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Orwell, Trump, and the Debasement of Language


It is seldom a good sign when our reality brings Orwell to mind. The English writer, of 1984 fame, waged his pen as a scalpel to dissect the miseries of the twentieth century.

One of the least obvious ills of modernity was the debasement of language. In “Politics and the English Language,” a 1946 essay, he decried the political discourse, which made “lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

So far, so bad. None of that would surely surprise the long suffering citizens of any elective democracy, who every two years or so have to put up with the sound and the fury of endless campaigns.

Nobody surely enjoys the muckraking of election season, right? Not so, it would seem. According to a poll by Monmouth University, by a 2-to-1 margin, respondents said that harsh language was not justified in the campaign. That is, all respondents except a plurality of Trump supporters. They thought that elections justify rude words. And guess who they blame for it. Yes, the other one. Hillary Clinton.

Uncivil discourse and temper flares are a time-honored tradition in the dialectics of democracy, so there is no need for undue alarm here. But what certainly does matter is something else. In the said essay, Orwell observed that the loss of words by ignorance or disuse had an insidious effect. It led to the extinction of concepts.

How, for example, can you think of “ambiguity” if you don’t know the word? Can you grasp the subtleties of international diplomacy if you are unable to think in sentences longer than the 140 characters of a tweet? A discourse made up of angry sound bites not only is harsh on the ears. It is harmful for the mind, and for civil society.

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