Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Little Things: Trying to do better

Although this blog is supposed to be my ramblings, we're all too busy to waste time with bad writing. So, from now on, I will try to be more disciplined by leaning on a literary hero of mine...

George Orwell was one of the most important and powerful writers of modern times, and if you know him, you will know how beautifully he wrote on topics related to human flourishing. Did you also know how forcefully he campaigned against lazy writing though?

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend his Politics and the English Language essay, published in 1946, in which Orwell criticizes (amongst other things) "ugly and inaccurate" written English.

In that essay, Orwell even goes so far as to propose a "Remedy of Six Rules" as follows:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell wisely suggests that writers apply these rules because "If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself."

Pure genius.

I suspect that Orwell would be appalled and thrilled in equal measure if he were alive to witness the blogosphere today, and so out of respect to his memory, and to you, dear readers, I will try to apply Orwell's Six Rules to my future posts.

Aside: Reflecting on Orwell's first rule and trying to think of a unique figure of speech reminded me of a brilliant piece titled "You shut your goddamn carbon-taxin' mouth" published a few months ago by an Australian blogger named Geoff Lemon. Lemon's opening sentence was a perfect example of the power of the first rule in action:
Three days on from Julia Gillard’s policy announcement, and the most striking characteristic of the carbon tax debate is just how closely it resembles a dozen retards trying to fuck a doorknob. 
Now, there's is a metaphor that we are not used to seeing in print, and although crude, it surely helped to hook in a massive readership for Lemon's important post - It is well worth reading if you haven't already.

Coming back to the theme of the blog though, I love Politics and the English Language for more than just the six rules - In it Orwell is scathing against what he calls "political language" that is so often used to hide the truth:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called PACIFICATION. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Despite Orwell's warnings, political language is as devastating to sustainable human flourishing today as it was in 1946. Political language is still "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

If anything, in today's world of increased economic, political, and media concentration, the use of political language may be even worse than during the WWII propaganda years that Orwell railed against. Yes, I admit that it is unpleasant to be constantly "calling up mental pictures" of war, religious extremism, economic refugees, climate chaos, etc. Honest reflection nonetheless forces us to acknowledge that we are not so different to the people suffering and dying because of these things today. Further honest reflection forces us to acknowledge that if we continue to live unsustainably then eventually, it will be us, or people that we know being described in political language.

It is time to stop trying to defend the indefensible - It is time to put a true name to these things so we can start an honest dialogue to find solutions.

I hope you'll stick around and help. Oh, and please do let me know how I'm doing against Orwell's rules.

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