Understanding What is Being Said

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Modern politics often requires a knowledge of problems of our society, and of the people who claim to want to fix them: politicians. Unfortunately, the ladder is much more difficult to understand, since for the most part our knowledge of politicians is based on what they tell us, or more generally what they say. To understand what a politician is saying often requires an awareness of the techniques used to convey ideas and the reasons why those techniques are chosen. Often times, with this knowledge, of how politicians operate and why they do so, to ask or to conclude whether what is being said is right or wrong becomes an absurdity because what is being said is intentionally insubstantial or misleading. Ultimately, meaningful and productive interactions in politics are harmed through the manipulation or improper use of language which lay the foundation for meaningless arguments, the miscommunication of ideas, and the confusion or intimidation of others. If one were to concede to the notion that it is common in politics to be saturated with insubstantial and misleading claims, one might also be inclined to ask “how does this happen” and “why is this common”. The answer to this can firstly be found in how sloppy statements are made.

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Since language is the way we communicate ideas, it would be logical to look at the use of peoples language. As George Orwell put it in “politics and the English language”, there are many ways to reduce the meaning of a statement, if not take it away altogether. One of the most prevalent ways this can be observed is through the use of improper or dying metaphors. Orwell argues that because these metaphors are overly and improperly used, and as a result, they fail to convey a meaningful mental image. Another way to take away meaning for our prose is through imprecise language. When someone is being imprecise, it can be difficult to pinpoint where his or her ideas may originate, and where he or she may go. Thus meaningful conclusions made in respect to imprecise language are likely to be more difficult to make, and arguments against these claims can be easily refuted by saying “I never said that specifically”. Using words with disregard to their original purpose is yet another way to reduce meaning in language. Often times, when a word is used improperly, the subject who is using them is more concerned about conveying an attitude, and not the actual word itself, which can hurt the reader from figuring out the meaning of the statement.

There are many more ways in which language is starved of its meaning that are both present in politics and explained in Orwell’s essay, which will be further elaborated on throughout this essay. For now, since we have been introduced into how our language is misused, we can now move on to ask why our language is misused. For this, 3 main reasons can be established, each of which describes why we may find ourselves unable to understand what a person is saying.

The first reason why we can’t understand what a person is saying is that people want to appear to make claims, without saying anything meaningful. In ideal discussions, people only say things when they have things to be said, and when nothing is to be said, people are to say nothing. This is because it is seemingly purposeless to talk when you can’t add anything meaningful to a discussion. While this may be true for the majority of people, it is not true for politicians, because people look towards politicians for their judgment and their reason. This creates tricky situations when a politician is unsure of their judgments or reason, or when they have none to provide. This is because, for politicians, saying nothing risks creating the impression of ignorance, and saying anything concrete risks alienation disagreement. In both situations, there seems to be no ideal response. There is, however, a third option that the wise have been exploiting for a long time, which is to say things that sound good that ultimately mean nothing. This option is based on the idea that, in politics, it does not matter if you are right or if you are wrong, rather, what matters is if you seem right or you seem wrong. To illustrate this, imagine you are watching a press conference for a congressional candidate, and the question of “what do you most strongly support” is brought up.

Now let’s say the candidate quickly responds and says “I support Americans values”. This statement is, in itself, meaningless. What is meant to be conveyed by saying “Americans values”? Why do you support them? Should you support them? In this statement, Americans values are never defined, nor are they argued. Because of this, this statement is, for the most part, meaningless. The only thing the audience can know from this sentence is that American values are a thing and that someone supports them. But it would be unwise to say this statement has no purpose because it does. Its purpose is to get votes. In this way of speaking, the purpose of this claim is not to convey an actual idea, rather its to make the speaker look and sound good. Because the language of the statement is vague, it is open to interpretation. When an American hears “I support American values” they might as well hear “I support your values” because they are American, so their values are American. Any meaning derived from this statement is completely derived from what the listener thinks it means, not what it actually means since it means nothing. In the same way, it would be pointless to argue over this statement, unless your pointing out that it’s insubstantial because you would then be arguing over nothing.

Orwell points out a couple ways language can be used to give this result. The use of stale metaphors, imprecise language, readily used phrases and meaningless words are all ways to create the illusion of a statement that is easy to conform to and almost impossible to disagree with.Sometimes, however, people know they have something to say, they just don’t know how to say it, which leads us to the second reason our language is misused. This is that there is a claim to be made, but, either because of incompetence or laziness, it is unable to be properly conveyed. This is something almost everyone does, not just politicians, but it is just as tied to politics as the former. Just like before, this is done through dying metaphors, imprecise language readily used phrases and the misuse of words.

