You are here:   Features > The New Language Of Political Narcissism

George Orwell: His essay "Politics and the English Language" remains influential, even if many prominent writers have ignored his advice (Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

In his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell wrote: "In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line'. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style." Written nearly 70 years ago, Orwell's essay skewered six commonplace barbarities in contemporary political discourse so clearly and ruthlessly that it made it harder for succeeding political writers to perpetrate them. 

However, each generation starts life afresh. Today political writing is evolving in a direction Orwell never predicted. A new method of expression has come into existence. Examples can be found in speeches, official documents and even the literature produced by academic institutions and charities. It has already spread into mainstream journalism, changing not just political writing, but also sports journalism, foreign reporting and column writing. The new method of expression has become the dominant form in blogs and social media.

It rejects conventional rules of grammar, and is no longer concerned with accuracy and truth. The writers criticised in Orwell's famous essay all assumed they were describing the outside world objectively. Indeed the worst political writing of the last century, from both Left and Right, stemmed from the writers' assumption that their politics was grounded in scientific truth.

The modern school has turned this assumption on its head. Instead of objectivity, it concentrates its attention on subjective experience. Instead of reason, it values emotion. Where once writers maintained distance from their subject matter, the new sensibility demands intimacy.

Each of the five passages below demonstrates some of the conventions that are now common in much of British discourse. I have only chosen passages from respected sources. They illustrate an outlook which has only become part of mainstream culture over the past few years, in which the writer's feelings about the subject are infinitely more important than the subject. It is almost inconceivable that any established writer would have written in this way about serious issues in Orwell's time.

I wanted to share with you my own experience of Mensch. You see a couple of months ago I ended up having coffee with her at Portcullis House . . . During our meeting, Mensch was at her most passionate and sincere when she talked about feminism . . . I'm sure I'll be accused of naïveté, but sitting there talking to her, I felt she was talking with the sort of depth that only comes from personal experience.
Ellie Mae O'Hagan, New Statesman
View Full Article
April 26th, 2015
12:04 AM
Most writers come from a middle to upper middle class suburban background. They have experienced no hardship. Even to have gone through National Service someone has to be at least 75 years old. Undertaking a job where mistakes can kill one,such as mining, fishing , construction, armed forces, forestry, farming, oil industry etc, etc forces an individual to face reality, namely death or injury. Most people in the UK can now live a life where a mistake does not cause death or injury; consequently they can live an existence cocooned from reality. If one looks at the toughest life a person can lead in Britain, it is probably in the Special Forces. These people have spent years training their minds and body to endure hardship, and survive when the slightest mistake will lead to death. Consequently, they can overcome extreme challenges. The less human trains their body and mind to endure hardship and overcome extreme challenges, the less they are capable of doing so. These writers are just a manifestation of much of western society, one that is incapable of enduring hardship and overcoming challenges, so it creates a reality with which it can cope.

Rod Thomas
April 16th, 2015
5:04 PM
Solipsism may be defined as the philosophical doctrine that my percepts alone exist. Peter Oborne and Anne Williams’s claim (March) that it lies at the heart of contemporary prose and political discourse reminded me of one of Bertrand Russell’s jokes. In his book Human Knowledge, Russell recounts how he received a letter from a logician who said she was a solipsist and that she was surprised that there were no others. No, solipsism is not at the heart of our political discourse – if only because that discourse presumes other people to exist. Subjective introspection, dippy self-indulgent thinking, egoism, narcissism and personal emotion have largely displaced reasoning in the practice of political speech-making and journalism. But an explanation of that trend needs to consider the influence of other philosophical doctrines. It might start with the doctrine of individualism: that the only thing that matters is the freedom of the individual to gratify their desire. And it might proceed to consider the doctrine that the rationality of our knowledge resides not in our willingness to argue over it, but in our commitment to our beliefs, or to our personal experiences and inherited traditions. For if we think that these give our knowledge an infallible pedigree that is ultimately beyond question, then what is to be gained from arguing over its content? If we subscribe to these kinds of doctrines then our political discourse will necessarily resemble a series of personal declarations, or even worse, it will be characterised by hysteric outbursts and the exchange of personal insults between those who simply disagree with one another.

April 11th, 2015
9:04 AM
We've been waiting over a month now for a source for the alleged GCSE revision guide. I'm tempted now to say that Mr Oborne "made it up".... "to make his argument more convincing"... If that is the case, the soft whirring you hear in the background is probably Orwell spinning in his grave...

March 13th, 2015
11:03 AM
I notice someone else has mentioned this above also but I have to add too and say the GCSE questions look made up "Present Opinions as Facts . . . to make your writing persuasive." I can't find a source for that outside this article. Has anyone a source?

March 13th, 2015
9:03 AM
@Dave Weeden You're quoting A E Houseman's "A Shropshire Lad", published in *1896* and using it to back up an article describing modern-day writing, as if it suffered from the same modernist faults? Not sure I follow you

March 11th, 2015
6:03 PM
A similar notion was expressed, from the American perspective, in Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain. The story, involving themes of race and identity, was a tool used to convey the prevailing message; the media, politics, and citizenry of the United States collectively went mad during the Clinton/Lewinsky controversy (1998), and it's a rabbit hole from which we have never managed to climb out.

February 27th, 2015
4:02 PM
Can we have a source for that GSCE revision guide? (so we can all point at it and laugh/cry)

February 27th, 2015
2:02 PM
Having a hard time believing the following: "The new narcissism is taught as an examination technique. Here are some tips from a GCSE revision guide for the English Writing examination: Use Emotive Language to get through to your reader . . . You could tell them some shocking or disturbing facts. Use Facts and Statistics . . . You can make these up if you like, but make sure they sound realistic. They'll make your argument more convincing. Add Generalisations . . . They're a good way to sound forceful and convincing. Include Personal Anecdotes to add interest. Present Opinions as Facts . . . to make your writing persuasive." We were always taught the value of facts and opinion and not to obscure them in writing. Has it changed that much in nine years? Evidence?

Dave Weeden
February 26th, 2015
9:02 PM
"Into my heart an air that kills/From you far country blows./What are those blue-remembered hills?/What shires, what farms are those?" As the authors rightly point out, self-centered ("my heart") claptrap like this may convey emotion quickly, even economically, but only to youth already dead of soul through exposure to advertising and television and, above all, the lack of a good classical education.

Dave Weeden
February 26th, 2015
9:02 PM
It's a bit of a shame that Bernard Levin fitted the description of a celebrity columnist so well, and him writing in the 60s. Ditto Clive James in the 70s.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.