Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician’s tool-belt.
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.
If you’ve read more than two or three of my letters, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish.
But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn’t mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.
Storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a unique power to reframe a reader’s or listener’s sense of reality. It says, in effect, “I know you have a lot of ideas about the story you’re living in, but consider the possibility that you are living in a different story altogether.”
I am a Christian person, so I think of the Gospel in precisely these terms. The world gives us a million false and contradictory stories about the nature of reality, and each of us (for our own reasons) believes a few of them. (Nobody could believe all of them). The Gospel comes along and says, “Forget about all those other stories. Here’s the story you’re actually living in.” And in the truest story, you don’t have to be afraid, or proud, or self-indulgent, or self-protective. You don’t have to be right. You can say “Oh, what a fool I’ve been.” Then, for the first time, you can stop being such a fool. You don’t have to be the boss. You don’t have to be a victim. You don’t have to jealously guard whatever power you have managed to consolidate. You don’t have to find your sense of self in your race or your gender or your social class or your political leanings. You don’t have to be the hero of the story. You don’t even have to be the main character.
You live in a better story than the ones the world is telling you.Jonathan Rogers
But if the best stories awaken you to the larger, truer story in which you find yourself, there are other stories that shrink your world. These stories convince you that you need to be afraid, that you are a victim, that if you don’t hold tightly to your power or your rights (or, alternatively, if you don’t scrap for more power and more rights), you are doomed, along with everybody you love, and the “other” will triumph over you. These stories try to convince you that you are surrounded by enemies. The villains in these stories are so one-dimensional, the us-and-them dynamics so oversimplified and stereotypical that you would never tolerate them in a work of fiction; you’d throw the book across the room. And yet somehow we let these melodramas shape our sense of what kind of world we live in.
When I look around our political landscape, I feel a little nostalgic for an era when Orwell’s “long words and exhausted idioms” could have seemed like a major threat to democracy (if, indeed, such an era ever existed). Much more serious are the threats posed by very specific, very concrete stories that lie about who we are and how we fit into the world—stories that lie about our fellow human beings, most of whom are just doing the best they can to get along in a world that can be pretty hard to get along in.
Today is election day in the United States. I don’t know what your options are where you live. Some districts have better options than others. But whatever you choose, I hope you don’t choose it because some politician has stirred up your fear and outrage, then offered himself up as the solution to your fear and outrage. We’ve got to start telling better stories—not for the sake of wishful thinking, but because the better stories are true.
You live in a better story than the ones the world is telling you. Take courage.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.