Sixty years ago George Orwell, that tough-minded scourge of mental and moral laziness and political humbug, wrote a classic essay on Politics and the English Language, lamenting how far the insidious undermining of clear thought had gone with the spreading habit of using political labels as terms of mindless insult and vulgar abuse, without any attempt at invoking their original meaning. As he pointed out in another piece, a recent survey in
It would be interesting to know what Orwell would have said about political discourse today, not least on the internet. While I cannot emulate his incisiveness and unrivalled debunking powers, I can at anyrate vent my spleen at the futility and sheerly destructive nature of much that passes for informed debate, not only in the mainstream media but also in the blogosphere. The manipulative concept of ‘Political Correctness’, unheard of in Orwell’s day, is the first hurdle to be crossed. Originally put forward as a salutary antidote to much prejudiced assumption and near-unconscious bias, PC has morphed into a cudgel wielded by verbal bullies to silence any point of view they dislike or consider unacceptable. It is no longer sufficient for the PC person to register disagreement with another point of view: they proceed to assert that it is so obnoxious that it has no right to be heard, and should in fact be banned. In recent years they have even notched up some legislative scalps in the form of laws banning racial, religious and other ‘hate speech’ on the pretext that such opinions are so offensively hurtful to their targets that they must not be publicly uttered. This is the thin end of a very thick wedge indeed. Proponents of Political Correctness are no friends of free speech, and are, whether they admit it or not, in the murky business of thought control.
Another favourite ploy of the uncandid debater is to damn the message because he or she dislikes the messenger. Thus, those on the virtuously self-preening Left dismiss anything said by right-wingers, even moderate ones, as obvious nonsense and not worthy of consideration. This leads to a glaring imbalance in what is nowadays deemed acceptable public debate. The Left’s self-righteous cry of “No platform for racists or fascists” is an attempt to blot out a variety of widely held strands of opinion which are self-evidently neither racist nor fascist. Whether or not today’s British National Party is – apart from its historic roots –‘ fascist’ in any meaningful sense is a moot point; whether its stance on immigration is ‘racist’ is also debateable. But these not unimportant questions never are debated in the mainstream media, and scarcely at all on the blogosphere: they are simply taken for granted by almost everyone except those on the extreme political Right, whose actual or ostensible opinions and policies therefore go virtually unscrutinised and undissected. This, in fact, makes such extremist views even more dangerous than they otherwise would be, because the large swathe of the general public whose prejudices and lack of balanced knowledge of the issues may incline them to be sympathetic to BNP-type views on ‘alien’ immigrants have their bias reinforced by a sneaking sympathy for a perceived underdog who is being unfairly silenced by the Politically Correct.
Another adverse consequence of the drive to exclude certain views from public debate is that, in the absence of strongly combative debate, political illiteracy flourishes. Genuine education occurs through exposure to a whole range of opinions – wise, daft, erudite, ignorant, tolerant, intolerant. Capable and conscientious teachers are not in the business of indoctrination; it is their business to draw out [educare] from their pupils a reflective response to the variety of human sense and idiocy they encounter in the world of the past and the present. Free speech is the bedrock of democracy. Subject to the interests of national security as defined by parliament, the only limit which should legitimately be placed on it is the prosecution of direct incitement to violence and the right of individuals to obtain redress for libellous defamation. Banning so-called ‘hate speech’ is the first lurch down an endless slippery slope towards an Orwellian ‘big brother’ regime. As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, when anyone’s opinion is forcefully suppressed, the whole of society is the loser. Poisonous and hate-filled views are more effectively combated out in the open, just as the first step towards healing a boil is to lance it and let the pus out.
What strikes one forcibly about the blogosphere is the irritably truculent, hostile tone of much of the discussion on sites such as the Guardian’s comically named ‘Comment is Free’ [in fact, a heavily censored PC forum] and other political blogs such as ‘Harry’s Place’. All too often there is no serious attempt to evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of the posts being commented upon; all most of the participants want is a puerile slanging march between combatants sniping at one another from entrenched positions and not in the least concerned to seek common ground, but only to ‘prove’ that their adversaries are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG [often adding that they are stupid and ugly as well and have naff hair styles]. For someone like myself, who came fresh-faced to blogging naively expecting an intelligent exchange of views between mostly sensible people, all this came as rather a shock until I realised that the underlying impulse behind a lot of this school playground bullying is fear - an emotion I share with them, because we are all living in a nightmarish world at the start of a new century which bids fair to become the most nightmarish of any yet known in human history. But this sombre fact surely makes it all the more important that everyone should do their level best to keep a cool head, and strive to find as much common ground as we can to safeguard what slim chances we have of survival.
Insult is no substitute for reasoned opposition, and the current widespread use of insult in place of sensible debate is futile and silly. In recent weeks I have been labelled by other bloggers a ‘racist’, a ‘neo-Con’, and a ‘pseudo-liberal bigot’. I don’t recognise myself as any of these – except maybe a bigot for the maximum individual and collective freedom of thought, speech and action compatible with a democratic society. In fact, I am not prepared to settle for anything less.
More than a century ago that astringent [not to say cynical] American observer of his contemporary scene, Ambrose Bierce, compiled his Devil’s Dictionary – aptly named, as it shows how people play the very devil with words. Bierce’s definition of politics was “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. And he said that “as compared with the statesman, the politician suffers the disadvantage of being alive.” A Conservative, Bierce said, was a politician “who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others”.
His example emboldens me to end with a list of fashionable political boo-words, and their assumed meanings. Continuing first with American politics, it is clear that differing uses of political labels on opposite sides of the
Americans – conservative ones at any rate – use ‘liberal’ to denote someone whose ideas on social policy are even mildly In favour of state intervention and increased public spending. Such people are considered dangerous, because they threaten the unlimited freedom of private enterprise, and are also believed to be less patriotic over foreign policy insofar as they might be prepared to concede in some instances that American perspectives may require questioning. American ‘liberals’ are also seen as the Trojan horse for socialism which, to most Americans, is synonymous with Stalinist communism and tyranny. European liberals are, by contrast, regarded even by their opponents as staunch upholders of an open society and pluralism. The European tradition of democratic socialism seems to have passed
Words, as Humpty Dumpty pointed out to
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”