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Commentary: Beware Modern Newspeak

Illustration by Ada Zoe Zgela

In 1949, during the era of western totalitarianism, British writer George Orwell published what is perhaps the most famous dystopian literary work of the 20th century, 1984. The book, though some feel it is alluded to in excess, is often considered to be especially forward thinking, despite its roots in past authoritarianism. In the novel, Big Brother, Orwell’s dramatized portrayal of a monolithic mid-century dictatorship, utilizes what seem like extreme tactics of political and social control to ensure a subservient populus. 

The most famous of these stratagems of control, perhaps, is “newspeak,” which is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings.” Newspeak, in simple terms, is the labeling of things in such a way as to diminish the range of thought and public opinion.

Today, newspeak is utilized by many modern governments, especially those associated with excessive social control. However, much of this newspeak has evolved toward a more subtle manipulation of language that is utilized by virtually all governments to shift the ideological biases of their constituencies. 

Take the U.S. Department of Defense, for example, which is labeled, most unassumingly, as what the department supposedly does, which is to maintain the United States’ military forces, collect intelligence on foreign military affairs, and conduct weapons research. The subtle newspeak, however, makes itself apparent when one analyzes the connotation of the word “defense” and contrasts this with the past and present actions of the department. This, combined with the fact that the Department of Defense was originally titled the Department of War, a name that does not attempt to disguise its actions, makes it clear that the name change had the intentions of certain interests behind it – namely those who would benefit from portraying acts of belligerency as defense of the American populus. The term “defense” thus becomes a subtle attempt at altering the way the department is perceived by the American people and serves to create a positive perception of acts of war.

Additionally, the United States has a tendency to disguise, by means of title, the true intentions of legislation that makes its way through the jaws of the complex American lawmaking process. For instance, the Affordable Care Act, known commonly as “Obamacare,” is perceived by many as a sort of modern newspeak. It is argued that the connotations of the word “affordable,” which is associated with frugality, as well as the term “care,” which connotes tending to the American public, mask the act’s true nature as a threat to American economic independence and, according to Arizonian Representative Andy Biggs, a “disastrous foray into authoritarian control over healthcare.”

Similarly, according to Lee Harris’ 2013 article ”Newspeak’s Comeback and the Invincible Sincerity of America’s Liberal Elite,” the rhetoric utilized by the liberal proponents of “Obamacare” concealed its true reasoning, which was, “We should have the right to push people around because we know what is best for them” with the falsehood, “We are not taking away anyone’s freedom. We are only enhancing it.” 

However, when it comes to the historical approach by the U.S. government in the realm of national welfare, the rhetoric has been interpreted on both sides as having certain underlying implications. Famed historian Howard Zinn argues that in the late 20th century, “both parties and the media talked incessantly about the ‘welfare’ system, that it was not working, and the word ‘welfare’ became a signal for opposition.” Once more, it is the chosen word, not the actual actions, that carries certain connotations in an attempt to sway public opinion toward one goal and away from another. 

Another act of legislation that makes shrewd use of rhetoric to shape public opinion is the 2001 “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act” (or the USA Patriot Act). The act, which closely followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks and allowed the government, for the first time, to investigate and gather information on private citizens without a warrant, is widely criticized as a blatant violation of the fourth amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Whether or not this criticism is accurate does not detract from the fact that the lengthy title is an example of circumlocution (the use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive), which creates an air of ambiguity. Further, the colloquially known title, the “Patriot Act,” takes advantage of the positive tone of the word “patriot,” which masks the possible constitutional civil rights violations the act allows.

Additionally, newspeak, or at least the subtle rhetorical manipulation of the American people, is often used to foster and/or maintain an us-vs.-them mentality to serve the interests of power. A modern example of this phenomenon would be the term “woke,” which, although it dates back to black protest songs of the interwar period, has recently come to indicate all things progressive. The term, much like what Zinn argued regarding the word “welfare,” has become a keyword for the American right, signifying what they should and should not oppose, as well as who they should and should not oppose. Conservative operatives have made it clear that anything labeled “woke” is in direct opposition to the conservative agenda – whether or not it is truly harmful to their constituency. “Woke” has thus become a word that envelops an entire category of human behavior and acts as an attempt to diminish the abilities of the American people to find common ground by demonizing the opposition, expediting the already speedy process of political polarization, and weakening the range of thought in the process.

Finally, there is pious rhetoric. Certainly it is true that government use of religious language occurs often in times of crisis, especially in presidential addresses to the nation as an attempt to console the American public, without any (blatant) manipulative intentions. Following the 9/11 attacks, for instance, President George W. Bush’s speeches contained many mentions of prayers and the Christian concept of God. And while this violates the concept of separation of church and state, a more urgent issue arises when the same rhetoric is used by presidents and congressmen of almost all political leanings for more nefarious means – namely, the justification of acts of war by molding the way the majority-Christian populus views such acts through that lens of piety. When violence is linguistically linked to being sanctioned by God, it becomes far too justifiable.

For instance, the same president who evoked God to soothe grieving Americans did so while initiating wars with Mideast powers in which thousands of American citizens would die and hundreds of thousands more Iraqi and Afghan people would perish. President Bush was recorded by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas as stating rather overtly, “God told me to strike at Al-Qaeda. And I struck them. And then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.” 

Much more subtle, however, were the religious references that President Bush made while addressing Congress and the American people, and this is where the language -based manipulation is located. Bush, evidently attempting to create within listeners a neural connection between acts of war and Christian morals, said, “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.“ Not only does his address subtly manipulate the opinion of its mainly Christian audience through a reference to God, conditioning them to accept the approaching wars, but it insinuates that the foreign policy of the United States is aligned closely with the ideals of divine freedom and justice while the opposing Mideast powers are characterized by fear and cruelty. Again, through language, the American public is manipulated into an us-vs.-them mentality, and the opposition is demonized, in this case, literally.

Ultimately, it is the role of the individual to determine their own political leanings and therefore what they deem to be true and correct. Politics is subjective, as all political perspectives are rooted in subjective worldviews. The importance, then, of understanding the government’s use of newspeak and manipulative diction to control the range of thought within both the American people and the world’s people lies not in determining which “other” or which governmental body utilizes language to control the human thought process, but in perceiving its widespread use by any and all sides of the pendulum swing. 

It is, of course, human nature to portray one’s self and one’s actions through a self-serving bias, and governments are very human entities, for better or for worse. But when the individual is capable of recognizing when and how they are being manipulated through language, their ability to determine their own understanding of the world is strengthened, and the ability of governments to subtly maintain control over their thoughts is weakened. Only then will individuals be capable of creating their own view of politics and societal structures, rather than following the understanding set in place by one theoretical side of government or the other.

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