Giving an Appearance of Solidity to Pure Wind
Back in 1948 British novelist George Orwell penned his seminal work Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even those who haven’t read the novel will recognize Big Brother, the heavily mustachioed, Stalin-like icon who represents the ubiquitous surveillance state. But to say that the central purpose of Orwell’s work was to warn against National Security Agency-style tactics or an oppressive society under a totalitarian government is to fail to fully convey Orwell’s message. Yes, Orwell opposed all forms of tyranny, but he was more concerned with how ideologies proliferate. One of his most important insights was the role language plays in shaping our thoughts and opinions. The term Orwellian does not mean anti-authoritarian. Neither does it refer to mass surveillance by an intrusive government. Properly used, Orwellian means the deceptive and manipulative use of language.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946) Orwell observed that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In other words, certain political language (propaganda) uses words and phrases to hide ugly truths. He foresaw how politicians would misstate and mislead in order to stay in power, using words to distort more than to inform, not to convey meaning but to undermine it.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell called this newspeak. And because words have the power to shape thought, newspeak is a powerful tool in the hands of a propagandist. Big Brother’s newspeak narrows citizens’ range of thought, making it difficult for them to express, or even to consider, unorthodox ideas that do not align with the state’s goals — in effect, preventing any kind of logical thinking. Taken to an extreme, the language of newspeak encourages something called doublethink, a hypnotic state of cognitive dissonance in which one is compelled to disregard one’s own perception in favor of the officially dictated narrative. In other words, people accept a distorted reality rather than reality itself and swallow the state’s distorted propositions and claims instead of considering the “ugly truths” of reality.
One ugly truth important to everyone today can be stated quite simply: Some Muslims, inspired by Islam and in the name of their religion and the prophet Muhammad, are orchestrating and executing acts of terrorism that seek to wreak devastation on those who do not submit to Islamic values. During the Obama administration, Americans have been deluged with Orwellian newspeak through the use of euphemisms that serve to sanitize ugly truths related to Islamic terrorism. In classic newspeak fashion, even the word terrorism seems to have been eliminated from official language. Janet Napolitano, Obama’s former chief of Homeland Security, preferred the term man-caused disasters because, she said, “it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.” So, terrorism is no longer a problem; violent extremism is. And the global war on terror, after first morphing into overseas contingency operations, is now simply referred to as CVE, short for countering violent extremism. The purpose of this Orwellian newspeak is to eschew all references to Islamic extremism, jihad, Islamic radicalism, and other such overt terms that make it difficult to deny that there’s a link between Islam and terrorism.
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Ryszard Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.…