Which of these statements make you feel more uncomfortable: the poor person struggles to make rent or the economically disadvantaged person struggles to make rent? Hang on to those feelings as we examine what’s happening beneath the surface.
Language and thought certainly affect each other, as Orwell knew. But a change in language does not equal a change in action. A lot of misguided political activism is rooted in a conflation of the two.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell advises writers to eschew dying metaphors, pretentious diction and meaningless words, all of which indicate both unclear writing and unclear thought. If we write more clearly, Orwell declares, we will be able to think more clearly and critically too. And it is important that citizens learn to think critically because political language is often used to manipulate and obscure. It is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The statement the poor person struggles to make rent may offend some who argue that it uses poor as a slur. But this is based on the erroneous belief that our word choices can change the situations to which our words refer. But, as David Foster Wallace astutely puts it, “I strongly doubt whether a guy who has four small kids and makes $12,000 a year feels more empowered or less ill-used by a society that carefully refers to him as ‘economically disadvantaged’ rather than ‘poor.’” The use of politically correct language is supposedly an act of compassion, but it actually obscures the truth of the subject’s poverty, deflecting attention from that real problem to the minutiae of word choice. Perhaps that’s the point. Such language allows the politically correct to feel self-satisfied and absolves them from the responsibility of tackling the problem of poverty.
Orwell insists that “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” In other words, nothing can truly change without critical thinking. In 1984, one of the party leaders admits that “the Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” The imposition of politically correct language on the part of elites is self-serving. As Foster Wallace argues, those who use phrases like economically disadvantaged instead of poor want to “signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker—scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language.” They want to shift attention away from the people who need to help to their own compassion and sensitivity. Politically correct language signals I am a good person because I avoid the plain truth in favor of flowery euphemisms. Those who are impressed by nine-syllable words may even think the politically correct are more intelligent— though, given the choice, very few people would want to live in a word full of superficially pretty lies.
Clear writing, free from political correctness, is more communicative and produces clearer thoughts and better critical thinking skills. Practicing clear writing skills also makes us less likely to fall for manipulative language. I fear that our situation is worse than it was when Orwell and Wallace were writing. Many otherwise smart people have recently been led to believe that 2+2=5 because those who tout such nonsense use the right flowery, multisyllabic buzzwords. Let’s hope that we are not about to actually live out the events of 1984.