Tim Rice

The Linguistic Equivalent of War

Orwell was right to point out that language can corrupt thought. Since thinking and speaking are the central tasks of politics, language can also corrupt governance. When all hot-button issues become the purview of every facet of government, pesky considerations like specialization or separation of powers fall by the wayside.

A day before an ISIS attack killed 13 Marines in Kabul, President Joe Biden declared cybersecurity “the core national security challenge we are facing.” Cybersecurity is critical. But with the Taliban retaking Afghanistan after being routed by the U.S. military two decades ago, calling it the “core” national security challenge of our time was bizarre. Still, Biden’s August comments were an improvement from June, when the president declared climate change the greatest threat to American security.
You would think that the commander in chief responsible for one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in decades would choose his words more carefully. But that’s not how his party tends to operate these days. George Orwell warned of the dangers of imprecise political speech in his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language.” The problem, in Orwell’s telling, is that “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” Political speakers reach for muddled, vague language to sell the public on their indefensible policies. This is bad enough, but it presents a broader issue because “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Orwell’s diagnosis is as true in America today as it was when he wrote those words 75 years ago. And while both political parties are guilty of indulging in bad rhetoric that corrupts policy, Democrats are the more frequent and more serious offenders, largely because linguistic manipulation is central to so many progressive political ideas.
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