When a use of language is described as “Orwellian,” usually the speaker means that obfuscatory or euphemistic terms are deliberately being used for political purposes to hoodwink listeners. But Orwell was also always concerned with the corrosive effects of merely sloppy language. A case in point is the ambiguity in the terms public and private.
A restaurant is, in one sense, a “private” place if it’s not owned by the government, yet in another sense it’s clearly a “public” place. If I say something ought to be done “privately” I may (depending on the context) mean only that the government ought not to be in charge of it, or I may mean that it should be done out of public view, by individuals and perhaps their families rather than larger social groups.
At the risk of imbuing words with too much power, I wonder whether that ambiguity hasn’t made it easier for people to accept, for instance, regulations like smoking bans that they’d never dream of imposing on private homes. For many, the idea that the bar owner should be shown the same deference as a home owner, at least in many areas, seems simply baffling. That’s not to say that there aren’t some plausible enough arguments for treating them differently—indeed, in some cases correct arguments—but it seems as though there’s an easy slide, above and beyond those arguments, from thinking of a place as “public” in the sense of open to “most anyone who wants to go in” (maybe subject to some “no shirt, no shoes, no service” type caveats) and “public” in the sense of “subject to the public will in the same way ‘public’ schools should be.”
Which brings us to this Washington Post column, which William Raspberry essentially handed over to quotes from some hack named Kevin Hanson who’s bitter about church-state separation:
“There’s nothing in common sense — and certainly nothing in the First Amendment — that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be ‘secular’ takes you.” [….]
Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private — and never in the context of government — is a serious misreading of human nature.
“We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” he declares in his book to be published in September, “The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America.”
“This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the ‘Messiah’ and write ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It’s how we’re made.”
Note the conflation at work: To suggest that there ought not to be public (governmental) endorsement of religion is apparently tantamount to saying that there ought not be public (cultural, social) expression of religious sentiments. Shouldn’t the “render unto Caesar” crowd, more than anyone, be wary of this sloppy equation of the state and society?