70 years after Orwell’s 1984: who polices political language?

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Cinema 2Battle over Culture

The words we use matter – especially when it comes to politics. It’s been 70 years since George Orwell wrote his seminal book, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, but it seems his imaginary world of censorship, memory holes and newspeak might be more reality than fiction.

In recent years, the language that politicians use has become more heavily scrutinised. Those known for their bombastic vocabulary – like the current prime minister, Boris Johnson – are no longer seen as not merely melodramatic, but dangerous. He first caused controversy last year when he described Theresa May’s Chequers deal as having ‘wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution – and handed the detonator to Michel Barnier’. More recently, his description of the ‘Benn Act’ to block a no-deal Brexit as ‘a surrender act’ was met with widespread condemnation from politicians and commentators alike. Many referred to the death of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered during the referendum campaign, to chastise the prime minister. The PM’s critics claimed that the use of ‘violent’ or ‘war-like’ language might incite attacks on politicians. At the same time, Johnson himself has been accused of attempting a ‘coup’ and of being a ‘dictator’.

It’s not just the heated debates about Brexit that have led to calls to neuter language. Discussions about what are ‘legitimate’ or ‘correct’ ways of talking have been going on for some time. From the introduction of selected pronouns to the subbing of ‘women’ to ‘womxn’ in the name of inclusivity, some critics argue that Orwell’s depiction of the policing of language can sometimes feel all too real. The eradication of certain words deemed ‘politically incorrect’ is reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s memory holes. Indeed, in true Orwellian doublethink style, the government has even proposed that students sign contracts to limit their ability to protest against speakers on campus – an attack on free speech in order to protect free speech. On the other hand, those who condemn the use of ‘outdated’ or ‘provocative’ language argue that there is a correlation between words and actions – especially when it comes to the cut and thrust of political life. There is a fine line, it is argued, between metaphor and instruction – especially in a febrile political atmosphere.

But is the concern about political language and its consequences having a worrying impact on our ability to describe complex situations? While there has been controversy about the use of words like ‘betrayal’, ‘enemies’, ‘Nazi’, ‘far-right’ and ‘alt-right’, it’s true that Brexit has provoked some strong feelings – so why shouldn’t we be able to voice them? Or is the clampdown on political language one-sided – with, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, those in power deciding what is and isn’t a matter for the Thought Police? Orwell once said: ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ Seventy years after his ground-breaking book, is political language a threat – or are we simply censoring dissent?