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Of Cuttlefish and Men

Politicians regularly use dishonest language to disguise their crimes

The Ecologist, February 2003

Late last year, local government minister Nick Raynsford was sent down from Mount Tony to snap at the ankles of the firefighters' union. It was tragically hard to avoid him: he was all over the radio, explaining his government's policies on shafting workers whose boots they weren't fit to polish. Day after numbing day I heard him talk about 'modernising' the fire service. I heard him explain that he was 'exploring how modernisation might unlock cost savings'. And after about a week of it, I realised that I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

Fifty-five years ago, George Orwell wrote an essay called 'Politics and the English Language'. 'In our time', wrote Orwell, 'political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness … when there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.'

Nick Raynsford, it seems, can squirt with the best of them. What did he mean when he said 'modernisation'? Take a look at the government's plans for the fire service: he actually meant 'privatisation'. What did he mean when he said 'unlocking cost savings'? He meant 'sacking people.' He couldn't say this though; if he had done, people would have understood it and most of them would have been against it. Who wants to privatise the fire service and sack firefighters? Hardly anyone. Who, on the other hand, is opposed to 'modernisation' and 'cost savings'? Hardly anyone. See? Clever, isn't it?

I shouldn't pick on Mr Raynsford, though: he's only doing his job. Neither is this another whinge about Labour 'spin'. There's a much bigger, global, picture: a widespread and long-standing corruption of language by the powerful. For an entire political culture has been built on one delightfully simple premise: to get away with doing something downright evil, it's not necessary to change your behaviour - it's just necessary to change the language you use to describe it.

Understanding this helps understand the robotic consultant-speak employed by New Labour, a party of free marketeers and corporate fifth columnists who are still, poor dears, slightly embarrassed about it. New Labour's favourite crime against language is called 'dressing up ideologically-driven activities in managerial words'. It's dead easy: all you do is pretend that the right-wing neoliberal measures you are planning are something normal and natural that nobody could possible be against. Bothered about turning the world into one great big free market and removing any 'barriers' to corporate profit, whether they be ancient cultures or environmental regulations? It's OK - that's called 'globalisation'; it's mainly about having faster internet connections and low-cost air fares. Not only is it beneficial to all, but it's inevitable.

This is related to another language crime - 'using meaningless words to describe horrible things so that people don't realise how horrible they are'. The most notorious example of this is the phrase 'collateral damage', which the Americans used for years during Vietnam to save themselves from having to use the less palatable phrase 'dead babies'. A new entry, also courtesy of the US government, is 'pre-emptive defence' - this means 'attacking anyone we want to and justifying it by saying that they might attack us one day.' Then there's 'rogue state' which means 'enemy of American capitalism with en suite oil supply' and 'war on terror' which means 'flailing publicly at anyone using terrorism against us, whilst happily funding and training people who use it against others'.

There are other language crimes. The one entitled 'using warm words as a substitute for doing anything' is particularly prominent in the business world, and covers phrases like 'corporate social responsibility', 'voluntary action', 'sustainable development', 'open debate' and 'consultation with stakeholders'. Then there are the wider examples of serial dishonesty in language which are now so taken for granted that it's easy to us them without thinking: 'freedom', 'democracy', 'civilisation', 'development', 'choice' - can you define any of these, or are they just vaguely-defined, pleasant-sounding things which are conveniently hard to oppose when governments go to war or corporations trash the planet in their name?

This is not trivial stuff. Language, as Orwell noted, helps to define thought, as well as the other way around, and dishonest use of words creates a 'reduced state of consciousness', a numbness in the listener. The way to cut through that numbness is to listen closely to how those with power explain themselves. If the words, as Orwell put it, 'fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details', then somebody somewhere is doing something they don't want you to know about, probably in your name and with your money. And no-one wants that. Do they?