In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell’s central point is that bad writing produces bad politics. According to Orwell, a culture full of lazily written nonsense enables governments to control citizens through deceptive messaging. This is because lazy writing leads to lazy thinking—or, rather, to a lack of critical thinking about the messages one receives. To get from bad writing to bad politics, Orwell draws a line from laziness, to nonsensical writing, to politics, and back again. Starting with writers, Orwell argues that lazy authors simply repeat what they read, relying on people’s work as a template rather than engaging in the more laborious process of original thinking. Then, to cover up their tracks, lazy writers gussy up their lifeless prose with jargon and excessively complicated sentences. Ultimately, these lazy writers fill the air with jumbled up nonsense that they themselves can’t even understand. The laziness doesn’t stop with writers, either: conditioned by nonsensical writing, readers themselves grow slothful. Orwell highlights this cyclical nature of linguistic laziness when he points out that language shapes thought as much as thought shapes language: “[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.” With both readers and writers thus steeped in a culture of nonsensical communication, deplorable governments can more easily pass off their lies as truths. Specifically, a culture of lazy communication normalizes the linguistic tools governments need to reframe abuses as simple policy issues, like referring to exile as the “transfer of population” and rebranding mass murder as “pacification.” Further, once caught within an oppressive regime, writers and readers grow even more resistant to critical thought, making it increasingly easy for bad actors to lie about their actions.
To set the foundation for his argument, Orwell posits that bad writing is generally the result of intellectual laziness. As evidence, Orwell points to writers who rely on “readymade phrases” and “stale metaphors” instead of more accurate, original ways to describe the world. Orwell outlines some of the features which make writing bad, with particular attention to “worn-out metaphors” and “lack of precision.” For instance, Orwell argues that relying on tired phrases and comparisons enables bad writers to turn off their brains and pump out droll content, a practice more akin to erecting a “prefabricated henhouse” than building sharp observations. Orwell then claims that, after starting from a point of unoriginality, bad writers attempt to hide their lack of effort through overcomplicated word choice, fluffing up “banal” prose with gratuitous prefixes and suffixes (e.g., -zing and un-) and superfluous words. Further, Orwell claims that lazy writers use words they don’t even understand, going as far to accuse one writer of being “unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means.” As Orwell describes it, writers who indulge in bad prose save themselves “mental effort” on the front end: they can avoid thinking about what they write before they get words on the page. However, Orwell warns that writers pay the price of their laziness down the road: a lack of thinking on the front end produces indecipherable writing. To the lazy writer, Orwell warns the lack of effort on the front end—that is, writing without thinking—comes at “at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. Orwell thus defines lousy writing, in contrast to concise and imaginative writing, as easy to write and impossible to understand.
After establishing the relationship between bad writing and intellectual laziness, Orwell considers the effect of this bad writing on readers. He describes how readers internalize the nonsensical style of communication to avoid “mental effort.” Once readers internalize an uncritical practice, people act as puppets, regurgitating the nonsensical style they pick up from writers. As evidence, Orwell points the mindless use of words without knowing what those words mean: “The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing words for himself.” Thus, lazy writing makes for lazy readers with a bad habit of communicating without actually thinking.
Orwell claims that this lack of critical thought creates the conditions for political deception. The style of nonsense gives lying politicians and policymakers easy access to the tools for spreading “foolish thoughts.” Within a culture that normalizes dishonest communication, bad actors can more easily rebrand their abuses and hide their sins, allowing for the “the defense of the indefensible.” Under the haze of laziness and stupidity, audiences are susceptible to oppressive governments for whom the hallmarks of bad writing (readymade phrases, fluffed up prose, and misuse of words) serve as rhetorical strategies—a “catalogue of swindles and perversions”—for hiding the truth of their actions. Thus, even for sloppy writers and readers who do not intend harm, their laziness contributes to a dangerous lack of critical thinking across society. As Orwell describes it, “This reduced state of consciousness,” in turn, sets the stage for “political conformity”—a willingness to unquestioningly accept and regurgitate political dogma.
Orwell provides readers with a way to interrupt the cycle of thoughtlessness and government-sponsored cruelty. He urges his audience to resist oppression by refusing the impulse to read and write without effort—that is, by taking the time to actually thoughtfully consider what they read and are told. Although “it’s generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about” our communicative practices, Orwell insists that readers can intervene in the degradation of language. Specifically, Orwell encourages readers to demand better whenever they notice writers relying on readymade phrases, encouraging readers to send a lazy phrase to the “dustbin where it belongs.” However, Orwell stresses that his “cure” will not happen overnight: Orwell instructs audiences to take up a concentrated and sustained effort to think more carefully as writers and demand more as readers. The antidote for lazy literacy is thus both difficult and straightforward: it's hard work.
The Danger of Intellectual Laziness ThemeTracker
The Danger of Intellectual Laziness Quotes in Politics and the English Language
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.
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.
A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself […] And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better […] Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.