What is Doublespeak?
As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.
Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive.
The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.
Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.
“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”
In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”
The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”
Examples of Doublespeak
We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?
It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”
On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”
And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is FactCheck.org.)
On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.
Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It
No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.
Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”
Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?
And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?
Why Not Speak Straight?
“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).
I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).
I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents – would result in a tax increase.
What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.
And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.