One of the basic convictions of Culture Briefing is that language is a form of power. To name something is to participate in the work of defining reality—and to define reality is to shape, in concrete ways, how people live.
If this is true, then even the briefest of glances at the language that fills our cultural moment gives cause for concern. Our lives are full to the brim with tired slogans, meaningless buzzwords, bureaucratic jargon, and constant chatter, leaving much of what passes for “conversation” in our day thoroughly underserving of the name. This is all the more true during what we’ve come to accept as an “election season.
In this week’s briefing, we recommend a single piece on the power of language: an essay by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, published by The Guardian under the title “What Orwell can teach us about the language of terror and war.” Though difficult at times, Williams’ piece is worth the effort, and rewards a close reading. Our short comments here will orient you to the essay and its basic argument.
Good writing is more than a matter of style—it is “an urgent political affair.”
Williams aims to convince us that good writing is more than a matter of style—it is “an urgent political affair.” Why? Because, in Williams’ view, language and violence are closely linked—or as he puts it, “the habits of mind that make war inevitable are the habits of bad language.” Williams makes this initially jarring claim by bringing together George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” and some of Thomas Merton’s writings on war from the 1960s. This is, Williams admits, an “unlikely pairing”—Orwell the candid religious skeptic and Merton the contemplative Trappist monk—but what he sees in both writers is a conviction that “creating a language that cannot be checked by or against any recognizable reality is the ultimate mark of power.”
However complex it may be, good writing always invites response. It is, as Williams says, “directed to making the reader see, feel and know” more rather than less. A good writer “leaves a trail to be followed and asks questions that require an answer,” writing in a way that extends an invitation to share a common world. To take one example from our contemporary moment:
When the military commander speaks of destroying a village to save it, the writer’s job is to speak of the specific lives ended in agony. When the agents of Islamist terror call suicide bombers “martyrs,” the writer’s job is to direct attention to the baby, the Muslim grandmother, the Jewish aid worker, the young architect, the Christian nurse or taxi driver whose death has been triumphantly scooped up into the glory of the killer’s self-inflicted death. When, as it was a few months ago, the talk is of hordes and swarms of aliens invading our shores, the writer’s task is to focus on the corpse of a four-year-old-boy.
Avoiding honest communication in public speech isn’t just unhelpful or undemocratic—it’s also profoundly dehumanizing.
By contrast, though bad writing takes many forms—“vagueness, mixed metaphor, ready-made phrases, ‘gumming together long strips of words’, and pseudo-technical language”—each, in its own way, is an attempt to avoid communication. And avoiding honest communication in public speech isn’t just unhelpful or undemocratic—it’s also profoundly dehumanizing. It does not show us a world into which we could be invited; rather, it seeks “to put [people] once and for all outside the boundaries of human discourse and exchange.” Bad writing, for Williams, is language used as an expression of raw, unanswerable power.
What will be required to rise to the challenge of writing and speaking well in an age of dehumanization and chatter? First, the persistence to push past cliché, vagueness, and doublespeak, and to “[go] on trying to fathom what the terrorist and the bigot are saying, to make sense of people who don’t want to make sense of [you].” Second, a kind of contemplative self-examination that resists the “ambitions of the ego.” And finally, wise reading. Learning to communicate in a way that humanizes and invites dialogue will require regular engagement with writing that does the same.
A polity marked by such habits will not rid itself of genuine public disagreements. Truthful speech can, at times, point to deep and abiding points of difference between people. And yet, what Williams helps us see is that the type of public disagreement that emerges from good writing, rather than the “narcissistic finality” that emerges from bad writing, is actually an intellectual and civic achievement.
From the beginning, Culture Briefing has been an attempt to direct your attention toward such writing. We are committed to identifying, introducing, and situating pieces that highlight the dynamics of culture and cultural change in a way that invites dialogue and response. As we near the year’s end (and mark six months or so of Culture Briefing), we’ll alter our typical practice by providing you with a set of our favorite reads from 2015. And, in the spirit of inviting dialogue, we’d like to hear what you think about Culture Briefing: what has been most valuable? What could be improved? Please email Philip at email@example.com with comments, kudos, and suggestions!