Citizen Taxpayer

Our Orwellian political language

By Harry Vandervlist

The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.” George Orwell offers these colourful examples of debased political language in his classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Over 60 years later, here in Alberta, the way we talk politics is far less ridiculous… isn’t it?

Some days it seems that Alberta’s entire political lexicon can be reduced to a few phrases: “getting our fiscal house in order,” “making tough choices,” “we don’t pick winners,” “stop throwing money at the problem,” “stay the course,” “don’t blink.” Even though none of these clichés has quite the same epic resonance as the ludicrous 1940s formulas Orwell cites, it’s still worth asking: what would the Indian-born, Cambridge-educated Etonian make of the language Alberta politicians use today? Could his remedies help improve it, or is Alberta’s political language now beyond remedy?

Ugly, vague and lazy: that’s how Orwell described 1940s political language. When prefab phrases click together into Lego-like sentences, no thinking is required of the speaker or listener. His examples show how “staleness of imagery,” “lack of precision” and “dying metaphors” distort truth. This is where Orwell’s view gets its ethical force. He contends, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Yet he also found room for optimism. You see this in the famous conclusion to his essay, where he writes:

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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs.

I was educated into this sense of a guardedly optimistic mission for good writing. If I could see through the “pure wind,” and help others see through it by learning what good language looks like, and by trying to practise it, I might contribute to a better-founded, less corrupt politics. Better prose would make the world less hospitable to lies. At the very least, it would make stupidity obvious, something both entertaining (if the stupidity is not your own) and useful (when it is).

English teachers, readers and writers still find inspiration in Orwell’s view. And yet all the propaganda discoveries of the first half of the century, which Orwell knew so well, were still just sprouts compared to the jungles of obfuscation, “truthiness” and plain lies we contend with today. For the past 30 years, lavishly funded “institutes” have forged new alloys of guile and half-truth into phrases broadcast by dedicated networks of talk-radio hosts, bloggers and print pundits. To this propagation of what Orwell condemned as “mental vice,” the most advanced advertising wiles and most recent discoveries of cognitive science add their powerful elements. So roll over, George Orwell, and give E. B. White the news: things have grown far, far more complicated.

Part of the complication, when it comes to Alberta’s political language, is a wholesale acceptance of free market rhetoric. The past 30 years has seen a huge shift of political discourse in this direction across the western world: the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand all speak a different political language today than they did in 1980. How different? For examples of Alberta governments speaking in their chosen tongue, let’s compare throne speeches across this three-decade gap. Here’s how Ralph G. Steinhauer (Alberta’s first Lieutenant-Governor of Aboriginal background) introduced the 1978 legislative session:

Alberta must be one of the most fortunate places in the world in which to live. We are blessed with a bounty of natural resources. Integrity and stability are the hallmarks of our Legislature, our courts and our institutions. Alberta is vibrant and forward looking; our people are talented and resourceful. A continuously expanding economy has provided the basis for increases in the quality of life for Albertans whether at work, participating in recreation, enjoying the arts or at home with their families. My government realizes, however, that there are still a number of Albertans who are not enjoying fully the benefits of our general prosperity. We are sensitive to these inequities and will continue to open up new opportunities, to initiate reforms and to enrich existing programs.

The ritual of giving thanks for Alberta’s fortunate position is (appropriately enough) part of every throne speech. But after that, notice what Steinhauer is most concerned with: quality of life, recreation and the arts, remedying inequities and even enriching existing programs. Compare the language of February 2011, when Lieutenant-Governor Donald S. Ethell began by referencing his experience in the military:

I saw many tragedies, including hunger, disease, conflict, violence and war. I also observed the triumph of the human spirit… These experiences filled me with gratitude to live in a country and a province so blessed as Canada and Alberta are. They reaffirmed the values of citizenship and service to others. And they underscored the absolute necessity of democracy and the rule of law… These are the values I will work to promote through my service. And it is here, in this Legislature, where those values will guide the people Albertans have entrusted with public office. It is here where the people’s business is conducted… As Alberta takes its first steps from recession to recovery, fundamental changes are happening in the global economy. Our province must change too if it is to flourish in the new economy, just as it did in the old…. Your government is committed to investing in Alberta’s future, so our great province can realize its full potential.”

The 2011 speech reflects a more troubled world: Steinhauer’s acknowledgement of “integrity and stability” has been replaced by a sense of chaos on the doorstep. And notice the shift to economistic jargon: “investing in Alberta’s future,” “fundamental changes in the global economy” and so on. Most strikingly, the legislature has become the province’s Head Office, “where the people’s business is conducted.”

