THIS year marks the centenary of the birth of George Orwell, who wrote his novel 1984 in Scotland, on the island of Jura.
In the book and in his essay Politics and the English Language he made claims about the relationship between language and politics which are of perennial interest and of particular relevance to us in Scotland as we contemplate our referendum.
According to Orwell: “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”
He concludes optimistically: “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration…”
Orwell believes that language “…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Corrupt thought can lead to a degeneration of language which, in turn, has a corrupting effect on subsequent thought in Orwell’s view.
He writes: “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 and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Politicians and political commentators typically use a range of recurrent terms in a conceptually distorted way. For instance, they sneer at what they call “negative” campaigning.
However, so-called negative arguments are, inherently, no less rational or preferable than are so-called positive ones. For instance, there are several good negative reasons for my eating muesli, refraining from smoking, from adultery and from drinking alcohol. They trump any positive reasons that might be suggested for my acting otherwise.
Similarly, one might well quite reasonably accept a negative case for leaving or for remaining within the union and voting accordingly in the referendum.
“Homophobia” and “Islamophibia” are other clear examples of terms that stifle debate about debatable issues.
Phobias are medical conditions. If people are suffering from a phobia about, for instance, homosexual people or homosexuality or, say, about Muslims or Islam, we should be sympathetic towards them and be prepared to offer them any available help and treatment. We should not blame them or castigate them any more than we should criticise someone who has, for instance, influenza or a morbid fear of and anxiety about spiders.
If people do not suffer from the relevant medical condition, we should not apply the medical term to their views. We should not call people “homophobes” or “Islamophobes”, merely because we disagree with what they think or because we find their views repugnant. We should not use an apparent medicalisation of their position as an excuse for failing to consider their arguments.
Not all people who have objections to, for instance, homosexuality will hate or dislike homosexuality or hate and dislike homosexuals. Some of them will have such hatred or dislikes but they will not necessarily have homophobia. Not all dislikes and hatreds are medical conditions.
In any case, whether an argument is a good one and whether the person who puts it forward is a good person are quite separate questions. Good arguments can be presented by bad people for dubious motives. We should act on the basis of good arguments whatever their provenance.
Staleness of imagery and lack of precision are features which Orwell associates in particular with the use of tired, carelessly used metaphors. One of his suggested rules of writing is: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
In this regard, we should, I think, be suspicious of such clichés as “glass ceiling”; “level playing field”; “seat at the top table”; “control of the levers of power”. They add little if anything to our understanding and explanation of the issues in question. They can be positively misleading.
States, societies and economies are not like ships or vehicles that can be controlled mechanically by the manipulation of accelerators, brakes and steering wheels.
Politicians can exercise authority. They can pass laws. They can formulate and implement policies. By their strategies, they can have effects on the economies and on other institutions of the countries in which they have political jurisdiction but causation is not the same as control.
Societies and economies are not controlled by their politicians although they are to an extent affected by them. They are affected by a host of other things including the policies, decisions and strategies of the politicians of other states.
In what circumstances would a layer of glass allow more white males than other people to rise to the ceiling of a room? The curious entity sounds more like a filter than a false ceiling of some sort.
Do we all equally aspire to rise – like balloons? – to such positions? Do we all equally want to be, say, the next Pope or, say, the next Prime Minister?
Hibernian Football Club famously had a non-level playing field at Easter Road. This does not preclude the possibility of fair and equal contests. The teams changed ends at half time.
In a sprint, able-bodied males would tend to win if there were a level playing field. Hence, the metaphor can hardly help to illustrate or explain why in other spheres or life, women and disabled people seem to be under-represented in the higher ranking positions.
In such a race, women and disabled people might be given a better chance of winning if the track had a particularly uneven and undulating form.
It was reported recently in this newspaper that a proposed parliamentary debate was cancelled because of a dispute over the use of a word. The intended title The Royal Mail in a separate Scotland was changed to The Future of the Royal Mail in Scotland after an objection by the SNP’s Pete Wishart the MP for Perth and North Perthshire.
He said: “The House of Commons have properly recognised that no-one is advocating ‘separation’ and that the use of the term is exclusively used by independence opponents to talk down the independence campaign.”
This is very curious indeed. To separate means to disunite, to make independent. According to my Chambers dictionary, a “separatist” is “one who withdraws or advocates separation from an established church, federation, organisation, etc”. If the SNP are not separatists in terms of such a definition, it is very difficult to imagine what their position actually is.
To suggest that Scotland would become an independent country but not a separate one if a majority of voters voted Yes in the referendum is to utter the sort of Newspeak that Orwell warned us about in 1984.
According to Orwell: “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
He overstates his case but there is something in what he says. We should be wary of politicians of all parties. We should be wary of their attempted manipulation of our language and our thoughts.
• Hugh McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University