Making the Bad Seem Good: Doublespeak

To Make the Bad Seem Good, or At Least Tolerable

Parallel convergence – ie. political alliance between centre-right and centre-left parties – Peacekeeping operations – ie. military presence – Keeping order – ie. oppressing. All of these are very good examples of what has been named as Doublespeak by the American linguist William Lutz. It could also be defined as the evil, misleading art of ‘saying with the clear goal of not saying anything’. Arnaldo Forlani, one of the most prominent leaders of Democrazia Cristiana, Italy’s most important political party in the 2nd half of the 20th century, once said: “Do I speak without communicating anything? I could do it for hours.”

Wait a minute. Shouldn’t communication – especially when people in power are involved – be clear and transparent? Theoretically, it should. But in practice the atttitude of using language that ‘makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unpleasant appear attractive, or at least tolerable,’ to quote Lutz’s words on Doublespeak, is common practice in many countries.

Doublespeak – Where Does the Name Come From?

The origin of the name dates back to George Orwell’s dystopic novel, 1984. The events narrated are set in a world oppressed by the dictatorship of the Big Brother, whose control on language is as fierce as it is on people. The totalitarian regime’s Newspeak is a new language that aims to limit freedom of thought and expression. Words expressing undesirable concepts, ie. concepts that may pose a threat to the regime, are eradicated. Next to it, as part of the Big Brother’s brainwashing programme, stands Doublethink, ie. simultaneously accepting two contradictory beliefs. The blend of Doublethink and Newspeak led to the word Doublespeak, which is our object of discussion.

Doublespeak in Films and in Society

Manipulating thought and language, making the intolerable sound tolerable, preventing the reader from understanding. These are the guidelines followed by the editor-in-chief of Stars and Stripes, Lieutenant Lockhart, presented in the memorable Full Metal Jacket film about the Vietnam war whilst instructing his reporters on how what can and cannot be written.

Has a journalist talked about Search and destroy? No way, too direct. Better Sweep and clean. And a note to another reporter: “Marine engneers lend a helping hand rebuilding Dong Phuc villages… If we move Vietnamese, they are evacuees. If they come to us to be evacuated, they are refugees.”

Doublespeak and foggy language do not only belong to cinema, they are reality especially in the language used by some politicians and the media. Destructive weapons become smart bombs, military action turns into preemptive war or even peacekeeping operations - very funny that in order to describe war the word peace is used, isn’t it?

In countries like Italy or Spain, where English is not the native language, cuts to education and health care are labelled as spending review, an English phrase that is not easily understandable for the majority of the population, especially elderly people, who only speak Italian.

Companies seem to have graduated – cum laude – in Doublespeak too. Firing or sacking staff sounds sweeter if it comes under names as restructuring or downsizing. The flexibility required in certain workplaces should probably be described for what it is, ie. a modern form of slavery.

There is good news, however. Doublespeak is effective only when its victims are unaware of it, but millions of people around the world have understood – see this article about the Cultural Creatives – and are now asking for more transparency at all levels, in politics, finance, media and language… We just have to spread the word, providing that it is clear. And honest.

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