In recent weeks we have witnessed several high-profile instances of the real-life consequences of an imprecise or inadvertent use of words. One much-discussed, disastrous case is a June 6 tweet by the celebrity author J. K. Rowling mocking the title of an opinion piece: “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate.” Rowling’s ridicule of the vague phrase “people who menstruate” was not perceived as exasperation over the mangling of the English language, nor as a snarky attempt at an editorial amendment, but as a deliberate assault on transgender rights amounting to actual violence against transgender women. The question of whether controversial speech constitutes violence has been fervidly debated on university campuses for years now, and no consensus seems near. Yet the reaction to Rowling’s tweet suggests that, for many, this question has been resolved in the affirmative: speech is most certainly a form of violence. For the moment, at least in public, dissenting opinions are punished as yet further acts of violence, the offenders subjected to social ostracism and rendered instantly unemployable. 

Within days of being accused of violence against transgender women, Rowling found herself beset by a Twitter swarm. Horrific misogynistic abuse combined with calls for a total boycott of her past and future work have filled social media. And it is not just the trans activists who denounce her—the ranks of Rowling’s accusers were promptly joined by several former child actors whose careers were arguably made by their casting in the iconic Harry Potter films. Notwithstanding the author’s apologies, the charge of being a transphobic hater has stuck, and public pressure is not easing up. The latest twist in Rowling’s takedown saga comes by way of a classic Daily Mail headline: “JK Rowling and the publisher’s staff revolt: Workers at publishing house Hachette threaten to down tools on her new children’s book because of her ‘transphobic’ views.” For Rowling, sending out that tweet earned her treatment she would have been familiar with from her books, where the characters she created were attacked, and often destroyed, after uttering the forbidden name of Voldemort. By saying the word aloud, her Harry Potter characters activated the malevolent “Taboo” curse, losing their magical immunity. The monstrous “Death Eaters” were then alerted to the location of the transgressor, whom they would swarm and annihilate. Rowling’s fall from grace is an uncanny instance of life imitating art. 

Just four days after her original ill-fated tweet, Rowling posted a lengthy letter telling the story of her downfall. She pinpoints a misreading of Twitter’s “like” function as a literal way of signaling approval, instead of the “look here” or “pay attention” meaning that she intended, as the origin of her public relations woes. She notes that this was cited by her accusers as “evidence of wrongthink,” which resulted in a “persistent level of harassment.” Rowling’s mangled allusion to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Orwell actually uses not “wrongthink” but “crimethink”—a term of his own invention—to describe officially unorthodox thoughts) suggests that she believes the current online discourse bears resemblance to the Big Brother state. Of course, in Orwell’s Oceania there was a method to self-surveillance and self-discipline: “crimethink” or “thoughtcrime” could be halted through “crimestop”—the citizen’s self-awareness to immediately rid himself of incorrect thoughts, whether personal or political. Rowling’s “mistake” lay in not stopping wrongthink in its tracks by applying crimestop and restraining herself from sharing it on Twitter. Once in the public domain, her crimethink was immediately and permanently registered by others.

Despite her popularity, Rowling is no Tolstoy, Joyce, or Nabokov—it was the magic she wrote about, not the magic of her words that made her famous. But that is not to say she didn’t mean what she said; she just happened to upset a loud group of culturally influential activists. This makes it all the more interesting to trace the insights offered by Orwell’s remarkable essay “Politics and the English Language,” written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, following decades of abuse to which language had been subjected from all sides of the political spectrum. Orwell was suspicious of political language, whether it came from conservatives or anarchists, because it was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” and because “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” His provisional solution was to simplify language, disengaging from any prevailing political dialects, because if “you cannot speak any of the necessary dialects . . . when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.” Orwell’s larger thesis in the essay was that there is a mutually perpetuating relationship between sloppy language and sloppy thinking: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Judging by what is transpiring all around us, “Politics and the English Language” has not lost any of its currency.

The present degradation of political discourse is buttressed by the decline of language. This decline is nearly indistinguishable from the sort Orwell complained about in 1945—it is still a mixture of “vagueness and sheer incompetence.” When political language relies on “dying metaphors” (“a few bad apples”), “operators, or verbal false limbs” (“use our voices”), “pretentious diction” (“decolonize the museum”), and plain “lack of precision” (“defund the police”), actual meaning cannot manifest itself, and is supplanted by what Orwell called “emotional meaning”: “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.” Instead of endeavoring to clarify their thinking by clarifying their language, political actors on all sides use terms with implied (but not always established) definitions. According to Orwell, these are “meaningless words”:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. . . . Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

The abstracted speech Rowling’s detractors so zealously defend breaks Orwell’s simple dictum to “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Which is to say, don’t use “people who menstruate” when we already have a term for that: “women.” Often, a reliance on emotional meaning is combined with a reliance on ready-to-use sayings constructed from such jargon. It is certainly easier to cobble together commonly used, facile phrases to signal one’s ideological stance than it is to go through the trouble of choosing the right words. Orwell’s observation that “as soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house” is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1945.

Leaving aside the dangers of drowning in our own version of “newspeak,” what else do we stand to lose if we continue to replace words with prefabricated and loaded phrases? To be sure, the “euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness” that are meant to neutralize morally objectionable actions are all here to stay because “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” So, as long as we commit the indefensible, we will need euphemisms. But botched language confines us in a circle of botched politics and, by extension, botched morality. Or, as Orwell succinctly put it, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Our own political language is stifled by too many bad habits, and yet, “if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.” That is why words matter, and I am using these two words to mean exactly that. No need to look for a hashtag here—there isn’t one.