Defensive Propaganda: How George Orwell Deconstructs Word Choice in Homage to Catalonia

Like much of Orwell’s writing, Homage to Catalonia demonstrates timeless and transferable lessons; it’s not just a book about the Spanish Civil War.

Homage shows us, in any era, how real-world propaganda can have serious political consequences. In particular, how subtle word choices often power propaganda.

By studying Homage we can observe how Orwell spots these word choices and, in spotting them, disarms the propaganda the way an experienced military technician disarms a bomb.

In other words, through Orwell we can study the art of Defensive Propaganda.

Using Defensive Propaganda 

Defensive propaganda is about examining how word choices (or other subtle rhetorical techniques) influence arguments and often change the entire landscape of a debate.

(I have talked about the impact of subtle word choices in politics before. For example, in the context of climate change, in the early 2000s republicans used a rhetorical technique called “the ladder of abstraction,” using abstract words to obscure the meaning of their policy. The example I used of this is the shift from the phrase “drilling for oil,” to “exploring for energy.” You can read more about the ladder of abstraction here. In the abortion debate, politicians have weaponized the power of the word “life.”)

George Orwell was a master at dismantling propaganda by calling it out and examining what it really was. At many points throughout Homage he pauses to examine the consequences of a single word choice, whether that’s “trotskyism” or “revolutionary” or the use of the word “rising” by western journalists.

Like Orwell, we can do the same thing. First, we have to notice the rhetoric around us, whether that’s the effects of phrases like “Radical Left,” “Antifa,” or a number of other countless examples in today’s political climate.

Then, we have to confront it, examine it, question it, and explain its effects.

Our strongest defense against propaganda is to see through it. Or rather, to see inside it, above it, underneath it, and all around it. In other words, to understand it.

Propaganda, once understood, becomes helpless and disarmed.

Here are five examples from Homage to Catalonia, where Orwell demonstrates this skill. 

1) The Rampant Name-Call, “Trotskyism”

“Today the key-word is Trotsky-Fascist’; yesterday it was ‘Social-Fascist’” (178), Orwell writes.

Tomorrow it will be ‘Radical Left’ and ‘Antifa.’

The name-call is a rhetorical technique old as time, and it’s not going anywhere. In this particular context, the name-call “Trotskyist!” was used to accuse those on the anti-fascist side, by other anti-fascists, of being traitors, even if there were no evidence for it at all. 

The exact meaning of the world, though, is unclear, misleading, and accusatory when people had nothing concrete to accuse their enemies of.

Orwell writes, “This word is now flung about with greater and greater freedom, and it is used in a way that is extremely misleading and is often intended to mislead” (176).

“It is worth stopping to define it,” (176) he writes. Stopping to define the words thrown around in political debates is often one of the most important steps.

In her book Cultish, where Amanda Montell introduces the term “thought-terminating cliché.” In the context of cults, Montell explains how cult leaders streamline their messages by intentionally using phrases that cut off the conversation, that ‘terminate thought.’

The name-call is a thought-terminating cliché because it ends any sort of conversation.

While Orwell didn’t use this exact terminology, he expresses the same sentiment.

“So long as no argument is produced except a scream of ‘Trotsky-Fascist!’ the discussion cannot even begin” (179).

In the case of those throwing around the term, whether it’s ‘trotskyist!’ or ‘antifa!” ending the discussion before it can begin is exactly the point. 

2) ‘Democratic’ vs ‘Revolutionary’

To many of those fighting against the Fascists in Spain, ‘democracy’ did not have the same connotations as it may to our ears. In fact, to many, it had a negative connotation, because much of the working class had come to view the idea of western democracy (perhaps rightfully so), as a sham.

Orwell directly compares the rhetorical effect of the words. “To say first ‘Democracy is a swindle,’ and then ‘Fight for democracy!’ is not good tactics. If… they had appealed to the workers of the world in the name not of ‘democratic Spain,’ but of ‘revolutionary Spain,’ it is hard to believe that they would not have got a response” (69).

‘Revolutionary,’ in this case, was the stronger word to inspire the fighters in the anti-fascist cause. In fact, the idea of ‘revolution,’ as Orwell discusses much more in the book, is what many workers were fighting for, but their leadership’s own slogans undermined that message.

3) The Use of “Rising” and “Plot” in Western Newspapers

One of the themes of the book is how the media misreported the events of the Spanish war, and completely believed the reporting from the Soviet Union-backed segment of the anti-fascist cause.

Orwell dissects how the two words “rising” and “plot” in these newspapers gave a misleading impression of the events.

“Their action was essentially defensive, and I doubt whether it should be described, as it was in nearly all the foreign newspapers, as a ‘rising.’ A rising implies aggressive action and a definite plan” (156).

