Andrew Sullivan on Newspeak

July 4, 2020 • 10:45 am

I’d urge everyone who hasn’t read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or hasn’t read it for a long time, to reread it now.  A major part of the book—Winston Smith’s job—is to erase real history and replace it with the latest, ideologically-approved version of history. Sound familiar?

And the ruling party of Big Brother also created a language, “Newspeak“, which Wikipedia describes as follows:

Newspeak is the fictional language of Oceania, a totalitarian superstate that is the setting of George Orwell’s dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. To meet the ideological requirements of English Socialism (Ingsoc) in Oceania, the ruling Party created Newspeak, a controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary, meant to limit the freedom of thought—personal identity, self-expression, free will—that threatens the ideology of the régime of Big Brother and the Party, who have criminalised such concepts into thoughtcrime as contradictions of Ingsoc orthodoxy.

A lot of the recent alterations in language and phrasing that I’ve described (as has Andrew Sullivan) are of just that character: designed to prevent questioning of concepts and ideas. The flat declaration “Trans women are women,” which I wrote about the other day, is such a phrase, and Merriam-Webster’s redefinitions of “trans woman” and “trans man” can also be thought of as attempts to stifle dissent on an issue that isn’t black and white. In fact, “Black” and “white”, with differential capitalization, are also forms of Newspeak, according to the second part of Andrew Sullivan’s newest tripartite column in New York Magazine (click on screenshot below to read).  I wrote about this briefly, but Sullivan goes into more detail.

The other two parts of his piece are about the dangers that, he says, China poses to the world (the “genocide” refers China’s Uighur Muslims), as well as Trump’s reprehensible pardoning of soldiers who committed war crimes. But I’ll concentrate briefly on the second part: “The New Newspeak”.

Here are Andrew’s examples of Newspeak, and I’ve indented his words.

“Black” vs. “white.”  I wasn’t much aware of “critical theory“, though I was of “critical race theory,” but it turns out that “critical theory” is just a wider version, casting all relations in terms of power struggles: not just race, but between any groups in which one can discern an oppressor and the oppressed. Both theories, especially in their postmodern form, prize narrative over truth, which apparently doesn’t exist.

One of the core premises of critical theory — the academic project that undergirds much of today’s progressive politics — is that controlling language is essential. Since critical theorists suggest that there is not any objective reality, and that there are only narratives imposed by oppressors, changing the meaning of words is essential to gaining and maintaining power. After all, they sure don’t believe in open debate. Some of this is subtle. The New York Times, an institution now meaningfully captured by the doctrines of critical theory, will now capitalize “Black,” for example, but will not capitalize “white” or “brown.”

I’ve read their explanation a few times and it seems to boil down to the idea that all people of African descent all around the world are somehow one single identifiable entity, while white and brown people are too diverse and variegated to be treated the same way. (The Times explains: “We’ve decided to adopt the change and start using uppercase ‘Black’ to describe people and cultures of African origin, both in the United States and elsewhere.”)

Given the extraordinary diversity of the African continent, and the vast range of cultural, ethnic, religious, and tribal differences among Americans of African descent — new immigrants and descendants of slaves, East and West Africans, people from the Caribbean and South America, and the Middle East — this seems more than a little reductionist. . . . The point, of course, is to ignore all these real-life differences in order to promote the narrative that critical race theory demands: All that matters is oppression.

Critical gender theory.  Not long ago I wrote about reddit’s new policy of banning hate speech, but only against minority groups. It was apparently okay to emit hate against those in “majority groups.” At the time they announced “While the rule on hate protects such groups, it does not protect all groups or all forms of identity. For example, the rule does not protect groups of people who are in the majority or who promote such attacks of hate.”  Now it appears they’ve ditched the part about not protecting groups in the majority, but the implication of the new wording is still that hate speech is speech directed primarily at minority or marginalized groups.

Sullivan has far more analysis of this than I have, and verified that there’s a bit of hypocrisy on what groups have been banned, and what questions can be discussed freely:

Similarly, Reddit this week announced its new policy against “hate” and banned a whole slew of discussion groups, including some pro-Trump ones. Again, the reasoning was straight out of critical theory: The ruling against hate only protects minority groups and “does not protect people who are in the majority.” (After complaints, Reddit removed the specific claim that any and all attacks on “a majority” are fine, but kept the notion that it does not apply to all groups or identities.) But the implication remains that it is perfectly kosher for discussion groups to demonize and spread hatred for all white people, or, say, women. Louis Farrakhan would thereby be protected to speak of “the white devil.” Ditto any Islamists defending the burka. But J.K. Rowling’s defense of biological sex as a key element supporting the rights of women is impermissible — because it could be deemed a form of hate by some trans groups.

