George Orwell is best known for writing “1984,” but he also wrote a lesser-known book entitled “Politics and the English Language,” 1946. How we use language when connected to political life is the topic he discusses. There have been problematic elements in political language for many decades in American political life.
Take the word “liberal,” for example. It has been used to vilify others for many decades, including President Kennedy, 1917-63, who responded with these words: “If by a ‘Liberal’ they
mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’”
The word “liberal” is still used to this day by some to vilify others, even though the meaning of the word is good. It comes from the Latin word “liber” which means freedom. Currently, the same vilifying process is attached to the word “woke.” While its use has a complicated history, its basic meaning is to be “aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”
According to Orwell, the words we use can be both a cause and an effect. If we use imprecise and sloppy language, the way we think also becomes imprecise and sloppy. It becomes easier for us to become inaccurate in our thinking and to use words in a vilifying sense. That is the current problem with using the word “woke.” It is now being used to condemn others and announce one’s anti-woke membership as a badge in a cultural war. Calling something or somebody “woke” is the users way of expressing unhappiness with how things are, how they would like the world to change to their way of thinking, and inviting others who share their general, inarticulate uneasiness to join them. As Orwell said, “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.” More specifically, declaring others to be “woke” often means that “they” are both wrong and enemies of our civilization, and a threat to all that is decent and good. It does seem true that as a nation we both could and would benefit from a genuine conversation and thorough discussion about cultural issues.
Nonetheless, when we use “woke” as a catch-all term for everything that is deemed to be bad, it is not helpful. Rather, it almost always adds to our current political confusion and conflict.
Maybe George Orwell was correct. Our political lives and practice of politics could be improved by improving the language we use. He closed by saying that “if one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” A good thought for personal reflection as we live in the midst of a perennial election season.
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