The Politics of Insincerity

When one hears terms like peace, freedom, or change, it is good to keep in mind George Orwell’s indispensable advice. He warns us that words used in a political context are often consciously dishonest: “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” For example, if someone says, “change is good,” is it a good change if we are taken over by Neo-Nazis? If he explains, “No, I mean change for the better,” then he’s added a qualifier that wasn’t originally part of the bargain. What is really being said is “my idea of change is good, yours is not.” But to champion a view of progress that appears so openly dismissive of other beliefs might prove a liability.

The problem with ideological euphemisms is that they lead to equivocation. Consider the idea of “diversity.” Taken literally it is rife with irreconcilable paradoxes. If you promote diversity as a supreme good your end goal must be uniformity. (Is your agenda “inclusive” toward those who are against diversity?).  Ethical neutrality sounds pleasantly noncommittal. But it is actually a value judgment which is completely intolerant of other moral systems. After all, to denounce dogma is to make a dogmatic assertion. Things like diversity or tolerance can only be seen relative to other values. They can hardly be pursued for their own sake. But ideology thrives only on the emotional power of absolutes, not rationality or candor.

In the realm of political fundamentalism, as Orwell would say, vagueness take precedence over clarity. The latter invites too close a scrutiny of one’s goals. The real aim is not conveying facts or truth but imposing a preconceived attitude on one’s audience in order to sway them and achieve some form power over others. It used to be called propaganda. I’m not sure what it is called now.

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