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Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Will Self recently published an article in which he proclaimed George Orwell a “literary mediocrity” and his admirers even more so. In particular, he condemns Orwell’s rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language” as a reaction to the inevitable growth and change of language. My first reaction to these statements is that nobody has a right to condemn an influential writer as mediocre unless they can demonstrate at least equal skill, which, both analytically and structurally, Self has not done. My second is that his interpretation is so unsupported that it seems a willful misunderstanding.

If you have any interest in writing at all, you have probably seen Orwell’s rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Contrary to Self, these rules are concerned with clarity, so to claim that they are even implicitly about the evolution of language is forced. Besides, when “Politics and the English Language” ends with the claim that its topic “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear,” Orwell cannot possibly be said to be resisting linguistic change. In fact, far from being against change, Orwell’s rules overall advocate originality, and an avoidance of over-used expressions.

Moreover, as I used to explain every semester when teaching university composition, the rules are far more flexible than a general impression of them suggests. For example, most people reading the first rule emphasize “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech.” However, Orwell’s real concern is expressed in the words that most people forget: “which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell is not trying to ban figures of speech, but to encourage original, expressive ones.

Similarly, Orwell’s second rule does not blindly favor short words or longer ones. The result of following such a rule would be an affected simplicity of the kind that you sometimes see in Hemingway. If you mean to convey only a general sense of size, then “big” might do, but if you want to suggest something truly outsized, then “humongous” would be a more appropriate word choice, even though it is three times as long.
In the same way, “Never use the passive where you can use the active” proposes a general rule, but makes the choice a matter of purpose. If you want to suggest helplessness in a short story, “A groan issued from his lips” would be a better choice than “he groaned,” and never mind that it is in the passive voice. Nor, to judge from Orwell’s own writing, would he hesitate to use “a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word” if no “everyday English equivalent” comes to mind.

However, of all Orwell’s six rules, the last one is the most important. “Politics and the English Language” is all about original, forceful, and clear expression. With these concerns, presumably the last thing Orwell wanted to do was limit expression artificially, so in the last rules, he specifically provides for exceptions. He is talking about general tendencies, but in the end what counts for him is whatever works, not keeping the rules. “One could keep all of them and still write bad English,” he admits in the paragraph after them, and their sole virtue is that even a bad example of them would avoid the over-inflated type of English he condemns.

Of course, like all writers, when Orwell advises about writing, he is on some level rationalizing his own style, and his advice may not be as meaningful to some readers as to others. However, before Self or anyone dismisses his work as mediocre or out of date, they should at least do him the courtesy of responding to what he actually said, instead of debunking what they imagine he says.

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Sadly, I’ve come to believe that most groups working for social change are dragged down by those I call lifestyle activists – people who believe the right principles, but who have no belief or interest in the possibility of change. Instead, their main interest is to define themselves and denigrate others by expressing activist beliefs.

For example, I recently read a conversation on Twitter about the shortage of women in technology. One lifestyle activist suggested that the problem was not that women weren’t in the field already. A man with a history of support for women in computing commented, “it’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? It’s systemic. It’s not like we just discard all the women resumes,” and the lifestyle activist accused him of patronizing her. He responded mildly, saying he was trying to understand, and she replied that she wasn’t “someone who gives a fuck about helping you.” After he politely bowed out of the conversation, she continued to make sarcastic comments aimed at what he had said.

It’s not surprising, of course, that an advocate for women in technology should get tired of continually hearing the same questions. Repetition of basic questions is rarely endearing. Nor should she be expected to welcome mansplaining – men telling her what she already knows first hand far better than they should.

Yet, at the same time, from the context, the man was obviously an ally. If he asked questions that were too common, he seemed open enough that – unlike most men with similar questions – he could probably be taught something. However, instead of taking the chance to educate him, the lifestyle activist leaped to the conclusion that he was as clueless as other men she had encountered and attacked him.

