Why I write

It is sometimes worth stopping and thinking: why is it that you do what you do? What drives you to write? For me, it is certainly the political points I make, but also trying to understand the way the political discourse itself is structured, the way different ideologies go about competing, interacting with each other whilst trying to appeal and gain ground. Understanding this process further helps sort out the genuine from the fake, the opinions grounded in solid reason and fact from those built upon fake news and logical fallacies.

I was 15 when I first read 1984. I cannot say I understood it: why did they want to re-educate Winston instead of just shooting him? Only much later did it click that O’Brien was a true believer, genuinely convinced that Winston was ill and needed to be cured. That for him, the ultimate victory was not in eliminating his opponent but in crushing their will to resist. But I was far more interested in the appendix, which even then seemed clear and self-evident.

The Principles of Newspeak’ talks of propaganda through language, at the most atomic level. You crush any opposing ideology by eliminating from the language the words or meanings that it needs to express itself. You promote yours by introducing terms particularly amenable to this purpose.

Thus, Newspeak represents the final victory of one ideology over the rest. In our world, ideologies co-exist, each with its own terminology, yet each one battles to make its own jargon accepted and recognised as widely as possible, ideally to the exclusion of all others. Each term or slogan aims to evoke a whole palette of feelings, assertions — several paragraphs worth of meaning — among those receptive to it. An opponent would have to write whole explanatory essays just to adequately challenge a single such phrase. But people’s attention spans are short, and getting shorter[1], and so the pithy slogan will always win out. You can of course reject a set of terms out of hand and insist on your own, but then you lose much of the ability to communicate and find common ground.

Constructing such an ‘ideological language’ cannot be easy. For a meaning of a term to be accepted as valid, it has to correspond closely enough to enough people’s personal experiences. It has to, at the same time, conform to the commonly established truths in society (Jacques Ellul calls them fundamental currents, or fundamental myths). A large propaganda campaign is needed to spread and communicate those terms and meanings: this is an ongoing process that has to respond to current events and changes in the fundamental currents[2]. But once such a language is constructed and established, all the above can be re-interpreted, underpinned through the ‘appropriate terminology’, creating a world view that offers to explain what people see directly and supplants much of what they do not have direct experience of.

Central to this are the axioms, the fundamental assertions treated as truths: the vocabulary helps to make them seem ‘natural’ and ‘common-sense’. If people accept certain axioms, they will likely re-interpret their experiences and core beliefs through them. I found that when those axioms are challenged, people tend to react emotively: they do genuinely think, like O’Brien did with Smith, that I am challenging clearly obvious, true statements.

Adherents of axioms have a lot of other tactics to avoid their axioms being exposed for direct examination. One is to not state them directly, but treat them as absolute truth, build a whole theory upon them and reason entirely within that theory: anything outside their world view then becomes ‘wrong’ by the rules they have set. It will take an opponent a while to unravel the whole logical construct and get to the axiomatic assertions underpinning it in order to even explain what they disagree with. There are many other tactics that we all know and love, for instance changing the subject or ‘whataboutery’. Fake news is central to this process: for example if the speaker has as an axiom ‘the UK hates Russia’, he will have ready some ‘historical grievances’ the British supposedly have that ‘explain why they staged the Skripal poisoning’.

However, there is an easier way to challenge a rigid world view. Such a view often necessitates the description of two identical situations in a very different light — witness the Oceanian speaker switching mid-sentence from denouncing Eurasia to denouncing Eastasia. The ruling power in Orwell’s world solved this through doublethink and memory-holes, but we can and do point out the double standards, inconsistencies and contradictions that our opponents’ view of the world creates. In the same vein, to any theory one can offer counterexamples. For instance, to a statement ‘the market knows best’ the usual response is to reel off examples of it not working, situations where a measure of state control and regulation is clearly needed. Then, the argument becomes whether the said counterexample is an exception or an indication that the whole world view is flawed. However, this is an argument that cannot ever end.

To see why, let us return to our example: an underlying axiom might be ‘the market knows best’. A claim, implied by this, might be ‘we should have more deregulation of the financial sector’. A model would be a way of describing, based on the theory, how a real-world example — say that of the British financial system — would behave under the conditions of light touch regulation. This theoretical prediction can be compared with the actual data and the difference is the model error. But is the error due to the model being simplistic or outright wrong?[3]

Fortunately for them, defenders of rigid world views have a few more tricks up their sleeve regarding how one true statement might infer another. Up to now, we assumed that people argue logically starting with false assertions, but the logical steps themselves could too be fallacious. These logical fallacies are too many to list here, but anybody who has discussed politics on the Internet, listened to debates on TV, read the tabloids would be familiar with the most common ones.

I am quite clearly partisan: to paraphrase Orwell’s ‘Why I write’, ‘no blog is genuinely free from political bias’. Like Orwell, I write ‘for democratic socialism, as I understand it’. But along the way, I attempt to observe what is wrong with the political discourse itself. I try to see how different ideologies insulate themselves from all opposing views, how, as they battle each other in the public sphere, they aim to trick the unwitting observer as well as keep tricking the less informed of their adherents.

For supporters of different ideologies, members of different echo chambers[4], to have meaningful dialogue, they need to see through those tricks, to understand and appreciate each other’s languages, to be able to constructively defend their axioms when these are challenged, to not react emotively and resort to defensive mechanisms. Challenging the most atomic components of different political narratives is a skill that every person needs to acquire as they grow up: only then could our democracy have a chance to truly function as it should.

PS: I recently found this very interesting article that links Orwell’s ideas on the construction of Newspeak with how Nazi propagandists used to alter the meanings of words to suit their purposes.

[1] Bizarrely, this might actually be fake news.

[2] To quote Ellul, ‘In Western Europe, the word Bolshevik in 1925 the word Fascist in 1936 the word Collaborator in 1944, the word Peace in 1948, the word Integration in 1958, were all strong operational terms; they lost their shock value when their immediacy passed.’ So the terminology has to evolve to keep up with the times.

[3] Here is the boring formal bit, that explains everything through undergraduate-level first-order logic. A language is a set of words and phrases to which every person attaches a subjective meaning. Axioms are certain particular phrases assumed to be true with no justification needed. Valid inferences are ways of obtaining one true statement from another. A theorem is obtained from the axioms through such ‘valid inferences’. Together, the axioms and the valid inferences constitute a theory, a narrative that seeks to explain the principles of how the world should work according to the ideology. A model is a consistent way to apply this formal theory to a real world situation, predicting its evolution in time given certain political or economic actions. The parameters predicted by the model can be compared with ‘true’ real world data to find how wrong it is: the difference is the error. Because the real world is very complex and political theories tend to be relatively simple, this model will invariably be simplistic and have a big error. But does this error mean the model is merely simplistic or totally wrong? Most arguments about inconsistencies and counterexamples are over this.

[4] Those echo chambers are thought of to be a modern, social media-inspired phenomenon, but already Edward Bernays in 1928, in a seminal work on propaganda, claimed that just like advertisers should not argue with the points their competitors make in promoting their products, politicians should not engage with the arguments their rivals are making. It is much more fruitful, he said, to promote your own side and leave the difficult arguments of the opposition un-answered.


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