Linguistic revisionism leads to rapid substitution of meaning: words are deployed as weapons to shut down independent thought
If the purpose of language is to facilitate communication and produce understanding, it was always inevitable that words would become the new battleground in our fractious and polarised political climate.
One of the extraordinary and largely unnoticed trends in recent years has been the rapid substitution of meaning, whereby words we used to all know and understand take on a whole new significance.
These new meanings are smuggled through the back door: even as they become embedded in our cultural, political and social discourse, they are never made explicit. For example, much has been made in recent years of the need to ensure “diversity”. If you take the old-fashioned approach of consulting a dictionary, you might conclude that the point of making an organisation more “diverse” would be to engender variety and yet, in reality, you are likely to discover that the more artificial “diversity” an institution has, the more uniform the mindset of the people who work there.
Hand in hand with this new spin on diversity comes “inclusion”. Spaces, we are told, must be made more inclusive. On entering such a space, one rapidly discovers that some people are more included than others. In fact, those responsible for setting up particularly “inclusive” spaces frequently ask certain people to leave to ensure “safety”. Safety, you see, now also has a new meaning based primarily around not having to be confronted with the fact that not everyone thinks as you do.
The universal embrace of identity politics has given rise to a whole set of meaning substitutions—judging people on the content of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr. implored us to do, is now “racist”, while “anti-racism” means viewing people primarily through the prism of their skin colour.
Those who shriek at dissenters to “educate” themselves do not mean that they should conduct their own research and use facts and data to reach their own conclusions. Indeed, the meaning is exactly the opposite: educating yourself now means unquestioning acceptance of dogma.
This linguistic revisionism is not unique to our time, of course. Cultural revolutions of previous centuries have always been accompanied by a deliberate drive to reframe public discourse in order to further the revolutionary narrative. For instance, few now remember that the term “political correctness” had nothing to do with ensuring sensitivity to the feelings of others or protecting vulnerable groups. In fact, the term first appeared in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary following the Russian Revolution and was used to describe adherence to the policies and principles of the Communist Party. Soviet citizens, including my great-grandparents, who made statements which were regarded as problematical by the authorities were told: “Comrade, this may be factually correct but it is politically incorrect.”
In other words, political correctness originates from the desire to suppress the truth in order to protect and advance the prevailing political narrative of the day. How things haven’t changed.
Surveys conducted in recent weeks highlight that this process is achieving the desired effect: a Cato Institute poll showed that 62 per cent of Americans are fearful of revealing their political opinions, while YouGov found that 46 per cent of Brits say we are less free to speak our minds now than we were a few years ago, whereas just 20 per cent think our ability to speak freely has grown.
Nevertheless, the truth about the suppression of our freedom to speak is that it has a far more sinister objective. Anyone who has thought, even in passing, about the political and cultural forces shaping our society will know that your ability to think relies on the opportunity to speak. No one emerges from the womb with fully-formed ideas about how the world is and ought to be. To understand what you think, you have to say it aloud. At which point you are likely to make the painful and unpleasant discovery that what you think is, at best, imperfect if not entirely misguided. With feedback from others and years of study, discussion and debate, we hope to eventually refine our thinking enough to form a coherent vision of the world around us. Put simply, you have to talk and listen to others in order to think.
We can see clearly now that the developments of recent years are having a significant impact on this process. Words such as “safety” are weaponised with new meanings to deliberately shut down our ability to think for ourselves. Rather than being a place where you can hear and express your opinions without fear of being physically attacked, a “safe space” is actually one in which you cannot say what you think without the risk of being physically removed or “de-platformed”.
The purpose of 2020 Newspeak is to reframe positives into negatives and vice versa. We used to believe in the importance of discussion. Now, Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP, warns us against “fetishising” debate as though it is an “innocuous, neutral act”. Debate bad, silence good.
Why would a member of Parliament, our most prestigious debating chamber, seek to change the meaning of the word “debate”? Simple: as long as someone understands the actual meaning, it is impossible to brainwash them into viewing it as a bad thing. As long as someone understands that “safety” means the absence of physical violence, it is impossible to convince them that shutting people up is a way to achieve it. If your goal is to force people to accept your unsubstantiated views you have to change the meaning of words. The purpose of newspeak is to create rightthink.
The people who have imbibed this ideology believe that words have immense power. Indeed, they argue that language shapes reality. If you’ve found yourself wondering why the American Civil Liberties Union recently declared that “men who have periods and get pregnant are men” or why another Labour starlet, Zarah Sultana MP, tweeted that “trans women are women and trans men are men” the obvious conclusion would be that these people believe what they say. Perhaps they were taught biology through the lens of colonialism and queer dance theory. But the bigger goal of this ideology is to attempt to shape reality through language. So convinced are they of the supreme power of words, they believe that by uttering the incantation of “trans women are women” you can literally change biological reality. They do not seek what all of us want, which is for trans people to be treated fairly and accepted for who they are—they want us to accept their emergent religious dogma as fact. If words shape reality, they want to seize the means of linguistic production.
How did we get here? As Vladimir Lenin argued, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world”. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff detail the extraordinary transformation of higher education in Western countries in recent decades. In the early 1990s, the Left-to-Right ratio of university professors was about two to one. Today, it is ten to one and in many social science departments the ratio frequently approaches and exceeds one hundred to one. Our education systems have become a progressive monoculture in which young people are increasingly taught the right thing to think instead of being taught how to think. Rather than equipping the next generation of students with the tools they need to analyse the facts and reach their own conclusions, our universities now indoctrinate young people into a particular worldview.
The sad truth is that our society has transitioned from a firm adherence to Enlightenment values of rationality, free thought and free expression, refined over centuries of both ideological and kinetic warfare, to a society built, once again, on the propagation of a new religious dogma delivered by modern prophets.
An instructive example of this method is Peggy McIntosh’s essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. While most people have by now heard of the concept of white privilege, few are aware that this influential idea comes from this six-page essay that is much closer to a religious text than a scientific paper. The essay contains a list of assertions none of which are backed up with evidence. No studies are referenced to support the claims made, nor were any experiments conducted to test their validity. We are asked and, increasingly, forced to accept such assertions on faith alone.
As always with dogma and revelation, failure to comply with the prevailing religious narrative incurs the wrath of the faithful. Heretics, unbelievers and apostates who question our new prophets or the scriptures they hand down to us are shunned, punished and ostracised. So-called “cancel culture” is internet slang for the coordinated punishment of wrongthink in today’s society.
This deliberate destruction of meaning and cultish zealotry is antithetical to the core principles of Western civilisation. We must resist it while we can still agree on what “resistance” means.