Saturday, 11 April 2009

Orwell, political writing and blogs.

Some journalists have asked whether Orwell might have written a blog, had the technology been available to him, after the addition of a weblog category to the prize that bears his name. When a longlist comprising twelve websites was announced, Radio 4 invited Hopi Sen to consider the question on its ‘Today’ programme.

I suspect that while Orwell would have been enthused by the potential of political blogging, he would have been appalled by the content and style of many political blogs.

For any writer who makes politics his subject, reading Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ is a chastening experience. Its contents are yet more disquieting when one has been included on a shortlist of six bloggers, contesting an award dedicated to the great man’s memory. The truth is that it is almost impossible to adhere to the precepts set out in the essay.  The essayist acknowledged that even he occasionally infringed his own rules.

It is possible to adhere to the spirit of the essay, if not to follow it to the letter. Indeed for writing, and in particular for political writing, to have merit, it must at least aspire to follow the broader principles which Orwell outlines.

He sets out characteristic elements from which bad prose is frequently constructed, but it is the bad prose itself, and the woolly thinking behind it, which is really George Orwell’s target. His central contention is that words should be employed in the service of the idea which they are being used to express, rather than the other way round. Understand the thought, then search for the words through which to express it. Don’t find a form of words which pleases you and then fit them around the sense which you want to impart. Needlessly wordy, imprecise, evasive or clichéd English serves only to obscure the meaning of a piece of writing.

Cliché is a cunning foe which faces every writer (and that is in itself a cliché). It becomes increasingly difficult to avoid repeating phrases which have been used countless times before. Political writing is particularly susceptible to lapsing into jargon, and it was this jargon which Orwell detested. I hope that I am not the worst offender in this respect, but I realise that, nevertheless, I am frequently guilty. Indeed, I often surround such jargon with a defensive cloak of inverted commas, as if that somehow absolves me of responsibility for the cliché and shifts it down the line, to writers who overused the phrase first.

Reading Orwell’s indictment of post war writing, it is impossible not to feel that he would have been yet more exercised by degeneration of the English language today. His observations actually predate the introduction of a far more insidious lexicon of neologisms introduced by analysts and consultants. How would he have reacted to the use of the word ’future’ as a verb (which seems to cover any form of speculation or prediction)? Would he have approved of a blogger referring to a ’lack of credible candidate matches’ when clearly he means that no candidate has as yet been chosen? This type of jargon serves little purpose other than to dance around clarity. It envelops its reader in fog.

Although Orwell is most commonly claimed by the political left, could he have stomached the vocabulary of ’human rights’ which ’progressives’ (self described) rely upon in order to trump any argument? The ’human right’, so invoked, is rarely specified and even less frequently defined. It is merely introduced into the debate in an attempt to dodge the tiresome process of explaining logically why one’s contention is correct and why one's opponent is wrong. Rather than Caitriona Ruane explain why testing children academically at the age of eleven is a bad system, she tells us that it is an abuse of ’human rights’ to examine a child at that age. This type of laziness happens again and again.

Of course I am predisposed to believe so, but I can’t help but suspect that Orwell would have found more to deplore in the doctrinaire type of nationalist writing and thinking, than in arguments made by brands of unionism which are built on civic principles. Indeed he wrote another savage essay on the topic of nationalism, which he interpreted in its broadest sense, as ideological chauvinism of any kind. With its roots in romantic nineteenth century visions of nationhood, with its sweeping generalisations about the mood, temperament and morals of entire groups of people, very frequently traditional nationalist argument is evasive and imprecise.

Rather than taking words at face value, nationalists who visit this website often try and mine them for all sorts of imagined hidden meaning. I can’t really consider myself Irish, for instance, because I don’t talk about a set of things which the nationalist understands as Irish. Therefore I only identify myself as Irish as a guise. Rather than explain itself properly, nationalism likes to contend, like a stroppy teenager, that we just don’t ‘get it’, unless we succumb to its conclusions. It likes to present itself in terms of feelings or emotions which non nationalists simply can’t comprehend. Orwell’s essay observes of Celtic nationalism.

“The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon--simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc.--but the usual power hunger is there under the surface.”

Ten minutes inspecting the comments’ zones of Slugger O’Toole, or perusing Scots’ nationalist remarks left beneath stories on ’The Scotsman’ website, confirms that this observation is not yet redundant. From an entry point of the most seemingly innocuous story one can explore tortuous labyrinths of Anglophobia, normally expressed through the media of 150 word potted histories, encompassing anything from 100 years to 1000. Each is vaguer, less qualified, less buttressed by evidence and more sweeping than the last. Would Orwell have enjoyed reading Brian Feeney, and the prose he constructs from a tool-bag of stock phrases? Should he have read the Good Friday Agreement, would he have invested it with all manner of perceived meaning, not clearly set out in the text?

And yet I am aware that I should avoid attempts anachronistically to co-opt Orwell to one side or the other of modern debates. It was the certainties of dogma, the habit of thinking in absolutes which tends to predominate within ideologies of any kind, to which he was strenuously opposed. Where writing was reasoned and clear, he would have applauded it, where it was evasive and slovenly he would have deplored it, whatever the contents of its underlying argument. Because it was Orwell’s belief that clear writing DEMANDED clear thinking, and that where writing was precise, necessarily its message would be rigorously thought out. Conversely, if an idea was invidious then it could not bear the scrutiny of meticulous prose and it would demand all manner of avoidance, fudge and equivocation from its proponent.

It is easy, infused with modern sensibilities, to read George Orwell’s essay on politics and language and conclude that he was some manner of pedant, whose facility with grammar and syntax allowed him to dismiss, with high handed disdain, the writings of those who were less talented. But that would be to distort his arguments grossly. Indeed Orwell explicitly states that he is not a proponent of standard English and believes that grammar and syntax are ‘of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear’. Additionally, he is quite aware that a spoken and written language is a living and changing thing.

Orwell might be scrupulous as regards the English language, but it is his love for words and his faith in their integrity which causes him to be so demanding. He believes that if the language is used properly, precisely, exactly that it will guard against the worst excesses of bad political thought. Although it is a tenet which can subject the self-scrutinising writer to all manner of disappointment, upholding it should at least be an aspiration.


O'Neill said...

Cliché is a cunning foe which faces every writer (and that is in itself a cliché).

I wouldn't want to be accused of pedalling I won't say that I found this to be an "interesting piece"! Darn those inverted commas;)

I read "Homage to Catalonia" for the third time and if you want one of his works which has a message for modern political bloggers this is it. I don't mean that we should all leave our keyboards, pack our guns and head off to take on the Ultra Sur in the Bernabeu, more the idea that very often your worst enemies in politics as well as war are those who are nominally fighting on the same side as yourself. The mark of a good political blogger is the awareness of both this and also the fact that none of us has the monopoly on the universal truth.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Erudite. whmb

nineteensixtyseven said...

Good post. A lot of modern day political jargon is certainly not fit for purpose ;-) Not an unfair comment on nationalism either. As someone brought up a nationalist by the mere chance of circumstance, and who has shed it like a snake does a skin in the course of one's intellectual development, I can recognise its exclusionary tone. Indeed, it almost feels like guilt when I attack it.