Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Whistling in the wind again...

There is an absolute wealth of learned analysis and comment on the meaning and validity of George Orwell's "newspeak" on the internet and in published works of all kinds, and a ten-fold more (including my little effort here) which probably will never bear mention.

It all starts with this -
" 'It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take "good", for instance. If you have a word like "good", what need is there for a word like "bad"? "Ungood" will do just as well -- better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of "good", what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like "excellent" and "splendid" and all the rest of them? "Plusgood" covers the meaning, or " doubleplusgood" if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words -- in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.'s idea originally, of course,' he added as an afterthought." - George Orwell - 1984.

My 1982-83 Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the meaning of newspeak as "artificial language of George Orwell's '1984'" which is entirely accurate and not at all newspeak. My 1999 edition of Collins on the other hand gives "language of bureaucrats and politicians regarded as deliberately ambiguous and misleading".

Truth of the matter is, I believe, that newspeak is alive and well in western civilisation today. It does not take the "good, plusgood; doubleplusgood; ungood, plusungood..." form of Orwell's original language. In fact it is considerably more sophisticated and malleable. There is a synonym for it here in NZ, one which it would not surprise me to find is used elsewhere - WEASEL WORDS

The Collins meaning gives rise to an interesting parallel. The original newspeak as formulated by Orwell was to remove from language any possibility of mis-interpretation; the machinery of that was to remove all possible ideas from the language. The Collins meaning leaves open the possibility of a different principle...

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of truth. Of course the great wastage is in the rights and the ethics, but there are hundreds of lies that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the positive truths; there are also the negative truths. After all, what justification is there for an idea which is simply the opposite of some other idea? The idea contains its opposite in itself...In the end the whole notion of truth and untruth will be covered by just the one concept; that there is only one truth, there is only one word, there is only the Word. And the Word is the State."

Now if I throw in here a series of terms used widely in the media, since about the past 30 years, it should show the links in the chain I am following...

  • "spin"

  • "public relations"

  • "image"

  • "interests"

  • "damage control"

All of these terms have meanings and context outside of the modern "Minitrue"s in everyday language, but they also have very specific meaning and context within the political arena. It is the Minitrue and the political context of these terms (as a collective, not individually) that make the Newspeak of today. You don't think we have Minitrues in place right now? What possible purpose do you imagine the plethora of advisers, analysts, speech writers, press agents, personal assistants and secretaries are for in the administration of pretty well every Head of State? Do you really believe that the conglomerate of staff is there to ensure that you the elector are fully aware of the TRUTH?

It starts with a principle -

"If you have something important to say, always use language that allows for semantic re-interpretation."

And a qualifier -
"The best language is that which uses existing public knowledge and concept, and which at the same time allows scope for far different application."

There is an excellent example of this going on at the present time between NZ and Israel. Regulars will recall my mention of the Israelis caught while trying to obtain an NZ passport using fraudulent documentation. One of the principals is a gent who is well known to the Australians as an agent of the Israeli Intelligence unit, Mossad.

The newspeak exercise is being undertaken by the Israelis in their attempts "to find suitable words" which will satisfy the NZ Government as an apology including "Mossad agent", "responsibility" and "the intended use of the passport". At the same time they have to be able to tell the electorate in Israel that Elisha Cara was in fact a misguided private citizen who was trying to obtain the passport for his own criminal uses. In addition to all that, the Israeli government also has to try and justify Cara's luxury retirement suite overlooking the beach at Tel Aviv or Haifa.

There is another on the news tonight. One of the election promises of our beloved Labour Government was "No New Taxes". Well, they just announced one; a five cent per litre impost on petrol and diesel to provide additional funds for roading. The verbal contortions that the Minister of Transport went through to weave the original policy into todays truth was an entertainment in itself.

I have no doubt that if we sit down and think, just a little, there are innumerable examples from politics all over the world... Ones that spring immediately to my mind -

  • "closing the gaps" The totally discredited policy of the current Labour government intended to "improve the primary social indicators of Maori" (BTW they are income, health, education and housing.) There was a suggestion from the opposition parties that it should have been called "giving the Maori of handout" policy. As a piece of newspeak it was terrible, as a policy it stank to high heaven and it was dropped within weeks of its announcement.

  • "Transparency" No, not the photographic term, but one applied - the original was by Rob Muldoon - to the process of covering up something that had gone wrong. The solution - "...increased transparency of decision making..." - meant quite the opposite. In fact, to those in the know the mere utterance of the word should have the "what are they hiding" alarms screaming and flashing. The mechanism is to create a new bureaucracy to deal with the "problem" promising "transparency" and then making the outcomes of action and deliberation so sensitive that (in the words of the tv joke) "...if I told you I would have to kill you..." By the time that mess has been sorted those really responsible have retired - either voluntarily or not - or the "problem" has been forgotten by the electorate.

