Monday, July 16, 2007

Education, Language, and Politics

As an English teacher, central to my philosophy was the belief that the classroom is the ideal forum within which to explore ideas and engage with the world. While this might seem a truism, in many ways it ran counter to the very conservative nature of public education, which stresses the importance of teacher neutrality in the classroom. It was an expectation I regularly violated.

In teaching Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, a seminal essay that is still frequently referred to today, some sixty years after its publication, it was impossible not to engage the students in the issues of the day. Central to Orwell’s thesis was that language and thought are intertwined, and if we are sloppy in our thinking, that fact will be reflected in our language, and visa versa.

However, his most trenchant comments are reserved for the political uses of language, which he describes as largely “the defense of the indefensible.” Whether in speech or in writing, he attempts to warn his readers of how language can in fact subvert truth. Taking examples from his time, he shows how euphemisms can conceal true horror:

Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Amongst the modern euphemisms my students quickly uncovered are the following:

“did not meet course objectives” = failed
“finds it challenging to keep on task” = talks too much
“pre-emptive strike” = we started the war
“war of liberation” = we didn’t like their politics
‘the need for democratic reforms” = we don’t like who they elected
“socialist government” = we don’t like who they elected
“ establishing freedom and democracy” = electing a government that we like
“ethnic cleansing” = genocide

In future posts I’ll discuss some of the errors in logic my students studied, and how they applied them to international situations.

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