From the opening of the book: what is Unspeak?
A long time ago in China, a philosopher was asked the first thing he would do if he became ruler. The philosopher thought for a while, and then said: well, if something had to be put first, I would rectify the names for things. His companion was baffled: what did this have to do with good government? The philosopher lamented his companion’s foolishness, and explained. When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do. ‘The thing about the gentleman,’ he warned, ‘is that he is anything but casual where speech is concerned.’ The philosopher’s name was Confucius, and he was referring to a phenomenon that is all around us today. He was talking about Unspeak.
Let’s see how it works. What do the phrases ‘pro-choice’, ‘tax relief’, or ‘Friends of the Earth’ have in common? They are all names that also contain political arguments in a way that alternative names – say, ‘opposed to the criminalisation of abortion’, ‘tax reduction’, or ‘a group of environmental campaigners’ – do not.
Campaigners against abortion had from the early 1970s described their position as defending a ‘right to life’. The opposing camp, previously known as ‘pro-abortionists’, then renamed their position ‘pro-choice’, rhetorically softening what they favoured. Defending a woman’s ‘right to choose’ whether to have a baby or not, the slogan ‘pro-choice’ appealed to an apparently inviolable concept of individual responsibility. It sought to cast adversaries as ‘anti-choice’: as interfering, patriarchal dictators. However, the phrase also carried unfortunate associations with the consumerist ideal of ‘choice’, as though choosing cereals in a supermarket was an appropriate model for ethics. Indeed, anti-abortionists quickly trumped that linguistic strategy by beginning to call themselves ‘pro-life’, a term first recorded in 1976. The phrase ‘pro-life’ appeals to a sacred concept of ‘life’, and casts one’s opponents – those who think abortion should be legally available – necessarily as anti-life, in fact pro-death. In a conceptual battle of two moral ideals, ‘life’ easily wins out over ‘choice’.
To talk of ‘tax relief’, meanwhile, is already to take a position on socially desirable levels of taxation. One is relieved of a load, or a pain, or an illness. In 2004, the White House website advertised the Working Families Tax Relief Act with a peculiar little animation, in which white bars zoomed out across the screen, accompanied by a whooshing metallic sound effect. ‘Tax relief’ was thus pictured dynamically as like being released from prison. So, even before you start having a debate about tax levels, the phrase ‘tax relief’ already contains an argument that tax should be minimised whenever possible. ‘Tax relief’ goes hand in hand with a similar name for what it seeks to reduce: the ‘tax burden’, which describes something while already arguing that it should be as low as possible. After all, no one likes a burden.
‘Friends of the Earth’ is a network of environmental groups in seventy countries. The name efficiently consigns anyone who disagrees with their specific policies to the category of ‘Enemy of the Earth’. An enemy of the earth must be a very nasty sort of person indeed, a sci-fi villain like Ming the Merciless. Moreover, the claim that the Earth is the sort of thing you can be ‘friends’ with smuggles in a further holistic concept of the entire planet as a living organism: a Gaia theory, which carries a large implicit cargo of policy implications.
Each of these terms, then – ‘pro-life’, ‘tax relief’, ‘Friends of the Earth’ – is a name for something, but not a neutral name. It is a name that smuggles in a political opinion. And this is done in a remarkably efficient way: a whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners, and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics, where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.
Words and phrases that function in this special way go by many names. Some writers call them ‘evaluative-descriptive terms’. Others talk of ‘terministic screens’, or discuss the way debates are ‘framed’. I will call them Unspeak.
Double or nothing
Why the name Unspeak? It is an attempt to capture the Janus-like nature of such language. On the one hand, a phrase like ‘pro-life’ carries with it a whole unspoken argument – that a foetus should be considered a person; that ‘life’ must be preserved in all situations – that it does not set out explicitly. It represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem: in terms of ‘life’ rather than ‘choice’, or in terms of tax as something to be ‘relieved’ rather than, say, a way of ‘contributing’ to society.
