Abstract: George Orwell’s essay
Politics and the English Language suggests that subtle political
pressures cut into the effectiveness of the English language. His
ideas apply to child care, where small "p" politics deflect any
tendency towards clear thought. The result of these pressures: the
language of child care suffers from stale imagery and imprecision.
We see models and theories as "fact," rather than metaphor;
arguments are presented because they sound "right" and not because
they make sense. Fortunately, with Orwell’s direction, there are
some simple guidelines we can follow to discover a path towards
used to work at a residential psychiatric centre. One day, Debbie called
me aside. She had been a child care worker at the centre for fifteen
years. Her eyebrows were furrowed and she scowled somewhat; I knew right
away there were grave matters to discuss. “We have to do something about
Heather,” she said. Heather was ten years old.
“What’s the matter with her?”
“I don’t like the way she’s carrying on
with Andrew.” Her voice grew strained when she mentioned the name of a
twelve-year-old boy, a new arrival on the unit.
“What’s wrong with Heather and Andrew?”
“She’s ... fixated on him.”
I ran my hand through my hair, as my
brain scanned its Psychology 100 memory bank. Fixated?
“You mean she has a crush on him?”
I could see Debbie struggle for a
moment, trying to transpose the word “crush” into the clinical setting.
“Yes,” she said finally. “She’s fixated
George Orwell, remembered best as
author of Animal Farm and 1984, was a sturdy defender of
the English language. His concern was not that people live by the rules
of Standard English, but that people learn to use the language
effectively, to control words rather than be controlled by them. In his
essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell is concerned
with "language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or
perverting thought." He perceived a decline in the effectiveness of our
language, a decline with political causes and implications. Not the
partisan politics of our “democratic system,” but the more incessant
general tendency of humans to polarize thought: What I believe is right;
if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong. In such a dependant field as
child care — we rarely hold the purse strings — the firepower of
everyday politics overwhelms. A single word, “crush” instead of
“fixation,” has immeasurable implications. Look through any child care
text or journal. Words like “empowerment,” “treatment,” “teamwork,” or
“professionalism” litter the pages. Do these words sustain meaning, or
are they political convenience, used because they imply a “correct” way
I suspect the latter. We in child care
— and we’re probably not alone among “human scientists” — have lost our
ability to use English effectively. Drunk on cliché and dogmatic
metaphor, with an unquenchable need to please, we have lost the capacity
for clear thought.
Small “p” politics
Recently I applied for a frontline job at an agency. The interview
went well. I was asked the usual questions about my philosophy and given
a sample case to discuss. Then, one of the interviewers said that the
agency followed a family systems model, and asked if I was familiar with
it. I was familiar with the theory, I said, but I did not attach any
particular value to it. “It’s a very useful perspective,” I added. I
sensed a change in the interviewer’s attitude towards me. “But it’s only
useful like any other theory: as a guide. I try not to let it govern my
interaction with children or their families.” Of course, things went
downhill from there.
In child care, or any social
organization I suspect, language is power, or, to be truthful, jargon is
perceived as power. How often have you heard that child care, to develop
as a profession, must have its own language? When we give in to this
belief the result is small “p” political: it becomes more important that
we say the “right” thing than it is that we make sense. In the
interview, I would have fared better if I simply said that I understood
and practiced the family systems model. That would have been smart
politics. The problem is that models or theories are words, sets of
images that allow us a perspective. They can only be “believed” on a
simple level, where we separate the world into “good versus bad” or
“pro-choice versus pro-life”. At this level we tend to become
emotionally attached to metaphors; they are our personal blueprint for
making sense of an otherwise senseless experience. The danger is that we
limit our capacity for clear thought when we accept metaphors as fact;
when we become emotionally attached to our language, our word-tools
become our masters.
Stale imagery and a lack of
Orwell identifies two qualities of muddled thinking: “The first is
staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” For starters, let
me reiterate the point of the last paragraph: theory is metaphor. Child
care is doubly damned, for the “stale image” that taxes us is largely
imposed by our absentee landlords: psychiatry, psychology and sociology.
The stalest of the stale is also the most pernicious: the imagery of the
medical and behavioral, or learning, models. This imagery is decorative,
like cuff buttons on a dinner jacket, yet serves no meaningful purpose;
what Orwell calls “ready-made phrases designed to save much mental
effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague.” Let me stress: I am
criticizing neither the people working within these models nor the
technology they developed. I do say that the imagery which flows from
these models has carried us away. Rather than striving for a fresh
appreciation of a unique child in their unique circumstances — to think
clearly — we fall back on a set of ready-made phrases which imply, but
do not sustain, meaning.
