18 JUNE 1977, Page 10

Language and politics

Robert Skidelsky

Public language is in a state of decline. George Orwell noticed it in his essay 'Language and Politics' written in 1946. The American, Edwin Newman, wrote a book, Strictly Speaking, about it three years ago. Paul Johnson has just deplored it in his Enemies of Society. All three agree on the trouble. Words are becoming less exact, more euphemistic, more bloated. As Newman says, 'We love to pump air into the language and make it soft and gaseous'.

This is a serious matter. Words are the tools of thought. If they lose efficiency, that is, meaning, thought itself deteriorates. Thought can be only as precise as language lets it be.

Examples of language's decay will occur to everyone. We say 'There are constraints on our freedom of action', rather than 'We can't do this'. We talk of parameter when we mean limit, sanctions when we mean punishment, viable when we mean workable, managerial skills instead of leadership. We say significant rather than important, and supportive when we mean helpful. Education is a notorious meeting ground between jargon and cliché. Recently I attended a meeting which discussed setting up a 'caring network' to assist the 'process of maturation'. With everyone participating like mad and displaying great 'concern', it was little wonder that the chairman felt that he needed to 'clarify his mind'. Few people now say Will you do this?= It is, 'I would like to explore your feelings on this subject'. Administrators issue guidelines rather than instructions or advice. Anything or anyone slightly better than average is brilliant or creative; problems are crises, setbacks are disasters, arguments are confrontations, events arg issues, and a new idea is always controversial.

Although widely remarked upon, this linguistic flatulence has yet to be properly explained. George Orwell thought language was becoming -vague because life had become so horrible. 'In our time,' he wrote, 'political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible'. A year after the bombing of Hiroshima and the disclosure of the death camps, this was probably true. But it can hardly be so today. Conditions have been getting better. This has not stopped language from getting worse. Johnson rightly points out that euphemism is the effort of the well-meaning to avoid hurting others' feelings. But why has society become so sensitive that even fat people have to be reassured about the 'legitimacy of mul

tiple body styles'? Bland or bloated language is the mark of social unease. Why have we become so uneasy?

For Tocqueville, writing in the early nineteenth century, insecurity and the ruin of language were both bound up with the spread of democracy. It was the 'passion for equality', he argued, that was robbing words of their meaning. We may feel today that other forces have been at work, particularly economic growth. However, democracy is a good starting point. Tocqueville showed how it affected language in four ways.

First, in societies which gave chances for success to all, failure wa,s bound to be very worrying. 'Status anxiety', as we now call it, had to be relieved by giving 'vulgar professions' marvellous titles — 'the lower the calling is ... the more _pompous and erudite is its appellation'. There are many examples of this: barbers have become hairdressers, dustmen have become refuse collectors, and ratcatchers have become rodent exterminators; typists first became secretaries and are now on the way to becoming administrative assistants; physical training, having become physical education, is now a part of leisure studies. These changes do denote changes in the content of the activity, but more important is the effort to upgrade its standing in order to improve the self-esteem of those taking part in it. In the United States, all uni versity teachers are professors; even in this country, 'Mr' has come to seem somewhat slighting to those academics who have doctorates. The pretentious jargon of the newer social sciences reflects, in part, the academic and social unease of their practitioners.

Secondly, democracy destroyed linguistic meaning by cutting words off from their roots. By attacking social differences based on class and region, it destroyed dialects, creating a much poorer, stan dardised, language. Without the discipline of context, words became soggy from having too many meanings poured into them. 'I had rather', Tocqueville wrote, 'that language should be made hideous with words imported from the Chinese, the Tartars, or the Hurons, than that the meaning of a word in our own language should become indeterminate'.

Yet it is the second which has happened. Contrary to what most Victorians feared, the coming of democracy has brought into public usage not the language of the people, which was at least vigorous, but the evasions of the vulnerable. With upward social mobility,

`genteelisms' have multiplied in an effort to hide lowly social origins. Luther said, 'A Christian should and could be gay, but then the devil shits on him'. What clergyperson would talk like that now? One an all too easily imagine today's equivalent: `Christianity by no means forbids the enjoyment of the pleasures of the flesh. Unfortunately, a repressive and moralistic upbringing produces in most of us acute feelings of guilt and anxiety whenever we yield to the imperious demands of our nature'. Erik Erikson, who quoted the fine sentence of Luther, himself set out to write a study 'oriented toward those moments when ... young beings ... prove resourceful and insightful' and it is full of many similar sentences.

Thirdly, democracy introduced a 'trading spirit into literature'. Its readership, more numerous, easier to -please, and less well educated, than in aristocratic societies, was ripe for commercial exploitation. This took a heavy toll of literary achievement.

