“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” This quote belongs to George Orwell, an English writer who, on several occasions, criticized the connection between political conventions and the debasement of language.
He wrote on 1946 a brilliant essay, Politics and the English Language, which strongly makes the case of ideological manipulation through language.
He argued that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The context in which Orwell spoke
Orwell encouraged concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness, and individuality over political conformity.
The writer was pondering British politics at the time and explained that the purpose of politicians was “the defense of the indefensible.” He was referring to political activities like the continued British rule of India, Soviet mass deportations, concentration camps, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan…
How can one defend these actions without offending the sensibilities of the people behind them? It can only be done by masking reality and using euphemisms.
Today’s ideologies and the use of phrases.
Do these less-than-honest political activities not also take place today? Are there not also ideologies today that depend on the manipulation of language? Is it not true that many truths are obscured by the misuse of words?
Let us look at just a few examples of misappropriation of phrases or euphemisms aimed at making people accept certain ideologies that would otherwise be rejected by many of them.
- Surrogacy becomes “gestation for others”
Solidarity, a highly valued aspect of Western society, has Christian roots. While faith is becoming less and less important in people’s lives, some Christian values remain in that culture. In this case, doing something for others is considered noble.
Selling or buying a child are actions that have nothing to do with solidarity, and surrogacy is nothing more than a new form of human trafficking. A woman is exploited, sells her body, breastfeeds a child who is then separated from her prematurely, which causes major psychological trauma for the baby. Someone who follows this route does not consider a child a gift, but rather a right.
How can we permit this practice, behind which there are various interests at play, including economic ones? By changing the words. “Uterus for rent,” in Italian or “Surrogacy” in English becomes “gestation for others.” The solidarity dimension is introduced, and people have an easier time “swallowing the pill.”
- Having a child “at any cost” becomes “a fundamental human right”
In this regard, we might also reflect on what aspects of human life today are defined as “human rights.” If we look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we find the following rights: the right to life, liberty, and equality; security; the right to not to be subjected to torture or cruelties, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment; the right to have one’s legal personality recognized. Can having a child at any cost be considered a right? Is it not the weaker party—the child—who has the greater right to be protected?
Paternity and maternity are not rights, they are desires—even healthy desires—but they need to be channeled with the greater good of the children in mind. There is no right to paternity and maternity, but to make some practices aimed at satisfying the will of a few individuals acceptable, it is necessary to transform “desires” into “rights.”
- Considering a life worthy from conception is “misogyny”
There are people who consider every human life sacred and inviolable: from conception to natural death. This is the pro-life position. There are others who do not support this idea and believe that a woman should be able to freely choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
There may be people who are pro-life and are also misogynists (just as there are environmentalists who are pro-choice), but being pro-life and being misogynistic are not necessarily combined ways of thinking. On the contrary, in many cases, a person who loves and supports life from conception has a certain care for human life, and thus for women, and believes that abortion is not good for women either.
Talking about misogyny, however, without making distinctions, reinforces the ideas of those who ideologically defend abortion.
- Procuring an abortion is nothing more than “interrupting a process begun against one’s will.”
If we look up the definition of abortion on Wikipedia (looking at the linguistic roots on the Italian Wikipedia page, and the rest of the definition on the English Wikipedia page), we will find this: “Abortion (from the Latin abortus, a derivative of aboriri, “to perish,” composed of ab, “away from,” and oriri, “to be born”) is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of the fetus or embryo.” It goes on to explain that it can occur spontaneously (which is a miscarriage) or be procured.
The very etymology of the word harkens back to the word “perish,” which specifically refers to death. Since there is a tendency to want to mystify reality, one cannot use a word which has linguistic roots in the word for “death.” It’s better to gain acceptance of this act by introducing another concept: the will of the person and the right to make decisions for oneself. So, more and more often, instead of saying that one has “had an abortion,” one says they resorted to a VIP (acronym for “Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy”).
Final thoughts: Was Orwell right?
There are so many more examples yet to explore. Linguistic deception is a real art, and many are masters of it. So how can one defend oneself? Studying, delving deep into the issues, trying to find out the facts without stopping at political indifferences is the only way to not fall into the traps of ideologies and to call things by their real names.