Language can turn against our open societies, writes Peter Hughes
In The Crack-Up, an essay written in 1936, F Scott Fitzgerald described all life as “a process of breaking down” and he distinguished between two kinds of collapse: the big, sudden collapse that assaults us from the outside and a gradual collapse that comes from within, that makes itself known to us when it’s too late to do anything to stop it. Of course, as we deteriorate there are symptoms, moments when we don’t feel right, when we think something terrible might be happening, but we choose to ignore them.
Societies crack up in the same way. There are hostile rivals that attack from the outside. They’re generally easy to identify and we can take steps to deter them. Harder to spot is the slow erosion from within of the foundations on which our democracies are built. We’ve known since Plato and Aristotle that democracy contains within it the seeds of its descent into tyranny but when those seeds begin to grow, we ignore the symptoms they produce.
One of the symptoms is the strange malignancy that creeps into our language. In George Orwell’s 1984, the Party maintains its power by restricting the ability of the people to think freely. The erosion of linguistic variety is the mechanism that makes this possible. Syme, an official at the Ministry of Truth, describes his motivations in compiling the eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary: “You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone… Do you know Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?” As language shrinks, our imagination shrinks with it. The ultimate triumph of the Party will happen when “thoughtcrime” will be literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
The Jewish writer Victor Klemperer recalled how the Nazis steeped “words and groups of words and sentence structures in its poison.” He coined the term Lingua Tertii Imperii to describe how the Third Reich appropriated and deformed words to subordinate knowledge to ideology. They created new verbs, such as entjuden (to dejew) and reserved concepts such as Heldentum (heroism) for the Aryan race. The pervasive use of the word Stürm (Storm) created a linguistic environment in which all movement was forward. A major antisemitic newspaper was called Der Stürmer and even when the German army began accumulating losses, words such as Rückzug (retreat) and Flucht (flight) disappeared from the official vocabulary to be replaced by more palatable euphemisms.
Making language the master and servant of a tyrannical system turned words into what Klemperer called “tiny doses of arsenic” that the people “swallowed unnoticed”. This was the “language of mass fanaticism” that created a “terrible uniformity”. Like Newspeak, it stripped people of their individuality, making them unwilling or unable to speak the truth.
Perhaps, until the last few years, we imagined language could not turn against our open societies. Our foundations of pluralism, due process and freedom of speech, were too strong to collapse. That naivety was dealt a blow when, in January 2017, Kellyanne Conway introduced the concept of “alternative facts” to a bewildered press conference. She crafted the concept to support the demonstrably false claim that more people attended Trump’s inauguration than Obama’s. By the end of Trump’s presidency, The Washington Post estimated he had accumulated a total of 30,573 false or misleading statements. The unreality generated by these “alternative facts” played a significant role in the evolution of QAnon conspiracy theories and led directly to the attack on the Capitol Building in January 2021.
The emergence of identity politics has had a similarly corrosive effect on the relation of language to truth. New words have emerged, not in order to expand our vocabulary, but, as Orwell predicted, to limit our range of thought and our ability to express our ideas freely. For example, the growth in the use of gender neutral pronouns might appear, at first glance, to be little more than an evolution in the use of language that reflects shifting cultural norms. Writing in The New York Times, the linguist John McWhorter pointed out how pronouns change and how their use varies across cultures. “Thou” has vanished from common usage, as has the Old English “heo”, which became “she”. Among the Berik people of Indonesia, the same pronoun is used to mean “he”, “she”, “it” and “they” and we once used “a” or “ou” to designate “he”, “she”, “it”, “they” and “I”.
Today, we’re witnessing the emergence of a plethora of gender neutral pronouns, with “they”, “we”, “zie”, “ey”, even “tree”, being used instead of the more familiar binary distinctions between “he” and “she”. McWhorter describes these changes as “exhilarating” and “something to treasure”. If the aim was to increase pluralism and freedom of expression, such enthusiasm would be justified. Sadly, these linguistic changes are being weaponised to corrode our freedom to speak, attack the empirical foundations of knowledge and create a culture of fear. A professor at a top medical school in California felt compelled to apologise for using the term “pregnant women”. A new mnemonic, TERF, degrades women who maintain that humans are sexually dimorphic. Heterodox opinions are recast as “hate speech” and police are now obliged to record complaints about such opinions as “non-crime hate incidents”, regardless of the intent of the speaker.
New words have emerged, not in order to expand our vocabulary, but, as Orwell predicted, to limit our range of thought and our ability to express our ideas freely
As Orwell predicted, this weaponising of language leads to the abolition of proscribed concepts. In 1993, during her confirmation to the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg defended a woman’s reproductive rights when she said: “The decision whether or not bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity”. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the same rights by quoting Ginsburg as saying: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] wellbeing and dignity”. If we continue along this identitarian path, the next time Bader is misquoted, the brackets will be removed.
Illiberal demands for racial equity (i.e. equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity), have also been driven by linguistic change. The history of white supremacy demanded that black people were stripped of their individuality and defined only by the colour of their skin. This erasure of complex, nuanced individuals into a racial identity group served as a justification for unimaginable cruelty. The re-essentialising of race that is now taking place will have a similar effect. A forensic psychiatrist, speaking at Yale Medical School, defined all white people as “violent, demented predators”. She fantasised about “unloading a revolver into the head of any white person” and walking away “with a bounce in my step”. This moral malaise creates inevitable alliances between extremes on Left and Right. The Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer said, “Individualism is for f**s”, a view supported by Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility, who complained that “Individualism denies the significance of race”. Spencer and DiAngelo may appear to be political opponents but the destination of their ideas is the same.
As we fragment into increasingly intolerant identity groups, the language of division will damage our economies. When linguistic and ideological conformity is prioritised over knowledge, competence will decline. This is what happened during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and it’s happening to us. A group of Chinese Americans wrote an open letter complaining that pupils in an elementary maths class were “asked to check themselves off on a list of victimisation categories”. They said it “reminded them of Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution” and as top American universities fixate on “decolonising mathematicx” (sic), China is becoming the world’s STEM leader. It now produces twice the number of STEM PhDs as the United States.
The alliance between the tyrannical use of language and the collectivisation of identity is a prelude to exclusion, persecution, terror and genocide. When language turns Rwandan Tutsis into “cockroaches”, Armenians into “dangerous microbes”, Jews into a “virus”, anti Maoists into “parasitic worms” and JK Rowling into “complete scum”, the machete, the bullet and mass graves are sure to follow.
It doesn’t have to end that way. Shortly before her death last year, the writer and transgender pioneer Jan Morris said “people need to be kinder to each other.” We need to listen to her and find what unites, rather than what divides us. We still have time to prevent malignant identity politics on the Left and Right from turning linguistic change into social collapse. The odds may be against us, but as F Scott Fitzgerald observed: “a first-rate intelligence… should be able to see that things are hopeless and be determined to make them otherwise.”
Dr. Peter Hughes has a PhD in Philosophy and is a member of the British Psychological Society. An experienced broadcaster, he is a regular contributor to digital and print publications. His new book, “A History of Love and Hate in 21 Statues”, is available now