Empowering or Cowering


Empowering or Cowering

Years ago, in a justifiably famous essay titled "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell pointed out that the way politicians use language tends to confuse the public and destroy the clear communication that is the basis of a true democratic politics. His novel 1984 shows how a totalitarian state can destroy people's understanding of the meaning of words in order to keep those people in a state of oppression. The cure for this is for all of us to use words clearly, to insist that academics and politicians speak to us in a language we all can understand. From the days of the Puritans, the plain style has been at the root of all true social revolution. The rules that maintain clear communication are thus tools of progressive, not reactionary, politics. Although some snobs defend strict rules simply to hold onto conservative structures of power, good reasons exist to insist on rules that keep the language from the incomprehensible extremes of both snobs and slobs.

For some reason, academic writers on the left, who, like Orwell, used to be champions of the plain style, today hide themselves in the thick jungle of some of the most impenetrable prose on the planet. This protects them, perhaps, from the state legislators who fund their programs and the parents who pay them to educate their kids. Perhaps the fact that these self-proclaimed radicals sound like the elitists of old is a clue to their true agenda. These would-be party bosses insist that their ideas are so complex that only a complex language can possibly do justice to their subtle brilliance. But when a mischievous scientist named Alan Sokal wrote a satirical piece of nonsense in this style and sent it to a prestigious academic journal, the article was published without a question. Even the practitioners of this style haven't the vaguest idea what it means.


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