Of course, Orwell recognized that political language changes over time. In his own day, though, political language was still about politics: it spoke of democracy and citizenship. Today, political language is more often about economics and finance. I know—because I hear it so often—that I’m a “taxpayer” or even a “stakeholder” before I am a citizen. Such changes in language have the power to undermine democratic principles.

How this change came about is a story much larger than Alberta. This is where those lavishly funded institutes come in. In 2003 the New York Times estimated that “Heritage and other conservative think tanks—the best known being the libertarian Cato Institute and the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute—spent an estimated $1-billion promoting conservative ideas in the 1990s.”

20th century propaganda? More sprouts compared to the jungles of “truthiness” and plain lies today.

This effort created a language, which was not only focused on economics more than matters of citizenship and community, but, as John Podesta, the last White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, points out, also offers a very simple lexicon. Conservative politicians, he says, have their six words in a bumper sticker: “Less government. Lower taxes. Less welfare.” Podesta notes that there’s no left-wing bumper sticker: “It’s harder for us, because we believe in a lot more things.’’ Nuanced policy can’t be reduced to a jingle. Alberta’s political jargon may not be quite as tightly focused as that of the US, but it can come close. Where the US bumper sticker uses six words, one Albertan equivalent needs 11: “Defend the West. No Kyoto. No Wheat Board. No gun registry.”

Alberta’s political language has taken an economistic idiom and a tight focus on a few simple messages from the US. What other signature moves have we borrowed? One of the most insidious is “the false equivalency.” I first experienced this when, back in the mid-1990s, I represented the University of Calgary Faculty Association at a government roundtable on post-secondary education. Each discussion group included “stakeholders”: students, professors, administrators and businesspeople. We started discussing libraries, and our private-sector representative stated that he simply couldn’t figure out the business model behind public libraries: “I mean, you have two places you can go to get books, maybe they’re even side by side on the same street,” he said. “One has a business model, and the other one doesn’t. Libraries are just another book provider competing with bookstores, but they suck up taxpayers’ money.”

In some ways this was my first direct experience of what seemed like an unbridgeable gap of conflicting assumptions, summed up in a different understanding of a few key words—so it took me a minute to put together a reply. First, I argued that libraries provide public education and access to information such as archived periodicals. Libraries are a portal to vast catalogues of rarely consulted books, while bookstores have to stick with current material and a few classics. My roundtable counterpart, perhaps like many people, had seen libraries as simply “providers” of the same books as are in stores. Implicit in his comment were several assumptions: that a book is merely a commodity to be sold for the profit of a business; that people who can’t afford to buy books should be denied access to our intellectual heritage; that society doesn’t benefit by providing open access to books; and that only the market should be the “provider” of books.

I realized that the language which allowed him to dub both bookstores and libraries “book providers” blurred their differences, reinforcing and legitimizing his ignorance. A bland middle term such as “provider” helps establish false equivalence—library equals bookstore—which then prompts the question “Hey, why is one book provider supported by tax dollars, while the other book provider must risk capital and demonstrate entrepreneurial hustle in order to survive?”

You can probably think of your own examples—but the ultimate false equivalency may well be this one: the government is just like your own private household, and so a province’s deficit resembles your own mortgage and other personal debts. The catchphrase here is, of course, getting our fiscal “house” in order. This particular phrase has driven me crazy for years. After all, my own personal fiscal house can’t issue bonds to help cover my long-term obligations. Nor can I levy taxes on members of my household. Governments, however, can. Governments must also make investments that—thankfully—my little fiscal house need never contemplate: building roads, hospitals, legal systems… Anyway, it’s completely misleading to imply any detailed equivalence between government and personal finances. Yet the parallel embedded in that familiar phrase is accepted every day.

How can such phrases have eluded scrutiny for so long? I turned to an expert on the psychology of persuasion—and it quickly became clear just how far today’s verbal manoeuvres go beyond Orwell’s warnings. Julie Sedivy is a professor of linguistics and psychology at the U of C. I read her book Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You and then asked her about the “fiscal house” phrase in particular. How is it that obvious nonsense can carry such persuasive weight?

The idea of running a household is familiar and easy to understand. Sedivy compared it to that memorable Cold War phrase “the domino theory.” Like the domino image, she said, the “fiscal house” image “is very accessible. It takes a complicated concept and makes it simple and concrete. Does it create inaccuracies in the process? Yes, but those aren’t evident in the metaphor. What sticks is the organization of information in ways that make it intuitively accessible.”

Ah, intuition, that powerful but irrational guide to making decisions that just feel right. Sedivy cites studies showing how susceptible we all are to having our intuition and behaviour shaped for us—sometimes by the tiniest changes in wording. In one study, prospective voters were asked two questions just before an election: “How important is it for you vote?” or “How important is it for you to be a voter?” (Did you notice the difference?) The slight change in wording corresponded to a 10 per cent higher turnout among voters asked the second question. Sedivy said this amounts to an effect more powerful than gender or demographics. It seems to come from an appeal to identity—“being” a voter. Such appeals loom large in Alberta’s political idiom. In the three years she has lived and worked here, Sedivy has noticed how frequently political speakers refer to “Albertan values.”

