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The Language of Political Control

George Orwell’s great contribution to dystopian literature was not his depiction of the modern surveillance state, but rather his insight that if everyone used only state-approved language, surveillance would become redundant. The difference today is that Newspeak has emerged from the mechanisms of liberal democracy itself.

LONDON – Language shapes our thinking and perception of the world and, consequently, what happens in it. That is why I worry less about the troubling state of the world nowadays than about the words we use to describe it.

For example, we use the word “war” to describe a phenomenon that exists independently of our term for it. But if we consistently describe and perceive the world as hostile, it tends to become so. By the same token, declaring that we are on the verge of World War III, as many do nowadays, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I first started contemplating the impact of evolving language on thought in the 1970s, after reading George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” At the time, I was struck by the increasing vagueness of our political language.