Monday, 6 April 2015

Will language spark off a revolution?

Once in a while, I dust off George Orwell"s Politics and the English Language.  Seventy years on, it still resonates as a rallying-cry against the prolixity and mendacity that characterises most public writing.  Orwell was railing against the Communist tendency to resort to sloganeering and useless verbiage, and the Fascist repetition of verbiage.  This later informed 1984 and the closing-down of linguistic freedom as a further means of totalitarian control.

Move forward to the current decade, and the totalitarianism is not driven by ideological chasms.  Instead it is a much more determinist approach, honed by a combination of pseudo-academic pretension and social control dressed up in diversionary tactics.  The linguistic environment in which we are living is disturbing.

Partly this is a reflection of the ease with which communication now occurs.  There has been an explosion in quantity without a concomitant raising in quality; a mendacious democratisation seems to imply that there is something wrong with an interest in grammar, syntax and accuracy.  This is not a simple justification of ongoing pedantry, although I wince every time "enormity" or "decimation" are misused by those who consider that pretentious formulations score over simplicity and clarity.

Whereas Orwell saw language being abused for purely political ends, the reality is that it now blurs into social control and power relationships.  Dressing taxpayers and service users in the clothes of "customers" is a trope that government, national and local, has adopted.  This is justified through the equally-nebulous concept of "empowerment", which is one of the greatest misrepresentations, as it usually coincides with services being privatised or managed in such a way that their supposed owners are not intelligent enough either to comprehend or to be capable of changing.

Another much-abused term, which I find myself using increasingly in professional life, is "stakeholders".  This is one of those nebulous portmanteaux that betrays the requirement of the state to distance itself from accountability to its citizens.  Whereas shareholders have a defined role in the running and accountability of their companies, the "stakeholder" can be anyone from a public service user to an organisation that has manoeuvred itself into a position of having a loud voice and a talent for publicity.  When I heard that the Taxpayers Alliance defined as one, the perversion of society becomes much clearer.

One of the drivers for the abuse of language is blurring accountability.  In using the "stakeholder" and "customer" terminology this makes the citizen complicit in the quality of service delivery, and even, in some cases, unreasonable in demanding to exploit his or her rights.  Rather than assuming that elected politicians and unelected officials are required to demonstrate probity, this inversion of the relationship makes it clear that the average citizen is a sap, paying up and receiving inferior and incompetent service as a privilege.  Even better, where public services are not provided by those nominally responsible for them, the intermediaries are reduced to mere "stakeholder" status and can hide behind labyrinthine legal structures.

For Enlightenment revolutionaries, the most potent formulation was "we, the people".  The present morass would suggest that this has become both subversive and dangerous.  "We, the consumers" does not inspire - as it also confines those who might have a legitimate interest to those receiving a good or service.  This is Thatcherite atomisation at its worst and most insidious.  Orwell's doublethink would not have been able to encompass current definitions of "transparency" and "freedom", which are inversions beyond the wildest dreams.

Blair managed, in a relatively-undistinguished period as Prime Minister (albeit Titanic compared to the current incumbent), to pass Freedom of Information legislation.  I am relatively experienced at using it, as both requester and provider.  What should have been foreseen when the law was enacted was the extent to which the bureaucratic machine can generate additional complexity in order to frustrate the citizen.  The sheer volume of material produced means that any request not written with complete precision will be "too expensive" for authorities to disclose.  Finance trumps accountability, and pen-pushers trump both.

Where the Poujadists are right is that there is increasing opacity as to where public income is spent.  Their remedy is as limited as their intellect, because rather than cutting back the state there should be much more clarity both as to how money is spent and who is accountable to elected bodies for its disposition.  Last week it was reported that Hampshire County Council is spending more each year on consultants than it has just cut from social care and transport budgets, but there will be no skill amongst either the councillors or officers that can untangle any value that is being derived from the attention of opportunistic parasites.  Services are being cut while the unelected feast of the corpse, vultures in sharp suits and shiny shoes.

Eventually, even a desensitised mass may feel that it has been taken for a ride.  Whereas in 1984 Orwell envisaged a future where talent shows and third-rate entertainment maintained the proles in a state of quiescence, there is still hope today.  The perversion of language and the corruption of the public realm may just be enough to spark off the reflection that the state of the world is not pre-ordained, and there may even be those prepared to redefine activism as centred on the individual's and society's rights.  Sweeping away the euphemisms and deflections will be a minor increment along an ascending path towards genuine reform.  Without such a development, revolution inches nearer.

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