“That phrase comes up again and again, “ she said. “I’ve heard Danielle Smith use it repeatedly. I’ve heard Doug Horner and Rick Orman use it.” By contrast, she observed with a laugh, “I lived in Rhode Island for 12 years, and nobody ever talked about Rhode Island values.” Why is talk of “Albertan values” so effective? Because “it creates an identity for you to step into”—and if you don’t agree with the politician speaking—“you have to reject being an Albertan,” she said.

Both the PC and Wildrose parties have effectively recruited such identifications, and reinforced them with other strategies, from sheer repetition to more strategic manoeuvres such as framing Alberta as an “outsider” within Canada (as in the now-dated phrase “the West wants in,” which seemed to pre-empt discussion about if, why or how far it may have been “out”).

The unconscious effects of such political language can be difficult to combat. By the time you’ve heard a phrase and intuitively accepted it, the battle may already be over. Indeed, challenging it requires undoing a long-established chain of associations. This is how Sedivy speculates that Ralph Klein could so effectively employ another phrase to ignore dissent: “I don’t do protests.”

In April 2000, healthcare rallies brought almost 10,000 Albertans out against Conservative policies. In the legislature, Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth asked Klein when he was going to live up to another of his signature phrases, “He listens, he cares.” Klein replied that even when he was environment minister, he saw tons of protests. “I can recall one at the Oldman Dam where there were over 10,000 protesters,” he said. “I didn’t attend then, and I don’t do protests now, nor do I deny anyone the right to protest. It’s all part of democracy.”

Umm… what? His reply seems to say, “Sure, you have the democratic right to demonstrate, and I have the right to ignore you.” However, Klein never uses the words “demonstrate” or “speak out.” For Sedivy, his word choice—with its associations with the 1960s beaded, headband-wearing “protesters”—was enough to legitimize, in many Albertans’ minds, Klein’s bland dismissal of citizen voices. “Sometimes all it takes is a shared history that you can tap into,” Sedivy says. “This is what Klein did with ‘protest.’It activated a salient set of memories.”

Orwell diagnosed a degradation in political language, and foresaw how it served certain political purposes. But researchers such as Sedivy show us something even more alarming: just how easy it is to manipulate our responses by the power of even a single word. Some writers on political language, most notably George Lakoff (author, with Mark Johnson, of Metaphors We Live By) account for the power of language to shape thought through framing.

For example, there’s the “framing effect” of phrases such as “tax relief,” which tells me, before we even start to debate, that taxes are an affliction requiring “relief.” Lakoff also suggests that the political languages of right and left appeal to differing visions of the family: social conservatives appeal to a “stern father” vision, while progressives evoke a “nurturing mother” (a view quite effectively ridiculed in the phrase “nanny state”).

“Language can be really powerful even if it doesn’t tap into this conceptual organization,” Sedivy adds. Simple repetition may be all that’s required: “Just link the word ‘liberal’ often enough with an anti-Albertan view, and you don’t have to have a systematic way of framing information.”

What could be more unsettling than the brutal simplicity of such techniques, and our susceptibility to them as voters and consumers? And what recourse does one have? Orwell’s “jeering” can’t do the job alone (sorry, Jon Stewart). According to Sedivy, voters need to “let go of their subjective impression that their political decisions are driven largely or mostly by reason.” Until everyone admits that “we’re often being pushed around by a variety of different psychological mechanisms,” and until we counterbalance this, we continue to fool ourselves. Sedivy finds the situation so alarming that she sees arguments for radical reform—including even the disallowing of paid political advertising.

2012 will be a banner year for observers of political language in Alberta. If Alison Redford is correct in saying politics have caught up with the present, does that include using precise, fresh language such as Orwell advocates? Does the “politics in complete sentences” that Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi claims to practise make his sentences less manipulative—or more subtly so? More than ever, citizens will need to think past preformulated phrases and intuitive responses, and beyond this, to recognize that “thinking past” this stuff may not even be possible without genuinely questioning one’s own assumptions about identity and values.

At the end of his essay, Orwell paints a picture of the politician as automaton,

…mechanically repeating the familiar phrases…. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself…. This reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

A heightened state of consciousness about the way we talk politics today requires even more work than Orwell could’ve imagined. But without this kind of attention to language, democracy simply can’t function.

Harry Vandervlist teaches English at the University of Calgary. From 2004 to 2007 he was associate head of the English department.

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