Not being a total stranger to activism myself, I’m tempted to ask the lifestyle activist what she expects. If you take positions that are outside the social norm, you shouldn’t exactly be shocked that people want to talk about them. You need to set borders so that you don’t spend more time answering questions than you care to and you may grumble in private about ignorant questions and even more ignorant outsiders – but the one thing you should never do is forget that, for other people, when you speak you represent your cause. If you are rude, what outsiders will remember is not that you personaly were rude, but that people who support your cause in general are rude. Those who want to help bring about change can never afford to forget the fact that, by being an activist, you invite others to view you as a teacher.

Sadly, though, the woman in this example was not motivated by any such understanding. Instead, the tenets of feminism were weapons for her personal use. She used them to lash out at a stranger in revenge for past encounters with others. If the idea that she might be hurting her own cause occurred to her, it had no visible effect on her behavior. Her reaction was so far beyond anything justified by the exchange that it looks like nothing except an expression of ego. If the man or anyone reading the exchange didn’t become hostile to feminism in technology, the reason has more to do with them than with her.

This kind of lifestyle activism is not new. George Orwell noted in the 1930s and 1940s that the English left had been out of power so long that most of its members were incapable of suggesting responsible policy alternatives. All they could do was condemn existing policies and reinforce their identity as leftists. You can can see the same sort of reaction today on the left, or in environmentalism or any other cause intended to create change.

Lifestyle activism is so prevalent that I think it explains why society as a whole is so slow to change. Too many of those who appear to be working for change are really busy feeling good about themselves at the expense of their alleged causes.

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George Orwell’s legacy includes dozens of memorable phrases. They include “Big Brother is watching you,” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” and “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” all of which are more chilling for seeming all too probable. But if anything, he is even better known for the words he coined, like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” However, one Orwellian coining that I’ve always wished had become a part of English is “duckspeak.”

According to Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “duckspeak” means superficially different things depending to whom it is applied. When used of a speaker who follows the current orthodoxy, it is a word of approval. However, when applied to an enemy, it’s an insult;.

In its vividness, the word reminds me of some the great invective of the eighteenth century, including “toady,” “bootlicker” and “lickspittle.” And now I think, the eighteenth century developed a near-synonym for duckspeak, too – “cant.”

Both cant and duckspeak refer to a bland and unthinking expression of conventional ideas, often with enthusiasm and stubbornness. The difference is that cant was usually applied to statements that the speaker disagreed with. Duckspeak retains that application, but becomes a compliment when you agree with the statement, because speaking in cliches implies an unthinking loyalty. The implication is that a person who is a duckspeaker is unlikely to be disloyal, because they have no original thoughts.

Essentially, duckspeakers are those who break every rule for clear expression that George Orwell summarized in “Politics and the English Language.” They don’t use short, effective words; they use long, vague ones that obscure their meaning. They frown on original thought, and prefer instead to string cliches together into an approximation of meaning.

Rather than communication, their goals are inter-personal. They may hope that a flow of empty phrases will silence the opposition and impress bystanders into a silent admiration of their eloquence. However, their main purpose – quite unconsciously – is to show themselves orthodox followers of whatever line of thinking they happen to support.

The idea that speech or writing might be used to get things done is foreign to their actions, although when you point out the fact, they are likely to stare at you and wonder why you are stating the obvious – thereby proving that they are also engaged in what Orwell termed “doublethink,” the holding of two completely contradictory ideas at the same time.

Examples of duckspeak are everywhere. You might say that it is the dialect of modern industrial culture. But what got me thinking about duckspeak was the incident at PyCon that people call Donglegate. Hearing two men behind her joking about big dongles, Adria Richards posted a picture of them on Twitter to shame them, and complained to the conference organizers, who reprimanded the men. Richards later blogged about the incident with what can only be called a triumphant tone, suggesting she had struck a blow for women in technology. Soon after, others started giving their opinion of what happened. Richards and one of the jokers lost their jobs, and anti-feminists sent her death and rape threats.

