[lg policy] Orwell and Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 14 14:36:00 UTC 2010

Orwell and Language
by Gary Hart

There is a lack of seriousness, especially where national security is
concerned, among those who focus all their attention on a particular
language or set of words they favor while more important issues are
neglected. Take, for example, the recent inside-the-Beltway taffy-pull
over whether President Obama does, or does not, use the phrase "war on
terrorism." Serious people care more about the policy and its
effectiveness than the rhetoric surrounding it. It is important to
note that those most concerned with the current president adopting the
language of his predecessor are following the line of oppressive
political figures of the extreme right and left who have understood
over the years that he who controls the meaning of words, and who
dictates the language to be used, also controls the outcome of the

George Orwell, among others, has most effectively, and frighteningly,
pointed this out. Since Vietnam there has been a concerted effort on
the part of some to suggest that one party cares more about national
security than the other. They do so despite the fact that the party
presumably weak on defense led us through World War I, World War II,
the Korean war, and much of Vietnam. Nevertheless, if you start from
that notion and convince enough people that terrorism is a function of
war, then people must conclude that the party supported by the
language hawks alone is equipped to respond to it.

The real issue behind this linguistic taffy-pull is what methods are
to be used. If counter-terrorism is a "war," then traditional military
measures, including big armies in the field (Iraq and Afghanistan) and
invasions, are required. If terrorism is a somewhat sophisticated form
of criminal activity, it will require special forces trained in
irregular, unconventional warfare to combat it. So, as inconsequential
as the language tussle seems, it does have political and military
consequences. How you characterize or describe a problem will usually
determine what methods you use to address it. The more the language
hawks prevail in demanding their special vocabulary, the more they
will dictate our policies. For some of us the proof is in the policy
not the words.


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