Should we always say what we mean, and mean what we say? Reflections on politics and the English language
It seems obvious that political speech ought to be sincere and that many of our problems arise when politicians try to cover up their true meaning with cloudy phrases, jargon and untruths. As George Orwell put it in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “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.” Yet although Orwell’s quest for linguistic clarity is to be applauded, the problem of political language cannot be reduced to the idea that everything would be better if people simply said what they meant. Orwell himself expressed some of his most powerful ideas in the form of fiction – a deliberate departure from reality. This lecture will consider examples of when failing to “say what we mean” may be justifiable, and will ask what lessons we can draw for the improvement of contemporary political speech.