Framing vs “Orwellian language”
April 24, 2014 – Orwell’s fiction ‘memes’ – Newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother, etc – still sound resonant to me, but his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, seems outdated (and wrong) in important respects. Of course, you can’t blame Orwell for not knowing what cognitive science and neuroscience would discover after his death – most living people still have no idea how those fields have changed our understanding of language and the mind over the last 35 years.
Orwell’s essay is premised on a view of reason that comes from the Enlightenment. It’s a widespread view that’s “reflexively” still promoted not just by the “liberal-left” media and commentariat, but also by the Chomskyan “radical left”. And, as George Lakoff and others have been at pains to point out, it’s a view of reason which now seems totally wrong – given what the cognitive/neuroscience findings tell us.
I’ll return to Orwell in a moment, but, first: Why does the Enlightenment view of reason seem wrong? Well, it’s an 18th-Century outlook which takes reason to be conscious, universal, logical, literal (ie fits the world directly), unemotional, disembodied and interest-based (Enlightenment rationalism assumes that everyone is rational and that rationality serves self-interest). It follows from this viewpoint that you only need to tell people the facts in clear language, and they’ll reason to the right, true conclusions. As Lakoff puts it, “The cognitive and brain sciences have shown this is false… it’s false in every single detail.”
From the discoveries promoted by the cog/neuro-scientists, we find that reason is mostly unconscious (around 98% unconscious, apparently). We don’t know our own system of concepts. Much of what we regard as conceptual inference (or “logic”) arises, unconsciously, from basic metaphors whose source is the sensory and motor activities of our nervous systems. Also, rationality requires emotion, which itself can be unconscious. We always think using frames, and every word is understood in relation to a cognitive frame. The neural basis of reasoning is not literal or logical computation; it entails frames, metaphors, narratives and images.
So, of course: we have different worldviews – not universal reason. It seems obvious, but needs repeating: We don’t all think the same – only a part of our conceptual systems can be considered universal. So-called “conservatives” and “progressives” don’t see the world in the same way; they have different forms of reason on moral issues. But they both see themselves as right, in a moral sense (with perhaps a few “amoral” exceptions).
Many on the left apparently find this difficult to comprehend. Given the Enlightenment premise of universal reason, they think everyone should be able to reason to the conclusion that conservative (or “Capitalist”) positions are immoral. All that’s needed, they believe, is to tell people the unadorned facts, the “truth”. And if people won’t reason to the correct moral conclusions after being presented with the facts, that must imply they are either immoral or “brainwashed”, hopelessly confused or “pathological”.
Few people have exclusively “conservative” or exclusively “progressive” views on everything. We all seem to have both modes of moral reasoning in our brains. (The words “conservative” and “progressive” may seem somewhat arbitrary, inadequate categories, but the distinct “moral” cognitive systems which they point to seem far from arbitrary – see Lakoff’s Moral Politics). You can think “progressively” in one subject area and “conservatively” in others, and vice-versa. And you might not be aware that you’re switching back and forth. It’s called “mutual inhibition” – where two structures in the brain neurally inhibit each other. If one is active, it will deactivate the other, and vice-versa. To give a crude example, constant activation of “conservative” framing on, say, the issue of welfare (eg the “benefit cheats” frame) will tend to inhibit the more “progressive” mode of thought in that whole subject area.
It’s a fairly common experience for me to chat with someone who seems rational, decent, friendly, etc; and then they suddenly come out with what I regard as a “shocking” rightwing view – something straight out of, say, UKIP – a view which they obviously believe in sincerely. This shouldn’t be surprising given the statistical popularity of the Daily Mail, Express, UKIP, etc, but it always conveys to me – in a ‘visceral’ way – the inadequacy of certain left/liberal assumptions about how reasonable, “ordinary” (as opposed to “elite”) people are “supposed” to think.
Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’
To return to Orwell and his essay – he writes that certain misuses of language promote a nefarious status quo in politics. For example, he argues that “pretentious diction” is used to “dignify the sordid process of international politics”. He says that “meaningless words” such as “democracy” and “patriotic” are often used in a consciously dishonest way with “intent to deceive”. The business of political writing is one of “swindles and perversions”; it is the “debasement of language”. For Orwell, it is “broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, and political language “has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”.
Much of this still seems valid (nearly 70 years after Orwell wrote it) – and some of the examples of official gibberish that Orwell cites are as amusing as what you might see in today’s political/bureaucratic gobbledygook. But it’s the cure that Orwell proposes which embodies the Enlightenment fallacy (and which Lakoff, for example, has described as “naive and dangerous”):
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them… Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning… (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language)
Orwell then provides a list of simple rules to help in removing the “humbug and vagueness” from political language (such as: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”). He states that “one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”, and that, “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of [political] orthodoxy”.
What are the fallacies here? Well, most obvious is the notion that political propaganda can be resisted with language which simply fits the right words to true meanings, without concealing or dressing anything up. Anyone who has studied effective political propaganda will tell you that it already does precisely that. The most convincing, persuasive propaganda, rhetoric or political speech seems to be that which strikes the reader or listener as plain-speaking “truth”. In many ways, the right seems to have mastered this art.
The fallacy comes from the Enlightenment notion that because people are rational, you only need to tell them the “plain facts” for them to reason to the truth. We know, however, that facts are interpreted according to frames. Every fact, and every word, is understood in relation to a frame. To borrow an example from my previous article, you can state that “corporations are job creators”, and you can state that “corporations are unaccountable private tyrannies”. Two different frames, neither of which consists of “debasement” of language or factual deception. Rather, it’s a question of activating different worldviews.
Orwell’s notion of letting “the meaning choose the word” seems to imply that our “meanings” exist independently of the semantic grids and cognitive-conceptual systems in our brains. Again, this comes from the Enlightenment fallacy – that there’s a disembodied reason or “meaning” which is literal (or “truth”), and which we can fit the right words to, in order to convey literal truth. It seems more accurate to say that we need conceptual frames to make sense of anything – or, as the cognitive scientists tell us, we require frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives and emotions to provide “meaning”.
A lot of political/media rhetoric does seem to conform to Orwell’s diagnosis, and its language can probably be clarified by his rules and recommendations. But it’s not this “vague”, “pretentious”, “deceptive” type of rhetoric or propaganda that worries me most. What worries me is the rightwing message-machine’s success (if we believe the polls/surveys) in communicating “plain truths” to millions by framing issues in ways which resonate with people’s fears and insecurities – and which tend to activate the more “intolerant”, or “strict-authoritarian” aspects of cognition, en masse.