Modern publishing, for example, undoubtedly caters to democracy's children. 'On every publisher's list,' writes Hugh Kenner, 'the few books of interest float on gallons of swill that permit large-scale, hence "efficient" operation'. This creates a real problem for the writer with something to say. It is not that the proportion of discriminating readers has shrunk. The trouble is that the economics of publishing make it increasingly hard for the good writer to get in touch with them. In 1933 Ezra Pound remarked, The best writers of my generation got into print or into books mainly via small organisations initiated for that purpose and in defiance of the established publishing business of their time'. Today the position is worse. There is nothing ill England equivalent to A.R. Orage's New Age which at least kept Pound from starving. An Arts Council subsidy is nO substitute for private patronage, since it will tend to go to work that is 'acceptable' (i.e., fashionable). Through the machinery of state subsidy the relationship between politics and the arts has grown uncomfortably cosy. In fact, the modern subsidy system must be regarded as part of the political system, one of whose main jobs, I shall argue .presentlY, is to keep society stable by depriving language of meaning and impact.

The efficiency of the writer is thus con stantly diminishing. The profit to be had from 'communicating' has thrown up a large class of communicicators whose training and temperament alike incline it to looseness of language and thought. The other day I read in The Times (once the seat of high journalism): 'Definitive preconditions conductive [sic] to the rise of fascism which now prevail in Britain,

are, though individually not exclusive to Britain, the more alarming for beill

simultaneously present and also well advanced'. Far more alarming than the

definitive preconditions is the appearance of this sentence in a 'quality' newspaper.

One must also remember that nowadays writers produce enormous quantities of words at high speed under great pressure. This is what being a journalist involves. But the rewards of writing are so poor and prices rise so fast that nonjournalists, too,' are driven to write too much in order to stay solvent. It is in this situation that one is most tempted to give up the quest for exact meaning and use what Orwell called 'phrases tacked .together like sections of a prefabricated hen house'. How many writers, faced with a blank page, and the need to fill it with two thousand words in two hours, will ask Orwell's four questions of each ,sentence they write: What. am I trying to ,say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is .this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Tocqueville's final argument is the one that interests me most. In democracies, he said, the area of politics and administration constantly grows at the expense of that of philosophy and literature. In other words, those activities requiring exact use of language shrink, while those requiring its inexact use grow.

Politics is bound to make language .slushy. A writer should be concerned only with clear thought and expression. But a politician, Hugh Kingsmill noted, is habituated to weigh what impression his words will make'. A politician weighs his words to advance his career. But this is not his only, or most important, reason for doing so. His job as a politician is to enable people of differing opinions and interests to live and work and sometimes ,fight together. A writer tries to startle .into thought or disagreement by an arresting argument or image. A politician aims for instant rapport by playing on the familiar, the tired, the stereotyped; or to disarm opposition by an unfailing mastery of ambiguous expression. Politicians, being human and intelligent, must occasionally long for the freedom of honest thought and clear expression. But this freedom they cannot rightly claim. Their job is to bind people together, chiefly by word-spinning. That overrides any lesser claims.

Nineteenth-century critics of democracy misunderstood the function of the democratic politician. They feared he would merely voice popular prejudices and passions. Language would become strident, over-emphatic. In fact, this has happened only in the two great wars fought to make the world safe for democracy. Peacetime social development has forced public language along a different path. Economic growth has multiplied occupations and created a mobile and quickly .changing society. Conflicts of interest abound and people are much less sure of themselves. There are no clear lines of authority; no widely accepted conventions

of behaviour. In constantly ambiguous situations, people need constant reassurance. The effort of Britain to make itself multiracial has added new conflicts and tensions. Since 1945, the number of countries in the world has shot up from fifty to a hundred and fifty: their forum, the United Nations, was destined to be the temple of doublespeak-and doublethink.

It is the increasing difficulty of managing such societies which has produced not just the social sciences with their hideous jargon, but the modern politician, who is different from both the old aristocrat and the demagogue whom the opponents of democracy feared. He is much more of a middleman or broker, bringing together groups, classes, races, nations; reconciling the elites to the masses. The more varied the structure of society, the more pivotal the politician becomes and the more difficult his job. Thus the dishonesty of politics spreads to more and more activities. Public language has the job of reconciling a constantly growing number of interest and status conflicts. To the extent that it succeeds it will be drained of meaning.

By the spread of politics I don't just mean the growth of government. I mean the 'politicisation' of life. Politics is no longer something that happens at Westminster or on the hustings. It permeates the whole society. More and more people have to become politicians in order to work the organisations in which they find themselves. Thus they have to develop the particular attitude to truth and language which in the past was associated with that tiny group of people who governed. 'Participation' means, quite simply, the spread of evasiveness to all walks of life.