Later, he discusses how “plot” has the same effect. “The Valencia Communist papers were flaming the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot,’” (206) Orwell says.

I remember on an episode of The Tim Ferriss show with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tim asked deGrasse Tyson about a New Yorker profile, and he responded first by discussing the difference between something being “fact-checked” and “impression-checked.”

Tyson said, “while the profile was fact checked, it was not impression checked. And you can say something that is factually true, but then you can ask, ‘If someone reads this, what are they going to think?’ And if they don’t think that which is true, even though what they read was technically a fact, then the article is not authentically communicating reality.”

In this case, plot and rising are intentionally misleading, even if they’re not factually incorrect.

When reading news, we can look out for these types of words, which add pure opinion or exaggeration (what’s called ‘editorial’) to what’s supposed to be news.

While the term “media-literacy” gets thrown around a lot, taking note of words like ‘rising,’ ‘plot,’ and countless others is how we can strengthen our abilities to see through misleading media. Any word in newspapers that adds opinion to the events you should circle in your mind and look at with skepticism.

In Homage, Orwell quotes from the following newspaper as an example. I have bolded all of the words that are exaggeration and opinion.

SPANISH TROTSKYISTS PLOT WITH FRANCO

“Following the arrest of a large number of Trotskyists in Barcelona and elsewhere…become known over the weekend, details of one of the most ghastly pieces of espionage ever known in wartime, and the ugliest revelation of Trotskyist treachery to date…” (173. The Daily Worker, 21 June).

Now, some of this isn’t only misleading, it’s wrong. Spanish ‘trotskyists’ had NO communication with Franco in any way. Nonetheless, the tone established by words that convey opinion like “ugliest revelation” should always alert us to the potential presence of propaganda.

4) The “P.O.U.M Attack”

The P.O.U.M was one of the political parties that fought against Franco, and it’s the party that Orwell, as a volunteer foreigner, fought with on the frontlines. Quoting another misinformed newspaper, Orwell talks about how “the Barcelona fighting” in the papers morphs into “the P.O.U.M Attack.”

Fighting implies a multi-sided affair, while ‘attack’ implies that one side was responsible. Like “plot,” “attack” is another misleading, editorializing word that is not, as Tyson said, impression-checked.

By shifting the name of the conflict to “P.O.U.M attack,” any reader, even if nothing else changes, gets the impression that the P.O.U.M were the aggressors.

5) The Double-Use of ‘Popular Army’

The sinister effectiveness of abstract or unclear language is so strong that I’m repeating it again.

(For more on this specifically, I’ve written about this technique called The Ladder of Abstraction.)

The definition of the “Popular Army,” Orwell explains, the newspapers conveniently change to conveniently make P.O.U.M and other troops in more “revolutionary” parties, look like fascist traitors.

Typically the “Popular Army” referred to the Soviet-backed segment of the army.

However, members of the P.O.U.M and revolutionary parties were also technically Popular Army troops. Orwell writes, “The fact that the militia troops were also, on paper, Popular Army troops, was skilfully used in the Press propaganda. Any credit that happened to be going was automatically handed to the Popular Army, while all blame was reserved for militias. It sometimes happened that the same troops were praised in one capacity and blamed in the other.”

The media used the abstract and undefined nature of “Popular Army” to intentionally mislead, using the broad, unclear definition in whichever suited their interests most. 

The Plane for Political Controversy

While the mediums for expressing rhetoric and spreading propaganda have changed, the core underlying mechanisms and strategies haven’t.

Orwell, in his examination of the impact of swapping out a single word, concluded that political conversations are most effective through a medium where nuance exists.

He writes towards the end of Homage, “The only hope is to keep political controversy on a plane where exhaustive discussion is possible” (178).

This was in 1938. Then, we decided to invent social media.

Even if our first instinct is to agree with Orwell, and give in to the hopelessness about the future of political discourse, there are ways to protect ourselves against deceptive rhetoric, even in the short-form.

We can protect ourselves by, as Orwell did, practicing defense propaganda. When we spot sound bites, name-calls, and clearly editorialized language, we can dismantle it by defining it, examining it, and critiquing it.

Second, We Must Become Propagandists Ourselves

Short-form propaganda is here to stay. The solution is not to disdain it entirely. In fact, we have to find our own words. It’s not enough to break down how misleading a term like “pro-life” life, we also must improve on the unemotional “pro-choice.”

And, we can do this with clear, concise language. It will not be as perfect as a political manifesto on “a plane where exhaustive discussion is possible.” But in today’s world as in Orwell’s, the slogans and headlines define where any discussion begins.

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