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The Left's War on Language
The imposition of Wokespeak and the circumscription of our lexicon heralds the rise of totalitarianism.
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Language is important. Words shape the society in which we live and therefore the way in which we think; they color how we view the world. It is for this reason that one of the most powerful tools of social control is the capacity to define words and determine the bounds of speech.
The Left knows this. Having recognized the singular power of language to transform perception, they’ve been bastardizing language for decades in their endless quest for raw political power, advancing cultural changes through the manipulation of words and top-down reform. What they try to pass off as innocent linguistic drift or even slang is really a conscious effort to achieve political ends without ever having to engage in electoral politics.
Much of this is done under the guise of “political correctness.”1 The phrase came into use as a way to categorize falsehoods that ideologues believed ought to be considered true for political purposes. Once described by the Washington Times as “the destructive manipulation of idealism to suit it for totalitarian purposes,” political correctness is, at its core, just social engineering with the explicit goal of destroying traditional standards and establishing new standards of speech in their place. Though politically correct orthodoxy is ever-evolving, its attack on traditional mores remains constant, as does its contortion of language in an attempt to remake reality along Leftist lines and transform the political order.
The Left’s perversion of language must be seen for what it is: a power grab. They care about the meaning of words only as a means to an end—specifically, cultural hegemony, which is required to enforce their political vision. By rapidly transforming speech and behavior codes and then cynically exploiting the confusion that arises from those shifting standards, they seek to hasten society’s march toward Progress™.
In recent years we’ve been subjected to the whims of linguistic activists — a certain breed of progressive miserabilists who problemize language and play by their own set of constantly shifting rules — more so than ever before. As the Atlantic’s George Packer has highlighted, Wokespeak is being normalized and the bounds of speech circumscribed thanks in large part to various “equity guides” mandated by the country’s leading institutions and nonprofits, which seek to forcibly modernize speech through a series of Maoist dictates. The American Cancer Society has an equity guide. So do the American Heart Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Sierra Club, Columbia University School of Professional Studies, and the University of Washington.
If you read through some of these guides you’ll soon realize they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. The language used to justify the recommendation or rejection of certain words and phrases is often identical because they draw on a handful of sources from activist organizations: A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others. They even cite one another, and all read like technical manuals composed by highly specialized teams of initiates looking to impose an algorithmic catechism on the public.
The Sierra Club’s 27-page Equity Language Guide is instructive because it emphasizes the prohibition of older terms and the moral attitudes they imply just as much as it does the new politically correct jargon. The guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy because we should “use language that is inclusive of all people.” Not everyone can stand,2 and not everyone living in the country is a citizen, so the first two terms fail at inclusion, while the third and fourth, even as figures of speech, are insulting to the disabled. The guide also rejects the disabled in favor of people living with disabilities, for the same reason that person living in the country illegally and young person impacted by the justice system have generally replaced illegal immigrant and juvenile offender: to affirm, by the tenets of what’s called “people-first language,” that “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”
The guide’s purpose isn’t just to ensure that the Sierra Club avoids “derogatory descriptors and phrases” such as wrong side of the tracks and classy. It seeks to scrub language of any hint of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. Among the terms that are said to “subtly evoke and reinforce racial stereotypes” are brown bag,3 empower, vibrant, and hardworking. “Patriarchal language” like you guys and manmade must be replaced with y’all and handmade. The poor is classist;4 rule of thumb “historically originates in a reference to intimate partner violence”; voters is “exclusionary”; and Founding Fathers has to go because it “celebrates early U.S. history without also acknowledging the violence inherent in enslavement.”
The language advocated by these guides might seem bizarre, but because highly educated precincts are heavily influenced by such nonsense,5 it confers the power to establish orthodoxy. The changes spread from the establishing authorities to what N.S. Lyons has referred to as the “flagship salons of the American ruling class,” like the New York Times and the Atlantic. Such mainstream publications are all too eager to adopt the purified lexicon, and before you know it the restrictiveness pervades the entire political landscape.
Equity guides pawn off the new moral framework they advocate as merely the “evolution of language,” but in reality this is a fitting example of top-down reform, a revolution from above. The changes haven’t emerged organically from the shifting linguistic habits of broader society. Leftist academics, political activists, and bureaucrats purporting to speak for vaguely defined “communities” contrive the new terms and rules, which are handed down in communiqués that are then parroted by left-wing journalists, whose repeated use creates an artificial consensus. In effect, the public is being morally coerced, and the enforcers of the stifling new morality remain unanswerable.
The imposition of new terms is a way of winning an argument without having to debate. As George Packer notes, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors replaces convicted felon with formerly incarcerated person and justice-involved person, implicit in this revision is an ideological claim—that our laws, courts, and prisons are somehow illegitimate. If you accept the new terms — which you’ll no doubt feel pressured to do in certain milieus and contexts — you also acquiesce in the argument. And while some changes have elicited populist backlash (i.e., the Latino response to Latinx), in general once a word is condemned there’s no going back. Those who continue to employ “harmful”6 language are accused of either willful ignorance or bigotry.
It’s ironic that the practitioners of politically correct language, whose perverse lexical purification program seeks to purge society of ugliness in the name of “equity,” do no favors to the “marginalized” people they claim to be advocates of. Indeed, these verbal hygienists do more ill than good with their elaborately choreographed semantic distortions because they make it impossible to face squarely the wrongs they want to right. Vague and imprecise language is less likely to offend, and so they employ euphemisms and soft words to sugarcoat harsh realities and painful truths, often using the same gobbledygook formula of adding an unusual adjective or adverb to a noun or another adjective.
