Political language today

George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language makes the case that politics degrades language because when politicians want to look truthful while telling lies they do so by making their language convoluted and using big words so that the listener is not aware of what the speaker is actually saying. Orwell says that users of such language should be viewed warily and recommends that people who want to communicate truthfully and accurately would do well to adopt a straightforward style using simple and common words and vivid and accurate metaphors.

But Ed Smith argues that Orwell’s method for diagnosing deceptive political language may be outdated.

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 skillfully. 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.

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.

Smith is not saying that directness and simplicity are not good things. They are. But they can be used for both good and bad ends.

There is some empirical evidence for Smith’s premise that political language is becoming simpler, but not necessarily more honest. The Sunlight Foundation finds that the reading level of political speeches in the US has dropped over time to an average grade level now of 10.6. By contrast, the Constitution was written at a 17.8 level, the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level and the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 level. President Obama’s State of the Union speeches regularly clock in at the eighth grade level.

For the sake of the argument, let us assume that Smith is right. Then that raises the question of why the change might have occurred. Maybe it is because in Orwell’s time, the main mode of political communication was the written word or, more infrequently, the spoken one via the radio. Without visual cues, people tend to focus more on what is actually said. (On a personal level, since I rarely watch TV news, I notice that my reaction to speeches and major events often differs from the reactions of people who do watch.)

Nowadays, the skill that is most valuable to people in the public eye is the ability to look directly into the camera in close up and ooze sincerity, even while saying things that are misleading or even flat out untrue. In that context, it may well be better to not distract the viewer with complex ideas and words and reasoning but instead let one’s style of delivery do all the persuasive work.