Glittering Generality

miss wasilla

Glittering generalities are emotionally appealing words so closely associated with highly-valued concepts and beliefs that they carry conviction without supporting information or reason. Such highly-valued concepts attract general approval and acclaim. Their appeal is to emotions such as love of country and home, and desire for peace, freedom, glory, and honor. They ask for approval without examination of the reason. They are typically used by politicians and propagandists.

Words and phrases such as ‘common good,’ ‘reform,’ ‘courage,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘hope,’ ‘patriotism,’ ‘strength,’ are terms with whom people all over the world have powerful associations, and they may have trouble disagreeing with them. However, these words are highly abstract and ambiguous, and meaningful differences exist regarding what they actually mean or should mean in the real world. George Orwell described such words at length in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’

In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, ‘The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,’ while another writes, ‘The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,’ the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’ The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like ‘Marshal Pétain was a true patriot,’ ‘The Soviet press is the freest in the world,’ ‘The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution,’ are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, equality.

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