Let’s begin with dying metaphors and readily used phrases. Since dying metaphors are the result of oversaturation and misuse, they can be categorized under readily used phrases. Orwell claims that when people use these things, it can act as a crutch because allows for the speaker or writer to passively spit out what first comes to mind. Readily used phrases also lead to imprecise language, since it prevents us from “picking out words for the sake of their meaning”. And when words are misused, its often to express an attitude rather than an idea. When people do these things, they do so because it is much easier than the alternative, which is to selectively choose words to form meaning. It is also because people like to imitate what they hear and act as unconscious “machine” responding to things without actually thinking. Finally, people think in such sloppy manners because they read in the same way. Orwell illustrates this as a positive feedback loop where, sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking, and sloppy thinking leads to sloppy writing.

The third reason for the misuse of language in politics is that there is a claim to be made, but it is not meant to be known or fully understood. This is done especially through pretentious diction. One way this is done is by giving “air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments”. Often times people allow certain statements to be unreasonably justified in this way just by looking at the jargon. Orwell argues this isn’t just done to provide false validity to statements, but also false eloquence and grandness. Words consisting of many syllables are especially used in this sense. This itself leads to improper use and understanding. Because of this, it is common for people to be confused by such statements, and assume the persons premises for their conclusions are justified from their use of eloquent or scientific word choice alone. It is also common for the same techniques to be used to intimidate others, with the obscurity of words adding to certain levels of uncertainty, and consequently, creating a false sense of superiority. This is the first way in which the audience is not meant to understand what the speaker is saying. They are instead they are meant to respect or concede to it.

Orwell also points out that euphemisms are used is a similar but less inflated style to create the defense of the indefensible. In this manner, politicians replace brutal ideas with more generalized and acceptable ones. He says that when air strikes of the innocent are instead described to be efforts of pacification, we are allowed to “name things without calling up mental pictures”. Euphemisms blur our understanding of events and conceal their impacts. This is the second way in which the audience is not meant to understand what the speaker is saying. I would argue that there is a third way to harm the audience’s understanding of events, which is the exact opposite of using euphemisms. This occurs when one creates the offense of the defendable, or when one uses a dysphemism. In this sense, just as being “pro-choice” is a euphemism for allowing abortion, saying someone is “pro-murder” could be argued to be a dysphemism for the same principle. When politicians use dysphemisms, they are trying to change our understanding of events while exaggerating their impacts. Both euphemisms and dysphemisms share the fact that the two try to change the way one perceives something that is labeled through the label itself. So now that we know how and why language is misused, we can now understand why it is so important to actively combat this misuse. Whenever one listens to a speech or a presentation of what’s assumed to be an idea, the first question that should always be asked if you want to understand it are “what is being said”. If this can be adequately answered, then congratulations, you have just encountered a meaningful statement, and consequently, it should also be able to be argued, so the next question to ask is “is what is being said true”.

However, if one finds themselves unable to find out what is being said, then it would be incredibly difficult to find out if “what is being said” is indeed true. If you can not determine what is being said and if what is being said is true, then it would be impossible to have any meaningful political discussion.This is why it is necessary to identify and correct each of the three reasons for the misuse of conveying ideas. The first reason is when people want to come off of saying something without saying anything. If you are capable of realizing this and identifying it when it happens, you can challenge people to make actually concrete statements as opposed to empty one, and avoid arguing over nothing.

The second and third reasons for misuse are alike in they are both saying something, and that it is unclear, but unlike in the causes for this unclearness. In the second, the unclearness is the result of lazy and incompetent thinking. They are not actively thinking about what they are saying, and as a result, the audience is not able to understand what they are saying. If they are trying to express a concern, it may be misunderstood, or misrepresented, by both the speaker and the audience. When ideas are misunderstood, they are stripped of their meaning and their impact. To correct this, the original speaker must first either be asked by the audience or themselves “what words will best express what is trying to be said.” Once and only once the second question is answered, and when that answer is applied, can the audience of the speaker truly be able to answer the question of “what is being said”.

The third reason for the inability to answer “what is being” said is unlike the second in that it is intentionally vague, intimidating, and/or misleading. To correct for this, the speaker must be asked once again by the audience or by themselves “what words will best express what is trying to be said.” While the answer to this question is being applied, the speaker must avoid using unnecessary jargon. It can also be possible for the correction to be made in the minds of the audience if they are able to not be intimidated by pretentious diction and meaningless words. Once this correction is made, one can finally answer what is being said. With the knowledge of what is being said the people can then finally determine the validity of what is being said. All of this is, of course, an oversimplification of misuse of language, a lot of which can be better described by Orwell himself.

To best summarize this essay, the point of language is to express an idea of something meaningful in a way that can be understood by others. In politics, when there is nothing meaningful to be expressed, or when someone is unwilling or unable to express a meaningful idea in a way that it can be understood, the political landscape is harmed, and the statements within that landscape are devalued. This creates a necessity to identify, challenge, and correct the misuse of language.

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