Civics: Politics and the English Language in CBC’s Investigative Journalism

Terry Newman:

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” explains how language – and therefore meaning – can quickly degrade if an author is writing for political reasons.

Orwell points out two ways this degradation happens: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. He gives three possible explanations for this degradation; the writer may have a meaning in mind that they cannot express for whatever reason, or the writer accidentally says something other than what they mean, or the writer could be indifferent or unconcerned about whether their words mean anything or not.

While all three reasons can be attributed to a lack of skill on the part of the writer, the last appears to be the most critical flaw. After all, if a writer does not care whether or not what they are saying actually means anything in reality, or, worse, they are intentionally obscuring reality by failing to explain a situation fully with concrete imagery or by using a word abstractly, without precision, for political purposes, we must then view this as a purposeful attempt to obscure concrete reality. The result is ugly. 

Ugly political writing uses words in a dishonest way as a shorthand to deceive, rather than elaborate, and to signify that some target, some particular person or group of people, is undesirable. 

Ugly political writing seems to be everywhere today, but I am going to focus on a recent CBC piece, “Scores of anti-trans candidates running in Ontario school board elections,” to illustrate how political writing is, as Orwell pointed out, abstract, in that it fails to communicate concrete images to further its arguments, and imprecise, in that it relies on the vagueness of terms in an attempt to prove the political point of the author.