Anybody with a claim to impartiality might have seen these events as evidence that feminism has come to high-tech, and that exactly how it will fit into that sub-culture needs to be discussed. However, with few exceptions, people on both sides could only respond with duckspeak.

The anti-feminists attacked Richards for the joker’s loss of his job, while openly rejoicing when she lost hers. They labeled her a stereotypical feminist – dictatorial, humorless, and erratic – and suggested that she deserved what happened to her. Rather than trying to analyze the memes that might have caused Donglegate, they used it as an excuse for the same old invective, ignoring the fact that many things need to change.

But to my dismay, the feminists – the women and men I support – responded as badly.. They excused Richards’ actions on the grounds that talking to the jokers one-on- one might be difficult for a woman, ignoring the fact Richards is articulate and capable. They petitioned for Richards’ employer to rehire her, while showing little sympathy for the fired joker, suggesting that he deserved what happened to him. They painted her as the victim of racism and misogyny (which she was), but made little mention of her arrogance and carelessness.

In other words, all nuance was lost in the discussion, and with it any hope for serious discussion. Both sides were too busy proving their orthodoxy to manage anything constructive.

Aside from a possible emotional catharsis, all that came out of the affair was the tendency of some anti-feminists to quote their opponents in squeaky voices. To a reader of Orwell like me, they seemed to have independently re-invented duckspeak in the most literal sense. But of course, what they never noticed is their verbal manifestos could have been lampooned in exactly the same. way.

Most people didn’t even get that much from the affair. We are all so used to public discussion degenerating in this way that most of us forget that it could be conducted in any other way.

That’s probably why duckspeak, like cant before it, has become obsolete. You don’t need a word for the norm. It’s just how people behave.

Still, watching episodes like Donglegate unfold, I conclude that a revival at least of duckspeak, with its ambiguous meanings, would be a useful way to improve public thought. Watching the anti-feminists and feminists demonstrate their separate orthodoxies, I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Animal Farm, in which humans and pigs are mingling, and the watching animals are having an increasingly hard time telling the two apart.

That’s where duckspeak leads. And if, by any chance I’m guilty of it here, then all I can say is – quack to you, too.

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I like to say that the secret of writing well is an understanding of structure. This emphasis on structure probably explains why I am quick to pick up on any writer’s tics – the favorite phrases that they overuse, and fall back on for an easy means of expression.

Some tics belong to a group of writers. For instance, in the 1990s, every second fantasy and science fiction writer seemed to use the sentence “He shook his head to clear it.” The subject of the sentence was never “she;” even now, you can find over 7800 instances of the sentences on Google with “he” and none with “she.” It was used to express astonishment, or, sometimes, a change of direction in thought. Never mind that nobody actually shakes their head in either circumstance. For a while, the phrase was so common that for a while you could make an accurate guess about who had been reading whom.

However, more often, tics belong to individual writers. George Orwell, for example, was fond of lists of all sorts. More recently, Harry Turtledove, the alternate history writer whom I read when I want some intelligent light fiction, has shown such an extreme fondness for having characters “Am I wrong?” or some variation that I find myself keeping count as I read. Turtledove is an extremely prolific writer, so some tics are almost inevitable in his work, but the question always seems unidiomatic to me, especially when asked by a Nazi officer or a Roman governor, perhaps because – to my ear – it would sound best when spoken in a New York Jewish accent.

For me, the worst sense of this awareness of tics is that I am always painfully aware of my own. When I speak, I am painfully aware of every “um” that I utter. When I write, the situation is far worse. I have managed to retire a habit I had a decade ago of starting a sentence with “sure” to give informal emphasis, but other habits have crept in to replace it, such as my fondness for “chances are.” I also have an unusual fondness for the dash, because I tend naturally to a digressive style with quick asides and changes of thought.