The concepts “medical model” and
“behavioral treatment” are in fact only metaphors, linguistic tools we
use in order to create a perspective. When we say “this girl is
exhibiting mental illness we mean “one way to help appreciate this
girl’s behavior is if I think of it as like a disease which affects her
mental functioning much in the same way a virus may affect our physical
When I speak of the medical model, I
refer to any term which evokes an image of physical health or illness:
“therapy,” “treatment,” “therapeutic milieu,” “clinical issue” are used
most often, along with such diagnostic terms as “paranoid,” “neurotic,”
and the vapid “motionally disturbed." The problem with these terms is
that as soon as we apply them to a person’s life situation, we restrict
our appreciation of that situation. When we ask “that kind of treatment
does this boy need?” we have moved to a simple level: illness versus
health. The child becomes “patient” who needs to be “cured"; you become
“therapist” who needs to provide “treatment.” It’s handy, because a
ready-made meaning is provided; but it’s a dangerous illusion to believe
that disconnected, imposed activity is systematically “good” for all
children. It does not allow for clear thinking.
While the medical model is cure
orientated metaphor, behavioral-learning is cause orientated: key
phrases include “conditioned response,” “modelling, reward,”
“maladaptive behavior,” “goals.” Again, the imagery carries an implied
meaning, the absurdly simple notion of the child or family as “student"
and the adult worker as “teacher.”
By habit in child care, we paste
together medical and behavioral imagery. We speak of “behavioral
therapy” and “treatment goals” and other like phrases which lead us
further away from clear thought. It’s mixed metaphor; we’re saying in
effect, that a child’s perplexing activity is “learned illness,” and the
sense we make of it is cryptic at best. For Orwell, such mixed metaphor
is the emblem of political thought.
The purpose of metaphor, he says, is to
create a visual image: “When these images clash. . . it can be taken as
certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the object he is
naming; in other words, he is not really thinking.”
Confabulated metaphor is not the only
block to clear though in child care. Our language is marred with cliches,
scientific sounding phrases and jargon. We talk of “ego,”
“relationships," “socialization,” “group dynamics,” “psyche," “family
systems” as if they were a familiar object, a favorite sweater. But they
are overused to the point that meaning is gone. Table I is a
lighthearted look at imprecision in the language of child care, but the
point is not lost: under subtle political pressure, the pressure to say
the “right thing", words become shadows.
Table 1: Child Care Translated
What We Say
What We Mean
"I need to do some networking."
"I want to call my friend."
"I hear what you’re
"You are wrong."
"I felt natural consequences
were in order"
"I lost my temper."
"I felt a little reality
therapy wouldn’t hurt."
"I lost my temper."
"I think the kids have settled down now."
"I lost my temper, but I’m calm now."
"My skill is crisis intervention."
"I like to interfere."
"That child is highly manipulative."
"That child is smarter than me."
"I need to appreciate the
"I don’t know what the problem is."
"Don’t worry, I’m a professional."
"Don’t worry, I’ll try not to
be late again."
"I follow a psychodynamic model."
"I think the kid hates his parents."
"I follow a family systems model."
"I think the kid hates his
parents, and who can blame him?"
"I acknowledge the need for maximization in the treatment
resource program with respect to children in their
"Oh my god I’m overloading,
someone get me a drink!"
"I’m into confrontation."
"I like to argue.
"We need to encourage the
"…but don’t tell the social worker."
"We need to enhance this girl’s
"I’ll take her shopping."
"I’m having networking
"My phone-answering isn’t
Recovering clear thought
Orwell asserts that “the decadence of our language is probably
curable.” The antidote is “conscious action.” For those of us in child
care, it’s a matter of taking, or finding, time to question the meaning
of the things we write and say, and of recognizing the political
pressures we face without being overwhelmed by them. The following
guidelines, borrowed from Orwell, are simple suggestions to move each of
us further along the road to clear thought.
Avoid the stale imagery of the
medical and behavioral, or learning, models.
If you do use this, or any imagery,
remember it is metaphor not fact. Just as numbers can be a tool for
expressing physical events, language is a tool for expressing human
events. Don’t let the tool be your master.
Avoid words that need lots of words
to explain them: search for the precise term.
Don’t mix metaphors.
Strive to appreciate your
interactions with children and their families in simple terms that
make sense to you, not ones that sound like they make sense to other
Try to think about the words you
use. Avoid scientific words and jargon, and think twice about any
word more than two syllables long. Orwell cautions: "Never use a
metaphor, simile or figure of speech you are used to seeing in
Swear to never again use words
joined by a slash such as "he/she" or "child! youth/family." If your
intent is to avoid sexism, construct your sentences around the
neutral pronouns that abound in English (you, they, us, we). It is
always possible to build a sentence around such neutral pronouns. If
your intent is to save time or space, do not do so at the cost of
clear thinking. A good rule of thumb is to avoid phrases in your
writing that you wouldn’t use in everyday conversation.
George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language
appears in numerous anthologies and in other books on writing in
general. For my essay, page references seem unnecessary: Orwell’s piece
is widely available, and a quick read. Anyone concerned with the
accuracy of the quotes from Orwell should read his essay; any concerned
with a breach of APA style should reread mine.