22 November 2008

Orwellian Terms in Modern Times: Newspeak and Duckspeak

After enduring the longest presidential election campaign in history – and if it was not, I pity anyone who endured anything longer – it is instructive to look back at a few words and how they were used. It may also be useful to look at what those words have turned into now that the election is over and one point of view has gained office.

One of the most overused terms in this election cycle was change. Even though the Democrat side used it as its slogan (along with hope), both sides sought to use the word to its advantage. That’s not to say that change was ever really defined; indeed, the vague nature of change was precisely what made the electorate comfortable with it, I believe. Though a lack of specificity, the “change mantra” became all things to all people – Democrat and Republican alike. In the end, no one really defined what change meant. It was a slogan, a mantra, and the Democrat version of change – to use a newspeak adjective of sorts – was “double-plus good” change. Nailing down what change really meant turned out to be a negative priority. A good thing for the winning side, too. Change can be a scary thing if it is defined.

The idea of change was somewhat coupled with the idea of experience. Too much experience, it seems, would be “double-plus bad”. Change requires fresh thought, fresh insights into an old, decrepit, sickly apparatus (like the federal government). The new face, the outsider, would be all the better because of a lack of experience.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the presidential election which upset the whole newspeak apple cart. The Republicans chose an experienced candidate who was also seen as a changer – sometimes to the great dismay of his party (including this writer). For its vice presidential candidate, the Democrats chose an old party whose long run in the Senate defied the fresh, new, inexperience of its candidate. And then, the unexpected rouge wave of the Republican vice presidential choice – a new, fresh face, an outsider who arguably had more governmental experience than the Democrat presidential candidate. With so much confusion about what change and experience meant in this election (note: not what they really meant), another of Orwell’s ideas would come into play, and heavily. Duckspeak.

“There is a word in Newspeak,” said Syme. “I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.” - George Orwell, 1984
Duckspeak would cure the problematic issues of change and experience. Any definition of change espoused by an opponent would be labeled as bad (or “double-plus bad”). Only the experience of a political compatriot would be good (or “double-plus good”). Any and all experience of an opponent, regardless of the particulars of that experience, was belittled and labeled as a liability. Experience of those friendly to a cause would be a boon to the cause.

One particular thing to note is that none of the specifics are mentioned here; what change means and what experience matters are beside the point. The goal of newspeak and duckspeak in this election cycle was simply to paint “us” as good and “them” as bad. And I think that many people thought these labels were the core argument of electing the next president.

As anecdotal evidence, here’s a video of Democrat supporters taken after the polls. One wonders, seriously, if Republican supporters would have shown the same predispositions, just in an opposite direction. My guess, sadly, is that they may well have. Duckspeak may well have overcome any desire for information and informed decision making. “Me good. You bad.” It’s much easier that way. And that, after all, is what Orwell says newspeak is for. It is used to create a society where “there will be no thought”. Where there is no thought, there are lots of people who are easily controlled.

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