  • "collective responsibility" The art of spreading the blame so thin that it is impossible to make anyone responsible for the stuff-up. I am waiting for this one to be used in the NCEA debacle.

  • "sexual relations" The instantly recognisable American example. When prefixed with the phrase "Read my lips" you just know that he is not talking about full sexual intercourse. The newspeak term though leads you in that direction, while leaving the contradiction "I did not say that..." wide open.

  • "war on terror" This is going to be a classic. The "exceptions" abound. Not Indonesia because they are mates of ours at the moment. Not Sudan because we haven't got reason. Syria unless they play our game - win/win US, lose/lose Syria. Iran the same. North Korea we will blame the Chinese for doing nothing. It has to be one of the masterpieces...

And that really is the essence of newspeak.

It is the ability to give a word or phrase an instant and pre-cognitive meaning, then to use the term repeatedly in a form which gradually negates that meaning. The tv news "soundbite" is an absolute perfect arena for newspeak and weasel words. The editors are under pressure to fit as much of what they think is important into as small a time as the revenue earning advertisements will allow. That brevity, as far as the skilful politician is concerned is manna from heaven. It forces the use of pre-conceptions to get the initial idea across to the listener. Then in subsequent interviews the meaning can be shaded toward the real.

It does us well to be able to recognise the use of newspeak terms whenever they arise. It is essential for our civilisation's, for democracy's, survival that we let our politicians know that we do recognise their use of newspeak. It is essential that they are called out. Every time.


To wind this up, a thought from another great of the same era as Orwell. Huxley this time...

"There is, of course, no reason why the new totalitarianism should resemble the old. Government by clubs and firing squads, by artificial famine, mass imprisonment, and mass deportation, is not merely inhumane (nobody cares much about that nowadays); it is demonstrably inefficient - and in an age of advanced technology, inefficiency is a sin against the Holy Ghost. A really efficient totalitarian state would be the one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors, and school teachers.


The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but refraining from doing. Great is the truth, but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth."
- Aldous Huxley, Introduction to "Brave New World" 1952 edition.


Al said...

Do you have weasels down there? They're known (or said, anyway) to kill for pleasure. No doubt they'd cloak that tendency with words if they could.

You've managed to write something I have considerable difficulty disagreeing with.

The War on Terror?

Is anyone fooled by the weasel words our government tries to mollify the diplomats? People for and against it expect it to last many years and have many phases and aspects, including hidden and open warfare here and there across the world.

The controversy is about the targets and the precision of the tools of that warfare. Oh, and the need for totalitarian restrictions on the citizenry.

The machinery is being created. I don't see reliable proof that it's being applied excessively yet.

Maybe when Rumsfeld is President.

The probligo said...

Al, the first broadcast speech Bush made after 9/11 is indelibly etched in my brain. In that speech he used one word which he has never, to my knowledge, used since in referring to current US foreign policy.

The word was "crusade".

And, to be frank, it is not the words that ANY administration uses in diplomatic circles that is at question. Diplomats have a very long pedigree in the art of double-speak and semantics. As have, for that matter, lawyers. At that level it has become a technical jargon. Everyone speaking and listening knows and understands what is being intended in the words. If we, laymen, were to listen we could be confused or we could draw quite wrong conclusions from what had been said...

It is the language (and as Huxley points out, the concealment of truth) used between administration and electorate that is of far greater importance to me.

I can but wonder at the possibilities that the "war on terror" has in terms of future US policies... What you say is indisputable, but follow the road for a little longer. If Venezuela were to sink further into the mire of control by drug baron banditry rather than by government will the US intervene? What will be the reason for the intervention? Will it be to stop the drug trade into the US? To reintroduce democracy? Because there is a wealth of very good oil there? Rhetorical questions all. Think more on the language style and the semantic that could be used in that instance, starting with "war on terror".

p.s. Yes we have weasels, and stoats, and ferrets. They were introduced by well meaning colonists when the rabbits began to get out of control. The rabbits were introduced by well meaning colonists who thought that they were good to eat, fun to shoot at, and had lovely fur.

pps If you want an ecological disaster to really stir the bowels, read up on the introduction of the cane toad into Australia. It has managed to populate areas in the Northern Territories; where the saltwater crocodile is now starting to die out as a result of eating cane toads.

Aleksu said...

Bob, plusgood post, thanks.

Weasel words, I have to remember that concept.

Mostly with some people calling themselves "liberals".