But absurdities in nomenclature don’t fool anyone living with real problems. Describing an obese person as someone high in weight doesn’t make them any healthier. You don’t accomplish prison reform by calling someone locked up in one a person experiencing the criminal-justice system. Such language is meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.
In recent years the Left’s liturgy has become a kind of inscrutable etiquette code decipherable by only highly educated progressives and a political litmus test in which the answers continually change without public discussion. If you find the rules governing which words and phrases are and are not acceptable disorienting, that’s the point. Confusion is a feature, not a bug, of the new language regime being foisted upon us under the banner of Progress™. The more worried you are about whether or not you’re going to voice some newly taboo phrase or idea,7 the more control the Left’s linguistic overlords have over your speech, and by extension your thoughts.
George Orwell’s prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four details just such a dystopian nightmare. In the novel, the English socialist regime IngSoc relies on the control of language to maintain power. “Newspeak,” the novel’s most direct prophesy of political correctness and Wokespeak, controls its subjects’ minds by changing and limiting their lexicon.
“Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” asks a member of the totalitarian party. “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is IngSoc and IngSoc is Newspeak.” The end goal is to make “thoughtcrime” — that is, dissent from party orthodoxy — “literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
That’s the reality we’re fast approaching as progressive dictators of diction seek to impose their very own version of Newspeak on us, rewriting language (and even books) to reflect their fashionable social justice ideals. Driven by an idiotic utopian vision which compels them to reinvent the lexicon and erode time-tested norms for the sake of “liberating humanity” from the West’s oppressive heritage, they’re constantly changing the standards of thought, speech, and behavior. You can never be sure when the progressive mob will come after you for having said or done something heretical that was perfectly fine the day before. And the penalties for violating the new taboos are extreme, including losing your livelihood and having your reputation permanently ruined. Under the guise of the hallowed trinity of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Left has created powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and demonizing dissenters.
Among the lessons learned in the 20th century, which featured a series of long wars against tyrannical governments and ideologies, is that all repressive movements start by mandating versions of history and their own lists of acceptable terminology. As old world classical liberalism continues to die off in the U.S., and as the Left’s new religion of social justice, which sees human nature as constructed largely through the use of linguistic conventions, continues to gain traction, we’re veering towards totalitarianism—a society in which the reigning ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology.
When we think of totalitarian regimes, we often think of might and coercion. But there is such a thing as soft totalitarianism. Soft totalitarian regimes are uncomfortable with using force and prefer instead to maintain control through narrative management, the manipulation of language, and hegemonic control of culture. While hard totalitarianism depends on inflicting terror and fear of pain on people to force them to conform, soft totalitarianism forces conformity by making people being afraid of losing comfort, status, and employment.
Our soft totalitarian regime takes freedom away by couching it in the language of liberating victims from oppression and “righting historical wrongs.” As part of its quest to define reality, the regime seeks to control thoughts and emotions just as much as actions. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and who support a progressive militancy that, empowered by unprecedented technological capabilities to surveil private life, has entrenched itself in academia, media, government and private institutions, corporations, and in the changing practices of everyday American life.
We’re not living under an all-powerful state. As Rob Dreher has written, this dictatorship is far more subtle. Under soft totalitarianism, our key institutions are imposing Newspeak and compelling the rest of us to engage in “doublethink” every day. Men can get pregnant. The woman standing in front of you is a man. Only white people can be racist. Inclusion means excluding those who object to ideological uniformity. Equity means treating people unequally to achieve a politically correct result. Gender is a spectrum. Sex is assigned at birth. The border is closed. January 6th was an insurrection.
Orwell said in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Hannah Arendt, the foremost expert on totalitarianism, warned that the 20th century totalitarian experience shows how a determined and skillful minority can come to rule over an indifferent and disengaged majority. I think it’s a serious mistake to assume that the Left’s ideological excesses will eventually run their course and things will tamp down. They’ve taken what was once considered dangerous and aestheticized it so that progressive fundamentalism has swept across America the way Bolshevism swept across the Russian Empire before the October Revolution in 1917. It’s incumbent on all of us to push back, and it starts with refusing to accept the social engineering implicit in the Left’s war on language. Hyperbolic though it might sound, liberal democracy could depend on it.
According to Michael Knowles, political correctness first entered radical circles in the U.S. through the translation into English of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, better known as Mao’s Little Red Book, in 1966. Neither the phrase “political correctness” nor any of its derivations appears in the famous Communist tract. But the word “correct” appears 110 times.
The guide suggests protect our rights over the more active stand up for our rights.
“Instead, consider ‘working lunch’ or ‘BYO lunch session.’”
People with limited financial resources is said to be more appropriate.
Wokespeak is the lingua franca of credentialed elites during a time when progressivism has become a ticket to higher social status. The language is a bizarre, intentionally complex class-based bureaucratic jargon manufactured in universities and mediated by elite institutions that serves as a barrier to entry for working people who must dedicate the majority of their time and brain space to getting by, and who can’t expend nearly as much energy figuring out how to navigate the mazes presented by fast-changing social norms. Wokespeak augments the advantages of wealth and position already enjoyed by elites and their children, while keeping unlicensed aspirants in their place.
In 2017, Lisa Feldman Barrett proclaimed in the New York Times that while sticks and stones may break our bones, words can physically hurt us, and that certain speech constitutes “violence”: “Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain—even kill neurons—and shorten your life.”
The worry is understandable. Language-policing Leftists are getting upset with white people for failing to do “a little research, understanding the history and the different semantic valences of a particular term” in order to gauge the “appropriateness of a use in a particular context.” Semantic valences.