There are several vogue words which express what politicians are now expected to be. They must certainly not be 'controversial' or 'provocative'. That is Mr Powell's trouble. They must not produce 'confrontation': that was Mr Heath's undoing. Anyone who does it — in politics proper, in the media, in industry, in the universities — is likely to suffer their fate. Mr Powell and Mr Heath may be admired as men of courage; but courage has little to do with politics. What the politician must strive mightily for is 'consensus'. kis a vaguer word than the older 'consent', suggesting a more fragile social order. Consent means voluntary acceptance of someone else's proposal or request, with more than a hint of compliance. Consensus implies a vague harmony between equal forces, with the certainty that ambiguous language has played a large part in producing it.

The practice of consensus started within high politics and spread downwards. Its pioneer was Stanley Baldwin. According to his biographers, Middlemas and Barnes, Baldwin 'had, it seems, unconsciously taken up a position which modern social research suggests is peculiarly effective for a leader'. The traditional concept of leadership envisaged 'direction of the

group towards some external goal'. But 'recent research into the behaviour of small groups indicates that an exceptionally large part of the leader's behaviour. ... has to be directed towards ... maintaining a proper effective tone and social relationship within the group'. (English translation: keeping everyone happy.) What Baldwin did for his Cabinet he tried, with some success, to do for the country. Public language has never recovered from the bleeding-heart style he and Ramsay MacDonald jointly perfected.

Administration has abetted politics in the assault on linguistic efficiency. (I am leaving to one side the 'officialese' which always accompanies government activity.) Here again, nineteenth-century liberals misinterpreted the trend. They feared that bureaucracy would become the tool of a demogogic despotism. In fact, the bureaucrat has become the broker of the last resort.

In theory, his function is to carry out decisions made by politicians. But if political leadership, in the Baldwin style, consists of not taking decisions, for fear that doing so might damage someone's selfesteem, then the role' of the administrator is transformed. In the modern committee system, he has been given the job of tying up, through a language of spurious resolution, the loose ends left by the political process. His minutes of a meeting — on which future historians will rely to find out 'what really happened' — will have as their purpose either the simple concealment of conflict, or the more ambitious attempt to create, through slippery words and phrases, the appearance of a decision when none has been taken. The modern administrator has become an important link in the chain of therapY which keeps society going. It is in these ways, rather than through the triumph of ignorance and prejudice, that democratic politics have undermined the efficiency of language. Political success can be achieved only at the price of linguistic failure: politicians whose words contain actual, not just political, meaning, are always unsuccessful. Yet political and administrative language is necessary. It may be opaque; but without it society would break down. People who want politicians to 'speak the truth' don't understand the difficulty of managing a complex civilisation. The truth is the last thing anyone wants to hear, particularlY about himself.

The great danger is that, with the spread of politics, the writer will becorne part of this system of political deception; has, in fact, already become so. His ability to resist it has been seriously undermined, Not only does he nowadays usually depend on an organisation for his livelihood; but also, as a human being, he

increasingly feels he should devote his talents as a thinker or writer to betterment, not to truth. The temptation is greatest for those whose work can be directly commandeered for political and social purposes.

There are two main sources of pressure. From the Left comes the demand that the intellectual should commit his writing to the cause. Francesco Rosi's film, Illustrious Corpses, ends with a conversation between the Communist journalist and his new party leader. The journalist is dissuaded from telling the truth about a right-wing plot. 'Truth is not always revolutionary', the politician tells him. This is typical of a politician's reasoning: he is always censoring out from his own writings and speeches bits of the truth which do not suit his political purpose. Any writer who does the same has become a politician. Soon he will use language as a politician does, and lose his writer's gift for seeing truth.

The other greater pressure, as I have suggested, comes from modern democracy itself. The writer is asked to do his bit to maintain social• peace. As society loses cohesion, the arts and sciences are called to the colours. Patronage and subsidy are the state's inducements.

Of course, subsidy has its place. Stuart Hampshire was quite right to point out On The Times Literary Supplement of 13 May) that opposition to public subsidy has often been based on crass utilitarianism. But the case for state assistanee to the arts can also be made on the same argument, and here lies the danger. Culture, like monarchy, can hold society together. Indeed, from the political point of view, that is its main function: Gladstone was not the first or last politician to realise that `the highest instruments of human cultivation are also guarantees of public order'. We need to distinguish more carefully between the ceremonial and traditional aspects of culture, and those which by their nature are critical and creative. It is the latter which must be kept out of the state's embrace. For all its excesses, the market is still a better guarantee of intellectual freedom than state patronage. With so many demands for 'social responsibility' it is ever more important to insist on the social irresponsibility of the writer. The politician's job is to improve society, or hold it together. The writer's is to follow his truth wherever it leads him, and express it as clearly as he can.. This may endanger social peace. If so, it is up to the politician to limit free Speech. That is his job, not the writer's. The writer's greatest betrayal would be to allow language itself to be used for police work. Words should remain clean, free, uncompromised. As Keynes once wrote, they should be 'a little wild — for they are the assault of thought upon the unthinking'. If the best users of words become Politicians, who will do the thinking?