And indeed, groups that dissent from critical gender theory — which seeks to efface the basic fact of biological sex — have been banned. Arguments rooted in good-faith differences over the nature of sex and the meaning of gender are thereby suppressed because of alleged transphobia. But countless porn groups with extraordinarily misogynist content — r/RapeKink, r/degraded females, r/putinherplace — are still up. You can celebrate the rape and abuse of women on Reddit, but you cannot debate the contentious question of what sex and gender actually mean.

Sullivan gives a host of Newspeak terms that are sex- or gender-related, including the neologism “non-straight cisgender people” as a better replacement for “gay”, as “critical queer studies” apparently finds “gay” offensive—and for reasons I can’t fathom.  Sullivan lists a few more terms and fires a final salvo at Critical Theory:

Leading progressive maternity and doula organizations now deploy and encourage a whole array of “gender-neutral language” with respect to sex, birth, labor, and parenting. And so we now have the terms “chest-feeding,” “persons who menstruate,” “persons who produce sperm,” and “birthing person” for breastfeeding, women, men, and mothers, respectively. And instead of a butthole, we have a “back-hole”; instead of a vagina, we have a “front hole.” “Ovaries” and “uterus” are now rendered as “internal organs,” which may strike you as somewhat vague. These may sound completely absurd now, but given the choke hold critical gender theory has on almost all elite organizations, you can be sure you’ll hear them soon enough. They’ll likely be mandatory if you want to prove you’re not a transphobe. It was an objection to one of these terms — “people who menstruate” — that got J.K. Rowling tarred again as a bigot.

Those of us who oppose this abuse of the English language, who try to abide by Orwell’s dictum to use the simplest, clearest Anglo-Saxon words to describe reality, are now instantly suspect. Given the fear of losing your job for resisting this madness, most people will submit to this linguistic distortion. As you can see everywhere, the stigma of being called a bigot sweeps away all objects before it. But the further this goes — and there is no limiting principle in critical theory at all — the less able we are to describe reality. Which is, of course, the point. Narratives, only narratives, exist. And power, only power, matters.

Sometimes I feel glad that I won’t live to see these people take over all power in the West (actually, that’s not true: I want to live forever). But take over they will: there’s nothing stopping them so long as everyone’s terrified of being called a racist or a misogynist, so long as your ethnicity determines whether you can even debate an issue, and so long as all of us are afraid to push back against the madness. For madness it surely is.

36 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan on Newspeak

  1. And so we now have the terms “chest-feeding

    Is this really a thing? Breast isn’t even a gender specific term. Shaking my head.

      1. Oh, I have quite given up. Male, female, man, woman, he, she, sex, gender… that whole area has long ago left me completely confused. I just converse with conservatives and moderate liberals.

    1. It’s a thing. Before my first child was born 2.3 years ago, we attended parenting classes, and they said “chest-feeding” rather than “breast-feeding”.

  2. Read it about 50 years ago in my middle teens.

    I could see it was as true back then as it is now. I suspect controlling language has become a part of the human condition.

    I noticed back then that language for people with special needs kept changing as any new description entered mainstream culture it or a version of it became derogatory, the term needed changing.

  3. “But take over they will: there’s nothing stopping them so long as everyone’s terrified of being called a racist or a misogynist, …”

    There was a time when everyone was terrified of being called a commie. Then it blew over.

    How long until the Woke version of McCarthyism blows over?

    1. I will maintain that the only kryptonite against this trend is to make fun of it thru mainstream comedy media. If we had the equivalent of Saturday Night Live or Stephen Colbert on his old show working for us. Maybe John Oliver? But of course it would be dangerous to even touch it.

    2. It may well be true that the forces pushing these trends will simply burn people out on the concepts entirely. But think of what that will mean in reality – people simply brushing aside the concept of racism. This has already happened to an extent with things like anti-Semitism.

      I will say, I sometimes think we might compound the difficulties of racism by emphasizing that it is inherently traumatic, no matter how slight. If you are white and treated a bit rudely at a store, for example, you are pilloried as a “Karen” if you don’t brush it off and get over it. If you are a person of color, the same incident is increasingly framed as downright traumatic. I think there is a delicate balance there. On the one hand, yes, I think you have to look at the deeper meaning there to interpret an isolated moment such as “rude store clerk”. On the other, the advice that white people are given about such situations – with the idea that this promotes less stress and better health, is completely the opposite (don’t read too much into things but be ‘mindful’ and focus on what actually happened vs. what it ‘might’ mean; if you’re upset with someone focus on that moment and not your whole history together, etc.) At some point it starts to look like you are setting one group up for success by giving them different advice than the other. Again, I think that’s a really delicate balance, but I do worry that it could be getting out of whack and maybe we will need a reset there.

