Sunday, June 6, 2021

Attacking the English Language

It is the cutting edge of the effort to bring totalitarianism to America. It is the effort to take over the American mind.

How does one take over the American mind? Easy. You take control of the way people speak. You institute new rules for rightspeak and wrongspeak. You force people to use new phrases and new neologisms, the better to ensure that everyone does not just say the right thing, but believes the right thing. The more you say it the more you think it means something. The more you think it means something the more you think you had best, not just say it, but believe it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, yesterday I came across two essays on the topic of newspeak. The first, by Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh, denounced the way the radical left has perverted language by inventing new terms and by forcing people to use them. 

As Ganesh writes:

Soviet or Nazi, Jesuit or anticlerical, the perversion of language is the ruse of the despot.

He adds that English is today the closest thing we have to a universal language. It is the language of commerce, science and diplomacy. But, it is currently under attack, not from Mandarin, but from bullshit:

There is just one threat to English as the world’s lingua franca, and it is not Mandarin. It is not even the (overrated) potential of translation technologies. It is the language’s own descent into bullshit. The pace and obscurity of lexicographic change could mire English in the one thing a language of commerce, science and diplomacy cannot survive: confusion. I know native Anglophones of no great age who are failing to keep up. For those who learn it as a second language, the scope for error is all the vaster.

And then Andrew Sullivan defends proper English by taking down today’s newspeak. Writing in Substack Sullivan also goes back to George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He quotes Orwell’s suggestion that slovenly language produces slovenly and foolish thinking.

Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics And The English Language.” It remains the best guide to writing non-fiction, and it usually prompts a wave of self-loathing even more piercing than my habitual kind. What it shows so brilliantly is how language itself is central to politics, that clarity is as hard as it is vital, and that blather is as lazy as it is dangerous. It’s dangerous because the relationship between our words and our politics goes both ways: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” We create language and language creates us. If the language is corrupted, so are we.

To offer an example, Sullivan notes the recent turmoil at the Journal of the American Medical Association. You will recall that an editor was forced to resign for questioning the current orthodoxy about systemic racism. One notes that President Biden yesterday declared “systemic racism” to be the greatest crisis of our time. It was a typically vapid and meaningless statement, but many, many people believe it anyway.

Sullivan quotes the commentary issued by a group called:  “The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” 

The podcast and associated promotional message are extremely problematic for minoritized members of our medical community. Racism was created with intention and must therefore be undone with intention. Structural racism has deeply permeated the field of medicine and must be actively dissolved through proper antiracist education and purposeful equitable policy creation. The delivery of messages suggesting that racism is non-existent and therefore non-problematic within the medical field is harmful to both our underrepresented minoritized physicians and the marginalized communities served in this country.

Sullivan comments:

… this paragraph is effectively dead, drained of almost any meaning, nailed to the perch of pious pabulum.

It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going.

He continues:

Notice the unnecessary longevity: a tweet becomes an “associated promotional message.” Notice the deadness of the neologisms: “minoritized”, “marginalized”, “non-problematic”.

Why do they write this way? Obviously enough, they are cognitively challenged, like our president, and do not want anyone to know that they are incapable of thinking.

This pretend theorizing dulls thought and obscures fact. 

Sullivan adds:

A mass of ideological abstractions, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”

Sullivan is just getting warmed up. He analyzes one especially dubious sentence:

Then this: “Racism was created with intention.” Abstract noun, passive voice, vague meaning. Who “created” it? What was the intention exactly? 

Hasn’t racist tribalism been a feature of human society for tens of thousands of years? They never say. Or this phrase: “purposeful equitable policy creation.” Again: what are they talking about? It is as vague as “doing the work” — and as deliberate as the use of a highly contested term like “structural racism” to define objective reality. These are phrases not designed to say anything real. They are phrases designed to send a message of orthodoxy, and, as Orwell also noted, “orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Try reading Slate or Vox or the Huffington Post: the tedium you feel is the tedium of a language rendered lifeless by ideology.

In different terms, the phrases are not saying anything. They function as passwords, allowing you membership in a speakeasy or a cult or a faction.

And then, Sullivan takes out after Ibram X. Kendi, another leading light of the anti-racism movement, but someone whose words neither say nor mean anything. He begins by quoting Kendi’s definition of racism, as we did three days ago. And Sullivan continues that this is not an aberration; it’s characteristic:

This was [Kendi's] response: “Racism is a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” He does this a lot. He repeats Yoda-stye formulae: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy … If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” These maxims pepper his tomes like deep thoughts in a self-help book. When he proposes specific action to counter racism, for example, he suggests: 

“Deploy antiracist power to compel or drive from power the unsympathetic racist policymakers in order to institute the antiracist policy.” “Always vote for the leftist” is a bit blunter.

Of course, the thought police who are in charge of genderterms, and who are especially in charge of telling us the right way to think about transgender issues have indulged the same aberrant behaviors. And, let’s not imagine that it does not work. If you speak the wrong speech about the transgendered you will quickly be voted off the island:

 They have long since abandoned any pretense at speaking English and instead bombard us with new words: “cisheteropatriarchy”, “homonormativity”, “fraysexuality”, “neutrois”, “transmasculine”, “transmisogynoir”, and on and on. To give you a sense of the completely abstract bullshit involved here, take a style guide given out to journalists by trans activists, instructing them on how to cover transgender questions. 

And, Sullivan adds a few words from the style guide of the Washington Post. Here is its attempt to define gender nonconforming:

Let’s just say: not like reporters for the Washington Post.) Here’s the guide’s definition of “gender nonconforming”: “[it] refers to gender presentations outside typical gendered expectations. Note that gender nonconforming is not a synonym for non-binary. While many non-binary people are gender nonconforming, many gender nonconforming people are also cisgender.”

To what totalitarian purpose:

This is a kind of bewildering, private language. But the whole point of the guide is to make it our public language, to force other people to use these invented words, to make the entire society learn and repeat the equivalent of their own post-modern sanskrit. This is our contemporary version of what Orwell went on to describe as “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four: a vocabulary designed to make certain ideas literally unthinkable because woke language has banished them from use. Repeat the words “structural racism” and “white supremacy” and “cisheteropatriarchy” often enough, and people come to believe these things exist unquestioningly. 

Clearly enough, we do well to stop speaking about the cisheterpatriarchy. And we should marginalize those who do.

Sullivan concludes:

But the core truth is: we do not have to speak this debased and decadent language. It is designed to overwhelm and confuse and smother and subdue. And the more it is used by elites, the more normal Americans, still living in the real world, feel utterly alienated by their masters, and the deeper our divide goes. Reclaiming our discourse from these ideological contraptions will make our writing better. It will help us think more clearly. And it could help re-start a genuinely national conversation.


hayek said...

During my law school education I came across a book written by the late Richard Weaver, a professor at U. of Chicago that anticipated this degradation of our beautiful language, The Ethics of Rhetoric. It reads well today, sadly.

IamDevo said...

Confucius Say: If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion.

markedup2 said...

It will help us think more clearly. And it could help re-start a genuinely national conversation.
Assumes facts not in evidence. The entire point of it is to obfuscate and halt conversation.

Sam L. said...

I'm in favor of plain language. It's clear, often concise, and strong enough to bast some sense into those who need being told.