Back in 1983-1984 everybody and his dog read or reread George Orwell’s 1984 and made a pronouncement of some sort.
No, we didn’t tweet it or post about it on on Facebook. No one could have imagined such inanities back in the 80s. But we were aware of Orwell’s dystopian vision and we were aware that the anointed year had come. So we spoke.
The general consensus was that Orwell had missed the mark. Sure, we said, the Soviet Union and China were awful dictatorships, but we in the lovely west were seeing nothing of the horrors of Orwell’s vision.
That is to say, we missed the point of the book.
Orwell’s central thesis, neatly summarized by Northrop Frye (I intend a Frye “Back to the 80s” soon), “is that there is only one way to create a hell on earth that we and our children can never escape from, and that is to smash language.”[i]
To smash language. To remove the possibility of articulating non-trivial thought.
As the philosopher Charles Taylor tirelessly argues, language has both a constitutive as well as a designative function. Language designates insofar as it provides expression to thoughts, and provides a vehicle for interpreting others’ thoughts. But language does much more than this. Language not only allows us to name our world; it also is integral to the creation of much of it as well. By naming the world, we come to understand it on our terms, and we create possibilities of understanding and application that could not be present otherwise.[ii] To live in language is to live in a world of meaningful creation and participation. Without language, we would be much less than we are now.
If, as Orwell feared, language were to be destroyed, then the possibility of meaningful human creation would die with it.
Our world looks nothing like Orwell’s dictatorial dystopia; aren’t we safe?
I don’t think so. Twitter—the medium of choice for the US President-elect—restricts communication to 140 characters. This has had a fascinating effect on communication. First, a number of tweeters have revived the long-dead art of the epigram. It is possible to be insightful and hilarious in 140 characters. George Takei is a master of the art. But neither can you provide a detailed or nuanced argument. Twitter is a way of telling people what they already believe. If you have Twitter talent, it’s a fun and entertaining way of helping people to laugh at their own cleverness. Try tweeting an explanation of what’s at stake in the Trans Pacific Partnership.
But it’s not just tweets. It’s memes on Facebook and Instagram. Wonderfully entertaining, both, but utterly incapable of sustained argument or novel conception.
Perhaps I’m being a bit hasty here. Sure we have social media for exchanging our daily trivialities, but that doesn’t mean that all written communication is or will be trivialized. This is where there is hope.
Education is the place where language has a chance to make a stand.
If education fully embraces the “new technologies” and “21st century literacy” then the future is bleak. As Neil Postman (another likely topic for my “Back to the 80s” kick) argued, continuous prose is one of the greatest technologies created by humans for the purpose of making and communicating meaning. Nothing compares to the ability of prose to structure arguments, to demonstrate cause and effect, to offer thought experiments. But prose is not simple. It takes a lifetime to master clear, lucid prose. We have to decide if we, as a society, are up to the task. Do we care to give the gift of prose to future generations?
(As an aside, imaginative prose is one of our great cultural legacies. It is being displaced by video. This is a whole different discussion for another day.)
There is much more to say, and I will return to this topic.
Let me close with my favourite epigram–a pre-Twitter tweet–from an earlier time. In the 18th century, epigrammatic wit was highly valued (as were extended prose and poetical treatment of serious issues). Alexander Pope gave a dog to Frederick, the Prince of Wales in 1736. The dog had a collar, engraved with the following couplet.
I AM his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?
[i] Northrop Frye (1988) “The Authority of Learning.” A talk given to the Empire Club in Toronto on 19 January, 1984.
[ii] Charles Taylor (2016) The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.