Donald Trump proves Orwell’s point: Honest language is the first casualty in politics

Note to readers: This column was published just before the 2016 American presidential election. I am re-posting it now given the new book on Donald Trump and the inevitable excuses made for him by some.

My point in 2016 and now is that while politics, as with much of life, offers us imperfection and limited choices, that doesn't mean we must use dishonest language in how we describe people, events or our own choices. Clear language is necessary as an aid to clear thinking, and to moral clarity. ~

Donald Trump proves Orwell’s point: Honest language is the first casualty in politics

For anyone who wonders how otherwise decent people - a doctor such as Ben Carson or religious leaders who should value character over power - can defend Donald Trump at this late hour after cascading verbal abuse, tyrant praising, contempt for women and cruelty, several plausible explanations exist.

Some Americans will vote for Trump because they believe he is in their corner; others think he'd appoint a Supreme Court justice to their liking; others sincerely believe Hillary Clinton would be a worse president.

Whatever the reason, here's the problem: Despite Trump's scatterbrained, policy-inattentive demonstrably crude unfitness for public office, those who defend him are too attached to winning at any cost. That hollows out otherwise principled people who then corrupt language to defend the indefensible.

This destructive dynamic is not new. It was famously noted by George Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. For Orwell, the decline of clear language is ultimately traceable to "political and economic causes."

Orwell meant that once people take a position for the sake of political expediency or in pursuit of money, and beyond acceptable, ethical means to moderate ends, they often take the next step: Defending questionable policies or poor behaviour using deliberately misleading language lest their unprincipled state be nakedly exposed.

Examples are legion. The word games can be mildly deceptive or, witness Trump and his defenders, require people to suspend their own common sense judgment.

An example of the former: Earlier this year, the Alberta government announced an (extra) $3 billion carbon tax and claimed it was revenue neutral. The province's logic: The new tax will be spent in Alberta.

But any honest number-cruncher defines revenue neutrality as when governments drop the tax burden by an amount equal to the rise in some other tax. Thus, authentic language takes a hit because of politics.

Similarly, when the federal department of industry announces a taxpayer-funded grant to some company but labels it an investment, Orwell's observation that language declines for political and economic reasons is again proven apt.

(A useful distinction: Angel investors risk private money in pursuit of returns; politicians offer taxpayer dollars in pursuit of votes. The latter distorts incentives and economic outcomes. Financial returns to taxpayers, if ever, are wholly accidental.)

Can anything be done about such bastardized, politicized language?

Orwell was an optimist, sort of. Because unprincipled actions contaminate language, which further degrades character in a self-reinforcing downward spiral, Orwell thought the decline of speech, politics, character, and perhaps even civilization, could be reversed with clearer language.

Thus the first place to yell "Stop" is with language itself. That means frankness, fresh imagery and precision in writing: No lazy clichés or euphemisms. Agree or disagree with something or someone, but at least name it (or the person) properly.

For instance, Orwell argued that 'collateral damage' in war is more honestly known as 'civilian casualties.' People in our age might similarly, frankly revise other examples of deliberately clouded language in politics, bureaucracies or business.

Back to Trump and his unsuitability for public office, but also the verbal pretzel twists performed by his apologists: Recall Trump's 11-year-old interview on how he treats women. When multiple women later confirmed how Trump's boorish actions were consistent with his words, his defenders then parroted his misleading politically inspired deception of the sort Orwell thought common.

So straighten out the pretzel: Trump's talk was never "locker-room talk." He was clearly bragging about sexual assault.

More generally, Trump's approach to women, business, the weak and the handicapped, debate, opponents, journalists and any critic is consistent: predatory and reminiscent of our unevolved jungle ancestors.

Here's the benefit of accurate words in public life: Keep language clear from the start and fewer people might then attach themselves to dubious schemes, policies or a con man.

~

Mark Milke, October 29, 2016, Calgary Herald, A12

Mark Milke