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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teaching Orwell

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell suggests that euphemism and vague, abstract, cliched, and partisan language weaken public discourse. Circumlocution is a sign of weak writing and weak thinking and leads to more weak writing and weak thinking. Orwell claims that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." The state intentionally uses vague, euphemistic phrases like "elimination of undesirably elements" to avoid reality. We have an ethical imperative to write clear, honest prose so we don't internalize and repeat state-imposed, sometimes unethical slogans. This influential, sixty-year-old essay has become canonical in writing courses because it argues that bad writing has consequences.

We read this essay in my English 204 course yesterday and students really resonded to Orwell's critique of language and discourse. I shared the American example of "collateral damage," and a few students knew the phrase. I asked them to share further examples of euphemisms or abstractions. Initially, their examples were general: politicians use language that makes their own parties sound good. "Yes, but can you think of any specific phrases?" I gently pushed. Finally, specificity, as one student mentioned that Hezbollah uses the phrase "divine victory" when talking about their 2006 war with Israel. A valid, if uncomfortable, example. Part of me immediately regretted pushing for specific examples. The student explained (in very non-partisan fashion) that "divine victory" is an abstraction and hence fits Orwell's conception of vague political discourse, but I still hoped that his example would not cause unspoken conflicts in the very diverse class.

The experience reminded me of my own complicated position as a teacher and outsider. I'm comfortable in the U.S. "teaching the conflicts," that is, engaging students with controversial issues of the day in order to analyze the language used by politicians, media, social movement leaders, and everyday people, and formulate their own ideas and arguments about those issues. Lebanon is a different context and I'm mindful that my presence as a teacher from the West echoes colonialism in some ways. I have no intentions to convert, save, or impose a partisan belief system, but I do want to teach critical engagement with the English language, so experiences like this present certain challenges.

America has its Orwellian moments, from last month's congressional hearings on Muslim loyalty to the post-9/11 suspension of civil liberties in the name of security. Lebanon does too. On English-language tv stations, words like "gay" and "pork" are censored. Odd that an episode of "Glee" that centers on a gay, out, high school student (not to mention teen pregnancy) can air, but the WORD "gay" is censored. Likewise, cooking shows can broadcast people cooking and eating pork but the WORD itself is bleeped. A friend and AUB colleague did some research on state censorship and posted on his blog a very interesting list of banned films along with justification. The document apparently comes from a local DVD retailer and was given to the retailer by the state. Justifications vary from materials subject to boycotts and blacklists to materials considered obscene, anti-Christian, or anti-Islamic. Some of the justifications themselves are wildly anti-semitic. Many are Orwellian, insomuch as they use vague language to advance a political end.

About many of these matters I am still an outsider. I will always be something of an outsider by virtue of my nationality. But I'm beginning to learn about the issues and their contexts and I want very much to understand more deeply. You can learn a lot from reading. You can learn even more from being present in a place and interacting with real people. Perhaps one of the best ways to understand is to put the learning that happens via human interaction in conversation with the learning that happens from reading texts like Orwell's essay.

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