. of The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase. The Classical Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 2. Oct. 1938: 15-17. JSTOR. Web. 20 November 2011.

Laswell, Harold D. Rev. of The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase. American Sociological Review Aug. 1938: 579-80. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Westbrook, Robert B. “Tribune of the Technostructure: The Popular Economics of Stuart Chase.” JSTOR. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 387-408. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.


Some Visual Food For Thought…

We are all familiar with WWII propaganda posters. In light of our discussions on the skewing and stretching of meanings of words and language, it is interesting to see how words and slogans are used in these posters that advocate for bombs and increased violence. Bombs become “bundles” and the Soviet Union becomes a “freedom fighting friend.” If that isn’t a stretch of language, I don’t know what is!

Categories: Language

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