On Writing and Doublespeak

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Can “effective” policy writing do harm? A thoughtful speech by Rowan Williams as part of this year’s Orwell Lecture addresses the dark power of bureaucratic prose–and explores how Thomas Merton and George Orwell argued against such writing.

What does this type of writing look like?

Orwell’s rules for good writing have become familiar: don’t use secondhand metaphors, don’t use long words where short ones will do, abbreviate, use the active not the passive, never use a foreign phrase when you can find an everyday alternative in English. They are rules designed to communicate something other than the fact that the speaker is powerful enough to say what he or she likes. Bad or confused metaphor (Orwell has some choice examples of which my favourite is “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song”) presents us with something we can’t visualise; good metaphor makes us more aware, in unexpected ways, of what we see or sense. So bad metaphor is about concealing or ignoring; and language that sets out to conceal or ignore and make others ignore is language that wants to shrink the limits of the world to what can be dealt with in the speaker’s terms alone.

Conflict and even war rank among the worst possible outcomes, and not for the reasons that we might imagine:

In another essay on war, Merton argues that it is not really true that war happens when reasoned argument breaks down; it is more that “reason” has been used in such a way that it subtly and inevitably moves us towards war.

Ultimately, this type of doublespeak creates a false sense of what is true:

Both Merton and Orwell concentrate on a particular kind of bureaucratic redescription of reality, language that is designed to be no one’s in particular, the language of countless contemporary manifestos, mission statements and regulatory policies, the language that dominates so much of our public life, from health service to higher education. In its more malign forms, this is also the language of commercial interests defending tax evasion in a developing country, or worse, governments dealing with challenges to human rights violations, or worst of all (it’s in all our minds just now) of terrorists who have mastered so effectively the art of saying nothing true or humane as part of their techniques of intimidation. In contrast, the difficulty of good writing is a difficulty meant to make the reader pause and rethink. It insists that the world is larger than the reader thought, and invites the reader to find new ways of speaking: it may in the short term draw attention to its own complexity, but it does so in order that the reader may move away from the text to think about what it is in the world around that prompts such complexity. Bad writing is politically poisonous; good writing is politically liberating – and this is true even when that good writing comes from sources that are ideologically hostile to good politics (however defined). The crucial question is whether the writing is directed to making the reader see, feel and know less or more. And the paradox is that, even faced with systems that stifle good writing and honest imagining, the good writer doesn’t respond in kind but goes on trying to fathom what the terrorist and the bigot are saying, to make sense of people who don’t want to make sense of him or her. Failing to do that condemns us to bad writing and bad politics, to the language of total conflict and radical dehumanisation.

all quotes via Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and founder of Christian Aid, reposted in The Guardian as part of the 2015 Orwell Lecture.

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