Orwell: Wrong or Misunderstood? – The Fisher Download

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In this episode of The Fisher Download, watch, listen or read as Dan Fisher explores whether Orwellian ideas of language control are still relevant today.

Hello everyone, welcome to The Fisher Download! I am your host, Dan Fisher, and today we’re going to talk about Orwellian language control.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to reference George Orwell’s depiction of totalitarianism in 1984, but I wanted to address a misunderstanding which I see continually repeated, in fact it’s a mistake I made for a number of years before I began to see what he was talking about for myself.

The question is often raised over whether totalitarians could really control the thoughts of their subjects by restricting and altering the language which is used to discuss the topics they want to suppress.

The most popular answer I’ve seen today, one which I initially believed myself, was that it was impossible–if people want to discuss a topic, and the words aren’t there, they will invent new words, or re-purpose old ones. This is something we can observe in practice–whenever new terminology is invented to improve the way we think about and refer to a marginalised group, what happens over time is those new terms also become offensive. That’s because the words are picked up by everyone, but the people with negative attitudes don’t change their minds because the words change; they imbue the new words with all the hatred and disdain of the old ones.

So the point, and this was the point in Orwell’s novel as well, which people forget, is that language reform was not primarily directed at potential opponents and dissidents. It was the common mass of loyal party members who adopted the language reforms of newspeak.

The language you use can dictate how you think about a topic, if you allow it to. When a movement attempts to insist upon the use of a particular term, they’re not really trying to control their opponents, even if it looks like that on the surface. In fact they’re trying to control their own supporters. This is not to say it’s necessarily sinister, in fact people are often very open about the need to use different language to change the way we think about a subject.

In my view, the purpose of language change should be to further understanding, not confusion.

Furthermore, the terminology you use reveals your sources of inspiration and thus your ideology. Using terms associated with one ideology makes it harder to talk with people who disagree with you and easier to talk to people who agree with you. It also means the well connected and supposedly well educated are elevated above the ordinary person. That doesn’t mean specific terminology is necessarily bad, but it does mean that language can be used to isolate people within their own bubbles. If you listen to a parody of an ideologue, you’ll hear all the buzzwords, because even if we don’t actually understand what our opponents are saying we recognise the words they use. Therefore if you want to avoid coming across as a stereotype, try describing things in your own words.

This is useful in itself because it demonstrates that you do in fact have your own individual understanding of the concepts rather than simply parroting things you’ve been told.

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