Language, freedom, and oppression

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the most insightful aspects of George Orwell's 1984 was the attempt to control what people could think by changing the language from "oldspeak" -- current English -- to "newspeak," in which the number of words is limited in order to limit what people can think.

One of the key concepts of Newspeak is doublethink, the ability to believe two contradictory things at the same time, which helps with reality control. One does not want to commit crimethought, that is, thinking things that the Party says are not true. It helps if one has mastered blackwhite, that is, the ability to believe black is white and white is black of that is the policy of the party.

Words give us the categories with which we think. They provide a structure of symbols that we can put together in whatever manner suits our needs, We can embellish the structure by inventing new words or new meanings for existing words. In many ways, we experience our freedom of thought through language.

Orwell perceived that control of language was control of thought.

Now, natural language is not like computer language. It is less logical, its meanings are less clear, and those meanings are constantly being renegotiated. We who speak languages are not dictionaries that, once printed, never change. We have, in fact, a dual nature, part animal and physical, part symbolic, and symbolic thought is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human society. Language is essential for the very existence of this part of human nature.

Natural language is a social construct. The meanings are not the sounds we make to communicate the meanings, those sounds or symbols are arbitrary. It does not matter if I use the English word, water, or the French word, eau, as long as both the speaker and the person the speaker wishes to communicate with know that the word signifies stuff we like so well we have it piped right into the house. For both to know what meaning the sound of a word communicates, there must be social agreement on this meaning.

And every act of communication is a social act. One person speaks to another, or a group of others, hoping to influence them in some way. They may use language to enlighten, persuade, or deceive. In so doing, they may use words in new and unfamiliar ways, changing the meaning and connotations of the word. The connotations of a word, that is, the feelings or associated ideas it evokes, are as important sometimes as the literal meaning of the word.

Every generation encounters language anew, every new person finds a place in the strange, symbolic world of human society. We have our place in our animal nature, our mates and offspring, but we are so much more than that. Much of what we are is tied to symbolic thought. Our possessions are ruled by a structure of customs and rules that we call property, our contributions to society are often manipulations of symbols such as our writings, drawings, or made objects. We worry about what we represent. Presidents worry about their legacy, but so do parents and businessmen. Even those who do not physically reproduce live on in their accomplishments, their influence, how they have touched the lives of other people.

Which is why the first item in the Bill of Rights concerns the freedom of speech and of conscience. If we are not free think and speak, and do so in a way that influences other people, we lack the power to shape our lives.

Orwell was writing after a stint at the British Broadcasting System during World War II. In wartime, propaganda is one of the weapons deployed, and he was very aware of this. But even in peacetime, language is used as a political tool.

Consider the issue of political correctness. At its best, it is an attempt to shame those who use language to hurt others. It is now more socially acceptable to say "fuck" than to say "nigger," because our society now is more sensitive to the harm of racism than to any perceived need to conceal the existence of sex.

At its worst, political correctness can seem like annoying nagging about ordinary words. Political correctness is for some reason mainly associated with the left in the United States, but try saying "happy holidays" to a conservative at Christmas and you'll quickly learn that there is political correctness on both sides of the aisle.

Lies, concealment, and shading the truth all happen. There is an entire book titled On Bullshit, (by philosophy professor Harry Frankfort) which explores the political world in which the truth is treated as irrelevant. For example, in a 2004 debate, President George W. Bush was asked for a rational for the Iraq war: He responded, "we had to fight, we were attacked."

He said this as if we had been attacked by Iraq, which was not the case. Every word in that sentence could be true, but the message communicated was false. No true part of that statement justified attacking Iraq.

Truth had been under attack for decades by then, though. Agnotology. the science of creating ignorance, was first perfected by the tobacco companies.

These companies had reason both to affect public policy and to persuade their customers to keep smoking. They deployed polices such as advertising with the healthy, outdoorsy, Marlborough man, hiring scientists to show that substances other than tobacco can cause cancer, and generally sowing doubt about the veracity and the certainty of science.

Further, in the political sphere, language gets tested on focus groups. Political consultant Frank Luntz, using this method, discovered that "death tax" got a far more negative response than "inheritance tax," and the word went out that those wishing to end the inheritance tax should call it the death tax instead.

While acting as a pollster for Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s, Lutz urged Republicans to refer to their Democratic opponents using words such as "devour," "corrupt," "sick," "greedy," "liberal," and "traitor."

This project succeeded in devaluing the word "liberal" to the point where few people identify themselves with it today. Liberals now routinely call themselves "progressive."

Clearly, the part of human nature that belongs to the world of symbolic thought fights its battles on the ground of speech. So why is the basic theory behind the structure of our society so thoroughly tied up with property?

I think it is because the power was not fully understood in the 17th century when the foundations of liberalism were laid.