In his book 1984 and his essays such as “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell wrote very clearly about how ideology is corrupting and how this corruption is manifest in the way we distort language to suit ideology. And to him it was clear that “….the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes; it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.” To illustrate the idea that language can corrupt thought and that ideological systems, particularly of the totalitarian bent, use it to restrict rather than broaden ideas, he invented Newspeak.
I often think of Orwell and these points when I am watching the endless political and public affairs related interviews on TV pitting left vs. right, pro vs. con, etc., on split screen with the host in the middle, with no resolution to the issue, talking past each other under a tight time restraint that ends with “to be continued” and a commercial break.
Recently, I came across another Orwell reminder, a very insightful essay entitled “Ideology and the Corruption of Language” in The Public Discourse, a publication of The Witherspoon Institute, by Randall Smith, professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He uses a 1978 essay by former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel to discuss the distinction between “ideology” and a “principled position” as they pertain to our discourse in the public square.
So how do we recognize the language of ideology and distinguish it from a principled position? His first clue is that those who hold a principled position welcome arguments and genuine debate testing their position, while those who hold an ideology will tend to avoid real debate or any examination of the ideology’s underlying premises. For Smith it follows that the corruption of language becomes a characteristic sign of ideology. He makes good use of the Platonic dialogues, particularly the Gorgias, to define what true dialogue actually looks like and how sophistry is identified, how certain terms become “true” without explanation, the refusal to discuss terms because the point is “obvious”, the use of very specialized vocabulary and “buzzwords”, making highly generalized claims about groups of people, etc.
As I considered these distinctions and related them to certain recent panel conversations, interviews, protests, and town hall meetings, their validity was clear, but what bothers me is how full of ideological corruption the air around us has become. Commentators talk of the First Amendment and how dear it should be to Americans, and it is. But the danger I fear is that so much of our language has been corrupted by the ideological perspective that Smith has defined that we are losing our sense of mutual respect that is necessary for honest dialogue on principled positions.