Now, all language does both of these things to some extent. Every word arrives at the ear cloaked in a mist of associations and implications; and every choice of a particular word represents a decision not to use another one. But Unspeak deliberately amplifies and exploits these properties of language for political motives.The word Unspeak also inevitably recalls the vocabulary of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, specifically the Newspeak of his totalitarian society. But Newspeak was a cruder tool of manipulation. By erasing words from the lexicon, Newspeak made old, troublesome concepts literally unthinkable. Its B Vocabulary, meanwhile, consisted of ‘words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes’ – often crude euphemisms, such as ‘joycamp’ for ‘forced-labour camp’. (In fact, the existing phrase ‘concentration camp’ already did the same thing somewhat more subtly: people in ‘concentration camps’, after all, did not sit around in tents playing chess or writing poetry. That phrase originated as a British euphemism for its own practices in South Africa. Language that was originally used by the perpetrators of violence in order to justify it became the normal term: a pattern that we will see repeated in Chapter Four.)
But Unspeak does not need to burn dictionaries or invent totally new words to accomplish a similar task. As an Unspeak phrase becomes a widely used term of public debate, it tends to saturate the mind with one viewpoint and to make an opposing view ever more difficult to enunciate. Another term often used to describe political language is ‘doublespeak’, a word not coined by Orwell himself but clearly modelled on his concepts of Newspeak and Doublethink (in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ability to believe two opposing ideas simultaneously). Introduced in the 1950s, ‘doublespeak’ (or ‘double-talk’) is generally used to describe the phenomenon of saying one thing while meaning another. Ironically for a term that is often used by critics of euphemism, ‘doublespeak’ itself is really a euphemism for lying. But Unspeak does not say one thing while meaning another. It says one thing while really meaning that thing, in a more intensely loaded and revealing way than a casual glance might acknowledge. Indeed, this book is intended as a corrective to the common idea that politicians do nothing but spout hot air: that their speech, when it is not frankly misleading, is just empty and meaningless.
In an excellent anatomy of the logical fallacies in the rhetoric of Tony Blair, for example, philosopher Jamie Whyte nevertheless claimed: ‘Most politicians waste our time with platitudinous, visionary waffle.’ The most celebrated statement of such an opinion, meanwhile, was written by George Orwell himself, in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, published in 1946:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. [...] The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. [...] Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
‘Cloudy vagueness?’ ‘Pure wind?’ On the contrary, we can often learn a great deal about what politicians’ ‘real aims’ are from taking seriously, and closely studying, their ‘declared aims’. Take the time to unravel the assumptions packed up in a piece of Unspeak, and you will be better able to attack that chain of reasoning at its base. Forewarned is forearmed. Even the most brutal kind of euphemism teaches us valuable things about the mindset of the people who employ it – as we shall see, for example, when looking at the abominable case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Chapter Four. (In the above passage, even Orwell himself unthinkingly adopts the Soviet euphemism for mass murder – referring to ‘the Russian purges’ – without considering what it implies.)
The truth is that propagandistic speech can never be totally efficient. Language will not serve just one master. In sealing up their worldviews in little shells of Unspeak, politicians cannot help but reveal a lot about what they really mean, to anyone who listens closely enough.
Orwell’s essay, much-quoted as it is, evinces a kind of defeatist attitude: it boils down to saying that politicians are simply not worth listening to. A more valuable approach was demonstrated by Victor Klemperer, a Jewish writer who only narrowly escaped death in Nazi Germany. Klemperer survived because he was married to a non-Jewish woman, and so was able to hand down to posterity a masterful analysis of propaganda: his diary of the changing German language under Nazi rule, The Language of the Third Reich, first published in 1957. In his introduction, Klemperer emphasises the point that propagandistic speech can never completely hide what it is up to:
People are forever quoting Talleyrand’s remark that language is only there in order to hide the thoughts of the diplomat (or for that matter of any other shrewd and dubious person). But in fact the very opposite is true. Whatever it is that people are determined to hide, be it only from others, or from themselves, even things they carry around unconsciously – language reveals
all. That is no doubt the meaning of the aphorism Le style c’est l’homme; what a man says may be a pack of lies – but his true self is laid bare for all to see in the style of his utterances.
Klemperer goes on to demonstrate the truth of this by buildingup a portrait of the worldview of Hitler and Goebbels through detailed analysis of their attempts to twist the language to their own purposes: from the adoption of ‘fanatical’ as a term of praise, and a crazed insistence that the most trivial event is ‘historical’, to the dehumanisation of human beings through mechanical or financial metaphors (which continues, as we shall see, in contemporary English).
So, too, this book will contend that we may better understand the motivations of politicians, as well as the substance of political arguments, by paying close attention to terms of Unspeak such as ‘anti-social behaviour’, ‘tragedy’, and even ‘war on terror’, rather than sniffily dismissing them as ‘pure wind . . .