"Political chaos is connected with the decay of language."
In an article entitled “Valuing Vocabulary,” published Friday (May 20), Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum, connects the state of modern politics, especially the current presidential election campaign, with lessons to be learned from George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In Orwell’s ominously prophetic novel, the all-powerful government limits the ability of the people to think for themselves through the debasing and dumbing-down of the language. The institution by Big Brother of a politically “correct” vocabulary, known as Newspeak, flattens and constricts the language so that words which express moral, aesthetic or analytical distinctions are removed from the lexicon, rendering precise or nuanced discussion of moral or ethical issues effectively impossible.
“Newspeak,” writes Harder, “was a means of not only controlling the public conversation, but also private thought.”
Orwell is right and Harder is to be praised for reminding us of the fact. The effective prohibition on certain politically “incorrect” words, causing them to fall out of usage so that new generations will have no knowledge of them, will ultimately render any dissident thought unthinkable (quite literally).
We think with words and therefore the removal of words removes our ability to think about the things that they signify. The less that we are masters of a rich and vivid vocabulary the easier will we be mastered by the thought police of political correctness. Take, for example, the effective removal of words such as “sin” or “virtue” from political debate or polite conversation. Without such words it becomes increasingly difficult to discuss issues of morality in any objective sense. If the thought police are successful, future generations will not even know these words and will, therefore, not even be able to think about issues of morality in any objective sense. Such a scenario, should it come to pass, would be the triumph of today’s Big Brother: relativism.
Harder laments that “our public vocabulary is changing—not only dwindling, but also shifting in focus and content.” She points to several studies which show how the spoken vocabulary levels of presidential candidates in the current election campaign was “hovering around a middle school level for most candidates … with a leading presidential candidate consistently speaking at a third- or fourth-grade level.”
More striking than the shrinkage of vocabulary is the change in word use itself. Whereas terms of abuse against one’s opponents had increased markedly, along with the use of the personal pronoun, the focus on real issues has been lost. In the current campaign, as distinct from previous campaigns, there was a conspicuous absence of speeches focusing on compassion, children, education, hope, growth, tax reform and budget-balancing. Harder suggests, quite correctly, that “the silence on these subjects is telling.” Needless to say, the political rhetoric of the campaign has also been devoid of any discussion of the necessity of virtue and, of course, any suggestion that sin might be an issue is strictly taboo.
Referring to David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, Harder quotes Brooks’ research into the way “public language has become demoralized.” ?Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words like “self” and “personalized” and a sharp decline in words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.” The language of morality and character building is also in decline, with the usage of words like “character,” “conscience” and “virtue” all declining over the course of the twentieth century. Usage of the word “bravery” has declined by 66 percent over the course of the past century. “Humbleness” is down 52 percent and “kindness” is down 56 percent.
Something is clearly rotten in the state of language.
One completely practical way that we can stop the rot and fight back against the thought police of narcissism is to encourage the reading of great works of literature. In these treasure troves we not only rediscover the virtue that our self-deifying culture has lost but also the freedom of a rich vocabulary with which to liberate ourselves from the slave language of Newspeak.
Joseph Pearce is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A native of England, Mr. Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. He is the author of numerous books, which include The Quest for Shakespeare, Tolkien: Man and Myth, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis and The Catholic Church, Literary Converts, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.