But my most obvious tic is a fondness for conjunctions. Because I think hard about structure, I want to make sure that how one sentence or paragraph connects to another is obvious to anyone who reads my writing. The result is that my first drafts are peppered with “however”s, “but”s, and “similarly”s. Give me the faintest hint of a list, I’ll trot out “to begin with” or “firstly.” I’m not sure where the habit began, but I suspect that it’s legacy of teaching composition to hundreds of first year university and college students.

Such tics are, in fact, a form of cliche. Especially when writing quickly or in a first draft, almost everybody will reach for their own set of cliches because they are more concerned with a rough expression of their thoughts than precision or choosing their words carefully. And nothing’s wrong with that. Even Shakespeare had his share of tics, including a fondness for “the primrose path.”

But if you’re a writer with any interesting in expressing yourself well, you will become aware of your own tics, and try to vary or severely limit them. For instance, my tendency to conjunctions is so strong that one of the first things I do when revising is to see where the connection between thoughts is so obvious that I can leave out the conjunction. Usually, I can delete forty percent of them or more. The same is true of my dashes to an even greater degree.

I’m also on watch for new tics creeping in. Otherwise, I risk becoming a parody of myself, a set of mannerisms rather than someone expressing any serious or entertaining thought.

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I won’t wear a T-shirt that advertises a product or a company. The way I figure, if I’m going to be a walking billboard, you’re going to have to pay me – assuming you can coax me into doing it at all. The closest I come are T-shirts advertising a cause I support, such as the Free Software Foundation, or a small band or art exhibit I happen to like. But, in reaction to the trend towards the billboard T-shirt, my preference is for T-shirt art that is a joke to me, but is obscure to most other people.

During the 1990s, one of my prize possessions was a Miskatonic University T-shirt. Readers of H. P. Lovecraft will recognize the name of the university whose faculty often explored the supernatural, and whose library contained a private collection full of deadly occult lore, such as the Necronomicon. The shirt showed some pseudo-classical buildings with tentacles coming out of the building, and students fleeing from it. Since I was a sessional instructor at the time, I wore that T-shirt around the English Department a lot (which, come to think of it may have something to do with the fact that I parted from academia; undoubtedly, the rather humorless chair thought I was making a statement – and, looking back, I suppose I was).

A few years ago, my favorite obscure T-shirt was from the Linux Journal. On the back, it read, “In a world without fences, who needs gates?” Members of the free software community will recognize that as part of a longer comment that used to be common in many people’s email signature: “In a world without walls, who needs windows? In a world without fences, who needs gates?” No doubt Microsoft’s legal counsels would like to eradicate the comment, but the lack of capital letters leaves the reference open to interpretation. Whenever I wear this T-shirt, someone is sure to come up to me on the street and congratulate me on it, but most people walk past it blankly.

Another favorite of mine reads simply, “++ungood” (read “double plus ungood”).The slogan is Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. As you may recall, part of the motivation behind Newspeak was to regularize and simplify English so as to remove certain tendencies of thought. Specifically, rather than use a list of comparatives like good, better, best, Orwell’s language for totalitarians reduced them all to variations of good. Similarly, rather than having “bad” as a separate word, Newspeak reduced it to the opposite of good. So, “++ungood” means “bad” or, more accurately “wicked,” and carries a political overtone of “politically undesirable” as well.

But my latest acquisition is the most obscure of all. It comes courteous of Ben Mako Hill, an executive of the Free Software Foundation and a strong advocate of free culture, who kindly put the artwork online for anyone to use free. Meant to resemble the exercise gear issued by universities that students once stole but can now buy as souvenirs in most campus book stores, it reads “Property of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.” Proudhon, as every scholar of anarchist philosophy (and nobody else) knows, is the political writer who coined the phrase “Property is theft.”

What I like about these obscure T-shirts (besides the polite but puzzled look down at the T-shirt shop where I get them made up) is that, although most people don’t get them, they are often excuses for people to start talking to you. And when someone does understand them, you know that you have at least some small thing in common with them. So, I foresee my obscure T-shirt collection growing.

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