By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Doublespeak is intentional manipulation of language to conceal uncomfortable truths or to cleverly tell outright lies. The term came to us from George Orwell, although he didn’t use it himself. The term he used in his famous book titled 1984 is “newspeak,” which he said consists in limiting the range of words people use and in stripping language of semantic precision in order to facilitate government propaganda and mind management.
The mainstreaming of Orwellian doublespeak in Trump’s America is already causing an enormous spike in the sales of Orwell’s 1984, which was first published in 1949, especially after a Trump administration official by the name of Kellyanne Conway defended habitually intentional falsehoods by the Trump administration as merely “alternative facts.”
All governments lie, but the brazenness and consistency of the lies of the Buhari government are simply remarkable. It competes favorably with the Trump administration in prevarications and loud, bold defiance of basic ethical proprieties. Nowhere has this become more apparent in recent time than in the information that government officials share with the Nigerian public about President Muhammadu Buhari’s health.
I have no evidence for this, but my hunch tells me that Buhari isn’t nearly as sick as his detractors make it seem, but the illogic, intentionally deceitful and mutually contradictory language of government spokespeople in explaining away the president’s prolonged absence from Nigeria have conspired to fuel unhealthy speculations about the state of his health.
As I told the BBC World Service in a February 7, 2017 interview, the labyrinth of tortuous lies, fibs, half-truths, and conscious deceit that emanate from the government make it impossible to even guess the truth.
The president’s media advisers admit that the president is in London on a “medical vacation” (which is doublespeak for “he is sick and needs medical attention”), and his latest letter to the National Assembly said he was awaiting the results of medical tests, but the Acting President and the Minister of Information say he is “hale and hearty” (which means he is vigorous and doing well). No one can be simultaneously on a “medical vacation,” be awaiting the results of medical tests, and be “hale and hearty.” That’s a logical impossibility.
It gets even stranger. Senator Abu Ibrahim, a senator from Katsina State who said he was in touch with the president, told newsmen that the president was neither on medical vacation nor hale and hearty, but only “exhausted by the weight of the problems the country is going through.” So London is the president’s destination of choice to rest, while millions of people who voted him into office squirm in the severe existential torment his administration either deepened or caused? Interesting!
On February 7, Presidential Media Adviser Femi Adesina also told Channels TV that he was "daily" in touch with the President, but doesn't "speak with him direct." How does one "keep in touch" with someone thousands of miles away without "directly speaking" with him?
Well, Adesina said he does that by being "in touch with London daily." I am not making this up. You can watch the interview on ChannelTV’s YouTube channel. But it gets worse still. He added: "People around him will speak daily. Daily." You would think the word "daily" was in danger of going out of circulation and needed to be verbally curated on national TV.
This doublespeak recalls my grammar column of December 10, 2009 on the late President Yar'adua's health. It was titled “Yar’adua’s Health: Amb. Aminchi’s Impossible Grammatical Logic.” Read it below and note the similarities with what is going on now. Enjoy:
Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Alhaji Garba Aminchi, was quoted by an Abuja newspaper to have fulminated against the unnervingly prevailing buzz that President Yar’adua is in a persistent vegetative state and in grave danger of imminent death. “And all these insinuations are lies,” he was quoted to have said. “To the best of my knowledge, I see him every day, and he is recovering….”
To the best of his knowledge, he sees the ailing president every day? So our ambassador is not even sure if, indeed, he sees the president every day, but he is certain nonetheless that the president is recovering. Huh? This is a supreme instantiation of a case where thought, language, and materiality have parted company.
At issue here is the idiom “to the best of my knowledge,” which is also commonly rendered as “to my knowledge.” This expression, according to the Macmillan Dictionary, is used for saying that you think something is true, but you are not completely certain, as in, “To the best of my knowledge, the President has not decided if he will resign because of his failing health.” The Free Dictionary defines the idiom thus: “as I understand it.” The Oxford Dictionary also defines it as, “from the information you have, although you may not know everything.”
So, the idiom is deployed principally to express thought-processes that reside in the province of incertitude, of inexactitude. If, for instance, someone were to ask me (and somebody did indeed ask me a couple of days ago) if Yar’adua was dead, I would say “well, to the best of my knowledge he is alive.” Here, the phrase “to the best of my knowledge” admits of both the possibility that he could be alive or dead. In other words, it betrays the uncertainty and tentativeness of the information I have about the query.
Now, for Ambassador Aminchi to use the idiom “to the best of my knowledge” (which admits of uncertainty) in the same sentence as “I see him every day and he is recovering” (which connotes cocksure certitude) evokes an eerily bizarre disjunction between thought, speech, and reality, one that is impossible to conceive of even with the wildest stretch of fantasy. This is as much a grammatical slip as it is a logical labyrinth.
One perfectly legitimate interpretive possibility from the ambassador’s statement is that he actually sees a figure in Saudi Arabia in the likeness of President Yar’adua that is convalescing from a sickness, but is uncertain if this is merely the apparition of a spooky specter masquerading as Yar’adua or if it’s Yar’adua himself. In spite of this dubiety, however, he is positive that the real Yar’adua is recuperating.
This is obviously not what the ambassador wants to be understood as saying. So, one or two of three things are happening here. The first is that the ambassador is being barefacedly mendacious in order to conceal the graveness of the condition of Yar’adua’s health. And this won’t be out of character. After all, English diplomat and writer Henry Wotton once famously defined an ambassador as an "honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Only that, in this case, our ambassador is lying abroad for the bad of his country.
The second possibility is that the ambassador is simply clueless about the meaning of the idiom. And a third possibility is that he has been misquoted or mistranslated by the reporter who wrote the story.
Now, this isn’t an idle, nitpicking censure of an ambassador’s innocent slip by a snooty, self-appointed grammar police. This issue is not only about the health of Yar’adua; it is also about the health of our country. Since Yar’adua took critically ill, the nation has been in even much graver illness. In somber moments such as this, we cannot afford the luxury of tolerating intentionally deceitful and irresponsible political language from public officials.
Link between Bad Language and Misgovernance
In his famous 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell railed against this very tendency among the public officials of his day. He wrote: “Political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
Do you see any parallels here between Ambassador Aminchi’s illogical grammar—and indeed that of most Nigerian public officials—and the public officials of Orwell’s days?
Interestingly, the problem endures to this day even in Britain. On Nov. 3, 2009 the Guardian of London reported that a British parliamentary committee excoriated “politicians and civil servants for their poor command of the English language” epitomized in the “misleading and vague official language” of prominent politicians.
Tony Wright, chairman of the committee, said: “Good government requires good language, while bad language is a sign of poor government. We propose that cases of bad official language should be treated as ‘maladministration’.”
Maybe the committee chairman’s sentiments are a bit of a rhetorical stretch, but someone should tell Ambassador Aminchi that he cannot simultaneously be unsure that he sees the ailing president and yet be certain that the president is recovering. That’s impossible grammatical logic. And that can only sprout from a mind that is wracked by psychic disarray.