The New York Times reports that George Orwell's 1984 is "rising to the top of the Amazon best-seller list in the United States," and that, since last Friday, "the book has reached a 9,500 percent increase in sales." I'm glad we're revisiting Orwell's dystopian story, but sad for its increasing relevance in the context of Trump's administration.
As Adam Gopnik says in The New Yorker: "...The single most striking thing about his matchlessly strange first week is how primitive, atavistic, and uncomplicatedly brutal Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is turning out to be. We have to go back to 1984 because, in effect, we have to go back to 1948 to get the flavor."
The book's critique of the surveillance state, institutionalized gaslighting, and linguistic corruption is one of those rare required reads that's actually a required read. But once we're all finished reading or (re-reading) the book, let's also read (or re-read) "Politics and the English Language," Orwell's short, canonical guide to thinking and writing clearly.
The English language is one of the bloodless casualties of Trumpism. Their position of power and their dominance of the media allows Trump and his ilk to push their standard of political discourse on us all—not to mention their chief tactic of repeating dangerous falsehoods until (Gopnik again) "fighting the lie becomes not simply more dangerous but more exhausting than repeating it."
Unless we defend ourselves against it, we'll unconsciously imitate it. Our sentences and thoughts will fill with false choices, fragments, excessive superlatives, meaningless words, and dead metaphors.
Examples of Trump and Republicans using this kind of language abound. Crooked Hillary. Drain the swamp. "American carnage." If you want a full breakdown, read linguist George Lakoff's analysis of Trump's rhetoric. It's tremendous, really terrific. The best. The best analysis I think I've ever read (and by the way, I know more about rhetorical analysis than anyone, believe me). I'm reading it right now, it's so good.
But well-meaning liberals (including myself!) are guilty of using imprecise language, too. We've expanded the meaning of terms such as "victim" and "abuse" so much, and have admitted into our vocabulary vague phrases such as "safe space," "triggering," and "privilege" so often, that Richard Spencer and his fellow Nazis can easily appropriate them to suit a white nationalist ideology. (For more on this idea, read Sarah Schulman's Conflict Is Not Abuse.)
But we can change.
In "Politics," Orwell argues for the importance of precision. "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," he writes.
You can achieve precision, in thought and therefore in writing, by eliminating dead metaphors (and calling them out when you see them), using the active voice, condensing your sentences, and avoiding jargon.
For those who balk at any prescription, Orwell includes a caveat:"Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."
If you're doing nothing else to "resist" (a term that's also dangerously close to losing any meaning) the current administration, then following these guidelines is a good, personal place to start. Using clear, precise language will help create a shared reality large enough to exclude the unreal world that Trump and Bannon are trying to build.