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Rhetoric & Composition
George Orwell was once quoted as saying, “I do not think one can assess a writer's
motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be
determined by the age he lives in -- at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages
like our own -- but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional
attitude from which he will never completely escape.” (“Why I Write”) In his own words,
Orwell diagnoses himself and gives insight into his issue with political writing, which he
addresses in “Politics and the English Language”. Orwell admittedly clings to his
childhood fear of totalitarianism, (“Biography”) which prompts his discussion on the
danger of political language. Orwell claims that political writing is corrupt writing that
manipulates the audience by “defending the indefensible”. (“Politics” 287) By applying
Orwell’s criticism to political texts, such as Ronald Reagan’s speech famously known as
“Tear Down This Wall,” and Winston Churchill’s speech about the threat of Nazi
Germany, among other authors, it is possible to see Orwell’s argument for what it is: a bias
that pushes itself into his essay that fails to take into account the depth of political writing.
Although Orwell’s claim that political writing is bad, vague writing that is used to “defend
the indefensible,”(“Politics” 287) his argument falls short since he fails to flesh out the
complexities of political writing, blinding himself from seeing how very necessary political
writing can be for it’s intended audience.
Orwell argues that political words are “abused” (“Politics” 284) because they lack
true definition, which creates cloudiness in their meaning. What Orwell neglects to
understand about the depth of these words is that they do not have easily recognizable
meanings, not by any fault of a politician, but because they are ambiguous concepts; which
do not, may I add, dilute their effectiveness. These “meaningless words,” (“Politics” 284)
as he refers to them, can be more powerful than the simple words that Orwell prefers. He
states that these words, such as “democracy”, (“Politics” 284) are too vague to evoke a
“mental image of the objects he is naming” (Orwell 286). Consequently, according to
Orwell, “he is not really thinking.”(“Politics” 286) On the contrary, the writing he refers to
requires the most thought from a listener. Simple words that evoke immediate images,
known as semiotics in communication studies, are not challenging and thought-provoking
as Orwell would have you believe. In John Locke’s “Remedies of the Abuse of Words”,
(Byars 147) when referring to moral words he writes, “(man) having no settled objects in
nature from whence their ideas are taken, are apt to be very confused. Justice is a word in
every man’s mouth, but most commonly with a very undetermined loose
signification.”(Byars 148) Locke continues to explain that the problem with men who don’t
value these vague words is that they, themselves, have not spent the time mentally working
out the components necessary to have a personal understanding of the words. (Byars 148)
In fact, Locke claims that these listeners are doing a disservice to the orator by having
“barely determined ideas” (Byars 148) on what justice is; hence,
Orwell’s criticism. In political writing, using a word with greater complexity, such as
democracy, which evokes a form of pathos, can have a powerful effect on an audience.
Ronald Reagan, in his speech asking Mr. Gorbachev to tear down the wall, utters the word
“freedom” twenty-one times. Yes, he is redundant, but his message is heard loud and clear.
It’s obvious from the context of the speech that Reagan means democracy when he says
freedom. Does this mean he is hoodwinking the listener by failing to come forward and
state explicitly what his intentions are? Not necessarily. In fact, Locke’s argument is useful
in this example; if the reader approaches the speech with a clear understanding of the
meaning of these words in their own mind, Reagan’s message becomes obvious and very
transparent within this context; which is how “democracy” was drawn from his actual word
“freedom”. The ambiguity of these concepts lends the speech a matter of discovery for the
reader, rather than a means of deceiving them.
Avoidance of “brutal” (quot;Politics” 287) details, although Orwell argues otherwise,
does not always point to treacherous behavior on the part of the political writer. To the
contrary, it is a tool that is many times used to fuse a nation by igniting passion rather than
horror. Many political speeches, such as Reagan’s, present a positive spin on an issue.
Although Reagan talks of building defense in preparation for war, he does it in a way that
uplifts, motivates, and drops a cherry on the top, if you will, of a rather uneasy subject. In
turn, the effect is positive and although he is persuasive, he is not malicious. While a cynic
may disagree, Reagan is leading his audience in the direction of
preparedness through armaments, which he believes best protects his country and its allies.
Orwell complains that this type of rhetoric is used to manipulate the mind of the
listener into believing what is not true, while making “murder respectable, and giving an
appearance of solidarity to pure wind.”(“Politics” 290) Many a political writer would
argue, other than Hitler of course, that it is not pleasant to “murder” people. It is just the
opposite. In fact it is so unpleasant, that many leaders use these rhetorical tools to ease
people into the idea of defense. In Winston Churchill’s speech on the threat of Nazi
Germany, he writes, “many people believe the best way to escape war is to dwell upon its
horrors and to imprint them vividly upon the minds of the younger generation. They flaunt
the grisly photograph before their eyes. They fill their ears with tales of carnage. They
dilate upon the ineptitude of generals and admirals. They denounce the crime as insensate
folly of human strife. Now, all this teaching ought to be very useful in preventing us from
attacking or invading any other country, if anyone outside a madhouse wished to do so, but
how would it help us if we were attacked or invaded ourselves that is the question we have
to ask.” (Churchill) This, indeed, is the question that needs to be directed at Orwell.
Churchill, in a rare political moment, addresses the reality of these issues, and also debunks
claims against them. His point is that showing these atrocities does no good for the nation.
