The power of language is such that repeatedly framing a narrative in a certain language can succeed in deadening our response towards it.

Tukde tukde gang ricebag and more What we can learn from George OrwellPTI/Image for representation only
news Opinion Tuesday, January 07, 2020 - 16:43

A regular day in the family WhatsApp group until a few years ago consisted of several 'Good Morning' messages and sexist husband-wife jokes. In groups with friends and acquaintances, there was perhaps news about reunions, untimely deaths, and miracle diets. In recent times, however, it's not a regular day unless there are a couple of walk-outs, and terms like 'libtard', 'presstitute', 'tukde tukde gang', 'sickular' and 'urban naxal' are thrown around. You will not find these terms in any conventional dictionary, but they've become so much a part of our everyday vocabulary that they require no explanation.

When visuals of the attack on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi did the rounds on social media, many were shocked by the brutality and the lack of police action on the perpetrators. However, those who have closely followed the political discourse in the country were far from surprised. The attack did not happen out of the blue, it happened after months of labeling JNU as a breeding ground for 'libtards' and other colourful adjectives previously listed.

The act of naming comes with considerable power; it sets context, dynamic and hierarchy. When an entire experience is reduced to one word, it has the potency to either accurately tell that story or obliterate it altogether. Take, for example, the 'discovery' of land, which led to colonisation. 'Discovery' suggests adventure, risk, courage and progress. But for those who were at the receiving end of this 'discovery', the nightmare of exploitation and brutality was just beginning. Using 'discovery' itself, as post-colonial writers have pointed out, means that one is speaking from a colonial point of view; the people who already lived in those lands surely knew about it before they were 'discovered' by the Europeans.

The power of language is such that repeatedly framing a narrative in a certain language can succeed in deadening our response towards it. In 1946, British author George Orwell published his incisive essay, Politics and the English Language, which analyses this deliberate obfuscation of meaning that those in positions of authority indulge in. Orwell is best remembered for his writing against totalitarianism, and over 70 years after he wrote his essay, his words continue to be relevant.

In the essay, Orwell lists four symptoms to show how the English language (and this is applicable to any language, really) has degenerated to accommodate intellectual laziness. As he puts it: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

For example, take the phrase 'urban naxals', made fashionable by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri who has even written a book by the same title. The term is used to describe anyone who dissents from the BJP-led government at the Centre. 'Naxal' comes from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal where a peasant uprising took place in 1967 under the leadership of the CPI(ML), and the police shot dead 11 tribal people. The term has since been used loosely to describe any person, particularly in tribal areas, who protests against state policies, and subsequently justify their killing, whether or not they're actually part of an armed struggle with political affiliations. Adding 'urban' to the term has made it possible to include anyone and everyone who disagrees with state policies, even in speech – and that includes intellectuals, writers, historians, activists, artistes and students.

Once the label has been applied to someone and the process is repeated endlessly, those listening stop thinking beyond the word or phrase and accept it as such. Take the word 'presstitute', which is thrown at any journalist who does not toe the government's line. Though the media, with its relentless coverage of UPA 2's corruption, was partly instrumental in the BJP winning a huge majority in 2014, the ruling party has methodically decimated the credibility of journalism in the country. Other terms used are 'Lutyens' media' and 'Khan market gang', to project an elitist and anti-Hindu image of the media, which is supposedly in contrast with the ruling party's ‘humble origins’ and pro-Hindu ideology. These terms have succeeded in dehumanising journalists to the extent that ordinary people think nothing of wishing violence upon a ‘presstitute’ for simply doing their job.

Minorities, too, have been given a bunch of names – 'ricebag convert', 'jihadi supporter', 'infiltrator', 'Paki', 'Missionary lover' etc.

'Here's burnol’ or ‘here’s gelusil' is now actually considered to be a ‘witty’ comeback to any political analysis or argument made against the ruling party. Those frustrated with the goverment and its endless defence by ardent supporters, in turn, call the latter 'bhakts' and 'chaddis', and the barrage of labels effectively puts an end to any possibility of rational debate and discussion. 

Coming back to Orwell, the four symptoms of language degeneration that he lists in his essay are:

  • Dying metaphors: Phrases and comparisons so worn out that we no longer visualise what the words mean – the whole point of a metaphor.
  • Operators or verbal false limbs: Padding in sentences to give a sense of symmetry and preferring this over the use of simple, direct words.
  • Pretentious diction: Jargon and words that give a lofty air to what's being said.
  • Meaningless words and phrases that are so subjective that they can be manipulated to deceive the listener.

Reading through the avalanche of political commentary that pops up on the internet the minute a communally sensitive incident is reported, one can find evidence of all four symptoms. The whataboutery and lengthy justifications – whether it's about someone turning away a food delivery person because of his religion, or the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act – employ a seemingly rational and logical tone, but obfuscate meaning to an extent that the reader only absorbs the vague feeling that the writer must be correct. Incidents which would have been condemned by most people unequivocally in the past (the rape of a child, for instance), are turned "debatable", with the "other side" presented as if it deserves the same space and respect.

In his essay, Orwell wrote: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

‘While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.’"

How true these words are for the times we live in! The right-wing attempts to appropriate Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel because of the belief that if he'd been India's first PM and not Nehru, this country would have been a Hindu nation and not secular/sickular. Yet, the BJP builds a mammoth statue of his and calls it 'Statue of Unity'. The contentious Citizenship Amendment Act in combination with the proposed National Register of Citizens could potentially strip Indian Muslims, who do not have papers in order, of their citizenship and put them in detention centers. Yet, the CAA is presented to the public as an example of India's "generosity" and "compassion". Those who praise the Centre's divisive policies are called 'nationalists' while those wish to protect the country's Constitution are accused of wanting to break it apart.

Of course, oppressive governments across the world resort to such tactics, whether left wing or right. Indira Gandhi's 'Indira is India, India is Indira' was similar to the BJP's positioning of PM Modi today – to question him is to question India. At this point, one can either embark on whataboutery to appear "balanced" or move on to what can actually be done NOW while acknowledging historical truths. This writer is choosing to do the second.

Thankfully, Orwell also provides solutions in his essay for how one can break out of this circus created by language.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Those of us who still have the energy to engage in political debate will do well to remember these rules. Especially the last one.

Read the full essay here.

Views expressed are author's own.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has also published several books for children.