Ideas: Part 2: Language & Power

Language is our first step towards salvation. We cannot fight what we cannot describe.–Chris Hedges

The social critic and author George Orwell recognized the relationship between language and power. In his novel 1984, Orwell presents us with a glimpse of how totalitarians in the modern day silence people; they don’t just do it by making people disappear or locking them away in concentration camps; they also maintain their domination by dumbing-down language.

People lacking word power are vulnerable to the forces of persuasion and propaganda. Words are repositories, or holding centers, of meaning; and they are the primary means available to us for exchanging ideas with others; and it’s precisely the exchange of ideas, along with our capacity to influence one another, that’s led to all of the great revolutions in thought and the progress we’ve made as a society. Reduce the number of words available to a people and you proportionately reduce the potential combinations of ideas available to them; and the ignorant are a lot easier to control than people in the know. For this reason the powerful have always distrusted intellectuals: intellectuals are harder to control (or predict) than, as the saying goes, a herd of cats.

In the case of Winston Smith, a newspaper redactor working at Oceania’s Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s fictional world, publicly he possesses a diminished vocabulary making him sound like everyone else. He uses simple words to describe life experiences as “good” rather than “fantastic,” “plus good” instead of exceptional, or “double-plus good” as opposed to “extraordinary.” There’s more to Winston, though: on the outside he seems to be like everyone else but on the inside he couldn’t be more different. He grew up surrounded by banned books and in a household where critical thinking was valued. However, Winston lives at a time where 24 hour surveillance and privacy are luxuries that cannot be afforded. This is because his tribe (Oceania) is at war with Eurasia. Sacrifices must be made to achieve complete victory. Yet, Winston is old enough to remember the world before the perpetual world war. This makes it impossible for him to conform in anything other than in a superficial way. Nonetheless, outwardly he is forced to adopt and use the most basic linguistic structures preventing that troublesome thing called nuance from creeping in and ruining everything. Not only does a paucity, or lack, of words negatively affect dialogue in the public sphere, Orwell’s world also illustrates how such limits imposed on the private life limits both the thoughts and options available to an individual. Fewer thoughts mean fewer options for people to pursue which means a more predictable society (and suddenly everyone, except for the cats, become herd-able).

Some things in life readily lend themselves to simple description like watching an interview on Fox News for instance; however, when it comes to certain situations or experiences a more powerful and expansive vocabulary is required. Some thoughts are impossible to express without first having access to certain words. Picture Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his I Have a Dream Speech using phrases like “I have a dream my kids will live in a double-plus good nation”; or consider how Winston Churchill might describe to his Zurich audience in 1946 the dangers posed by the Soviet Union to liberty by saying “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic a really, really, really heavy curtain has fallen on the Continent.” Dr. King’s speech was one of the most important events during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Churchill’s speech is considered by many historians as the beginning of the Cold War. The quality of our thoughts, and our policies and values, are determined by the quality of our thinking (and the words we employ).

By restricting access to information and using propaganda, public opinion can be molded and the public conversation steered in whatever direction. In this way, the tobacco industry managed for decades to deceive consumers into thinking smoking cigarettes was safe; they accomplished this despite the existence of substantial clinical evidence pointing to the contrary and the repeated warnings coming from medical science. Tobacco’s successful disarming of the public speaks volumes to the advantages conferred upon scrupulous marketers driven solely by the profit motive as opposed to intellectual honesty; and since information flows both up and down stream, there’s an equal chance information will be used for good or for ill; and in the case of the tobacco industry, they purposely misinformed consumers about the relative risk posed by tobacco through the use of plausible deniability. To preserve their profit margin cigarette companies hired a right-wing think tank known as the Heartland Institute. Heartland flooded the public with lies and half-truths making a point of creating a counter-narrative to challenge the emerging science, i.e. if science said tobacco was dangerous then Heartland followed up by saying the amount of risk was debatable (maybe even minimal). Heartland didn’t have to win the debate; they just had to sow the seeds of doubt and people would remain ignorant to the risk and the status-quo would be protected; and that’s exactly what Heartland did.

Every corporation in every major industry funds a think tank like Heartland. Basically, what this means is every corporation has its own Ministry of Truth whose sole purpose is to protect profits by transmitting corporate friendly propaganda to citizens through simple soundbites: like “CO2 is naturally occurring and it helps plants grow big” (used by climate change deniers) or “this commodity is crucial to our nation’s future” (an argument used by supporters of hydraulic fracturing). The reality is despite the gainsay coming from denialists, climate change is real and hydraulic fracturing causes more problems than it solves. Yet, the media continues to fail the public spectacularly when it comes to informing the public: this is because in an effort to be objective the news media give equal time to denialist and scientist alike.

Fair enough.

However, in as much as everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts; and objectivity isn’t achieved by remaining impartial. Far from it. Instead, being objective is accomplished by following the evidence wherever it takes you (regardless of the implications for your politics, profit margin, or beliefs of doing so).

Words matter and our access to them even more so.