Sometimes war is inevitable. Political writing that steers away from the atrocities is used to
unite the minds of the people and cannot simply be put off as “pure wind”. These are the
strategies used to keep countries safe. These are also strategies used to promote a country’s
self-interest. Of course this position can be abused, which we have seen by political leaders
throughout time. But to categorize
all political writing as corrupt is simply false. In fact, Reagan’s use of this type of speech
was intended to promote democracy and bash the same totalitarian system that Orwell
himself detests. Unfortunately, sometimes the most effective way to present these ideas is
to say what needs to be said, in a vague way. By removing the gory details, the writer is
better able to capture his audience and create the desired change; Orwell’s opinion
Similarly, Orwell focuses too much on the atrocities of war, and doesn’t seem to
acknowledge the possibility of a need for war, which essentially takes away from his
argument. Throughout his argument, Orwell approaches only one side of the debate
without considering the opposite. His focus on the tragedy of war confuses the aim of war.
Not once throughout his essay does Orwell contemplate the purpose of war, or explore the
difficulty a leader has in making decisions for the country that may necessitate some sort of
conflict. For instance, it is obvious that Churchill, based on his words, is aware of the
reality of conflict, and has weighed heavily on it. He states, “Preparation involves
statesmanship, expense, and exertion, and neither submission nor preparation are free from
suffering and danger.” (Churchill) That is a rather practical answer; relaying the facts
without getting into too much detail. This tactic is, quite honestly, a way for leaders to
make the reality of war swallowable. If leaders took heed to Orwell’s advice and spoke of
“defenseless villages bombarded from the air” (“Politics” 287) or cattle being “machine
gunned” (“Politics” 287) versus Reagan and Churchill’s somewhat vagueness in speech
during that period of time, there might be more people speaking German in Europe today.
The fact is that in order to win a war, there must be
support for the war. As Edmund Burke once said, “I venture to say no war can be long
carried on against the will of the people.” (Burke) Likewise, if a war cannot be carried on
without the people’s approval, how can it get off the ground without their approval? This is
not a defense of war by any means, but an offering of another perspective to Orwell’s. It is
true that war is atrocious, but unfortunately our nation risks a lot by closing our minds to
the inevitability of conflict. Besides, as Churchill points out, “The story of mankind shows
that war was universal and unceasing for millions of years before armaments were invented
or armies organized.” (Churchill) Although Orwell is passionate about his ideas of war-
mongering, he fails to take into consideration the reality of what his world would be like
without some past conflict that ended in his favor.
Lastly, Orwell neglects the fact that political writing, by its complex nature, has the
ability to foster collaboration, evoke emotion, and create change. Taking the focus off of
war, political writing has also been a means of securing peace in past times. In Reagan’s
speech, he says to Gorbachev, “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr.
Gorbachev, open this gate!”(Reagan) Reagan evokes pathos in his speech that creates huge
change during the time. There are numerous political motivations behind this move;
however, its eloquence and passion manage to positively affect many people. The emotion
of political writing, in itself, can be a wonderful thing. True, this emotion can also be
dangerous in the wrong hands. But it is one of the only factors that can motivate and
organize a country during difficult times. In Reagan’s speech, as mentioned, his political
point is to gain allies against the Soviets. However, his political writing does
more than that. Reagan says, “In Europe, only one nation and those it controls refuse to
join the community of freedom.” (Reagan) Cleverly, Reagan boosts the morale of the
people of Berlin, and then allies himself with them against the Soviets. Yes, he is being a
tad sneaky, but it is effective in what it is intended to do. The question is: did it hurt or help
us? It would be awfully difficult to take such complex issues as these and put them into
simple words, as Orwell suggests. Sometimes there are no words to truly capture the
essence of what you must tell your audience as a leader. More times than not, the outcome
of political writing has been favorable to the United States.
While Orwell does have some clear points on political writing, his failure to tackle
the complexity of political writing and its constructive components takes away from his
argument and makes him appear as a bitter political cynic. By not understanding the need
for vagueness, the need to leave out gory details, the occasional need for war and it’s
presence in political writing, and finally, by not recognizing the positive aspects of political
writing in general, Orwell misrepresents the majority of political writing and its motives.
It’s important for people to explore both sides of this issue in order to become better
citizens. Especially in modern times, with debates over war and peace, we must know all
sides before coming to a conclusion. In this particular case, it appears as though Orwell
himself is defending the indefensible by pushing one side of his argument based on his
personal political views, and is oversimplifying problems by blaming political prose in the
Burke, Edmund. quot;War Quotes.quot; All Great Quotes. 2007. 22 Oct. 2007
Byars, William V. The Handbook of the Oratory: From the Earliest Period to the Present
Time. St Louis: Ferd P. Kaiser, 1901. 147-151.
Churchill, Winston. quot;Speech about the Threat of Nazi Germany.quot; 16 Nov. 1934. 22 Oct.
Kollar, Maros. quot;Biography.quot; George Orwell. June 1997. K-1 Internet Publishing. 21 Oct.
Orwell, George. quot;Politics of the English Language.quot; Fields of Reading: Modes of Writing.
Boston: Bedford.St Martin's, 2007. 284-290.
Orwell, George. quot;Why I Write.quot; George Orwell. 1947. K-1 Internet Publishing. 21 Oct.
Reagan, Ronald. quot;Tear Down This Wall.quot; Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate. Brandenburg
Gate, Germany. 12 June 1987. 22 Oct. 2007