Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…


The last few weeks have focused on the upsetting use of language – at the Book Haven, a lot of what we used to call “column inches” have been devoted to the use of the “n-word” in Mark Twain‘s Huck Finn. The Book Haven is not alone in its concern about words: The entire nation has been worrying about the violence in our political speech this month.

They shouldn’t fash themselves. It’s hardly a new phenomenon. I remember living to London in the 1970s. The man I was involved with at the time, born in the quiet prewar days, deplored my metaphorical use of guns, blood, dynamite, and other explosives in my language … me, a milquetoast vegetarian and half-hearted pacifist. (Half-hearted, because I know if the Gestapo were banging down my door, it would take more than Yoko Ono bumperstickers and scented candles to drive them away. It is so easy to be a pacifist in Palo Alto.)

I remembered those Islington conversations again this past month, now that things have settled down a bit and political language has resumed its normal level of gunfire. … see? There I go again.

On Jan. 10th, after the first feverish round of accusations had paused so that people could inhale, I pointed out, via an article in Der Spiegel posted on my Facebook page, that I thought the recent attacks on Sarah Palin were a teensy bit wrong-headed and likely to backfire. But what were the words that slipped off my fingers and onto the keyboard? I thought the liberals were “shooting themselves in the foot.” A cliché, obviously, but what does it mean that the most immediate words that came to my mind involve gunfire?

I began compiling a list, with the help of my daughter and Matthew Tiews: gun-shy, fired the first shot, shot heard round the world, firing line, dodged a bullet, silver bullet, rifle (as a verb), cannon fodder, shoot yourselves in the foot, in my crosshairs, target (noun and verb), road kill, “shoot first, ask questions later”, shotgun wedding, trigger happy, at gunpoint, at knifepoint, riding shotgun, “ready aim fire!”, Playing Russian roulette, crying bloody murder, making a killing, don’t give up, reload, playing with a loaded gun, you’re fired.

I’m not alone. Someone on the TalkLeft website offered these: “being a ‘bombshell’ or the ‘air wars/ground attack’ or someone ‘running out of ammo’ or a particular person ‘has a bullseye on them’ or ‘we are targeting so and so’ or ‘a target rich environment’ or something being a ‘nuclear option’ etc. etc. etc.’’ To which I would add, “Nuke ‘em” – whether applied to frozen carrots or foreign governments.

A rightwing site added “’battleground states’ and ‘targeting’ opponents. Indeed, the very word for an electoral contest — ‘campaign’ — is an appropriation from warfare.”

Obviously, I comb both the right-wing and the left-wing media. What both have in common — in fact, their most salient feature — is their preoccupation with pinning the blame on the other, who started it first, or is the worst offender. (I’ve raised toddlers already, thank you very much.) In short, I honestly don’t see a ha’penny worth’s difference between the bloody speech of the right or left. I don’t think the problem is one of language, as such, but of rectitude and sanctimoniousness, which language reflects and then reinforces. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen a marked decrease in the ability to listen to a viewpoint not one’s own, the joy of kicking around an idea for the fun of it.

Joseph Brodsky said, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” I still think that’s the best guideline, and it’s obvious that both on the left and right, people think that they are better, superior, smarter than the people in the other half. That sense of superiority is the root of the problem, the unwillingness to listen to the other, who is seen as having nothing to bring to the intellectual table. The result? Hyperbole and shrieking to make one’s point heard. A public discourse that does not address the serious concerns of opponents (because they haven’t listened to them), but instead resorts to ad hominem attacks.

So an obvious solution to the problem of political language is to listen to the other side, assuming the best motives, assuming that they are as smart and concerned as yourself. Try above all for fairness and justice, rather than self-righteousness. Check out the National Review or Hot Air as well as the Daily Kos or Talk Left. No, I don’t want to hear how it’s attendant to the other side to understand you. Be the first. Start a trend.

But my own question goes beyond that, to those conversations in Islington. Knowing what George Orwell said about the relationship of politics and language, what does it mean that so much of our public language is seeped in violence? Why do we feel more real or honest or witty when we are expressing ourselves this way?

I have no answer, but note that a quick image search for guns shows a lot of women pouring out of bikinis along with Glocks. Sometimes they’re holding guns, too. So what’s with that?

Perhaps Clint Eastwood, of all people, offered another glimmer of a clue in today’s WSJ (with a hat tip to Books Inq.), on his comment about war:

“As for Josey Wales [from his film, The Outlaw Josey Wales], I saw the parallels to the modern day at that time. Everybody gets tired of it, but it never ends. A war is a horrible thing, but it’s also a unifier of countries. . . . Man becomes his most creative during war. Look at the amount of weaponry that was made in four short years of World War II—the amount of ships and guns and tanks and inventions and planes and P-38s and P-51s, and just the urgency and the camaraderie, and the unifying. But that’s kind of a sad statement on mankind, if that’s what it takes.”

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4 Responses to “Orwell Watch #5: Before we shoot off our mouths again…”

  1. David Sucher Says:

    Personslly, I don’t use “road kill” as related to guns but only to cars and trucks.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Not guns, but surely a rather a violent and gory metaphor in current usage.


  3. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    I can’t speak to this issue as a whole, but here in D.C., I find that among my neighbors who are steeped–in my opinion, too steeped–in the news-stream, violent rhetoric is inversely proportional to the actual violence of the act they’re describing. For example, I’m often told that Politician X “attacked” or “took a shot at” Pundit B, or Columnist Z “savaged” his opponent, when all that really happened was that someone used words to express an opinion. I’ve come to distrust anyone who tries to get me fired up about such things, not only because there’s a whiff of violent fantasy about it, but also because such people lose sight of how overwhelmingly peaceful (if increasingly dumb) our political discourse really is.

  4. Frank Wilson Says:

    You’re quite right, Jeff, when you use the phrase “a whiff of violent fantasy.” I have concluded that these are people who think they have to signal toughness, but wouldn’t have a clue as to what to do if someone treated them to a knuckle sandwich. I have had the pleasure of knowing a number of people in low places. Really dangerous people don’t talk tough.