      That’s a ‘good’ case scenario of simply finding a better balance though. A ‘bad’ case scenario, again, would be that people simply brush aside the concept of racism because they’ve heard it used in such nonsensical ways (saying it’s racist for a white person to hold a black child, for example) and so they begin to assume it’s a nonsensical concept altogether.

  4. They seek to force new words on us as they have no control over the use of the old ones. Better to come up with a new word or phrase, define it in a manner that furthers your agenda, and then slam anyone who uses the old one. Just like in 1984, at least as I remember it.

  5. The Critical Theory rot has been allowed to fester mostly ignored for decades, dismissed as just more harcore left lunacy. It reached critical mass several years ago, and now the major educational and media institutions have been captured by it, along with corporate HR and PR departments.

    What’s especially shocking is not just the speed of the takeover, but the lockstep conformity of its adherents. They truly believe that Western enlightenment values were “erected” by white males in order to dominated other races. They aren’t joking when they say that. In order to correct that problem, nothing less than the total reordering of Western civilization will do.

    If this insane Marxist/Post-modernist/Nihilist movement isn’t attacked, and hard, it seems that we’re destined for our own Cultural Revolution. The struggle sessions have already started.

      1. Yes. I think this is also their vulnerability. Some of them make really outrageous statements that can easily be ridiculed. Of course, they will fight back by calling those who ridicule racists and the like but that doesn’t really fly on an individual basis. For example, Biden has come out against defunding the police but they are unlikely to successfully label him a “racist” for doing so.

        Their real power is in education and corporate America. Management is too often forced to buckle to their demands for fear of societal and customer backlash. Their HR departments have been infiltrated. It’s going to be hard to root this out but lawsuits brought by employees, faculty, and students that have fallen victim have been making some headway.

      2. Whoever “they” are…Western civilization will most likely be totally destructed over time, though I could argue it’s already been totally destructed at least once. Just as all civilizations have. If you’re lucky, you won’t feel it. Let’s hope you (and I) are lucky.

  6. Do not despair. Pendulums swing. I think what is stopping it from swinging now is that no intelligent person wants to be thought a tRump supporter, which limits push back. Once he is gone (soon, we hope) we can start speaking frankly about the Woke agenda.

    1. Pendulums do swing, but metaphors are unreliable. The woke termites have dined very deeply on the foundations of our schools, businesses, government and culture. It will be very difficult to undo the damage. I like Mark Sturtevant’s idea above; ridicule can work, and there are few easier targets for ridicule than wokeness. But because of the termites, I am not sure there are any platforms left for that necessary antidote.

    2. Any intelligent person aware of what’s going on should speak up now. I doubt tRump has much to do with it, honestly. You are right about the pendulum, but the longer we wait to speak up, the farther the pendulum will swing, and the more severe the blowback. The pendulum will not stay in the middle on the way back. And what if tRump wins the election? Should intelligent people, rejecting the lunacy of critical theory, wait another four years to speak up?

      No, the time to speak up is now.

  7. At an academic institution, I recently explained that cataract surgery had suddenly enabled me to read Russian, and I therefore specified my chosen pronouns as Мы и наши. This generated a flurry of unintentionally comic, aggrieved E-messages, and the predictable indictment of my message as a “microaggression” (or, as I prefer to call it, Микроагрессия). The flurry is still going on; as Andrew Sullivan understands, neither ignoring nor indulging the trend it represents will make it blow over spontaneously.

  8. Huh? Say what? People who menstruate? Does that mean that when I went through menopause I ceased to be a woman?

    Granted, I do use Laurance instead of Laura as my moniker. Okay. But…uh…I am not now nor have I ever been a person who produces sperm.

    Now that I’m neither a woman nor a man, what am I? Old and in the way?

    There’s a problem with the nether orifices here, too.

    “And instead of a butthole, we have a “back-hole”; instead of a vagina, we have a “front hole.”

    Whoever came up with that one doesn’t know much about women’s anatomy! We have three, not two orifices. The vagina is the middle hole.

    We’re going to hell in a handcart.

    “critical queer studies” apparently finds “gay” offensive—and for reasons I can’t fathom.”

    Jeez, language changes and changes. I can remember when “queer” was a homophobic insult and “gay” was acceptable. At least to younger people. Old folks would look bewildered and grumble, “…used to mean ‘happy’…what happened?”

    1. Sullivan opines that perhaps “gay” is offensive to the queer wokesters because:

      “The proponents of this new language seem eager to retire familiar terms like “gay men” or “lesbians” — perhaps because they suggest that the homosexual experience is rooted in basic human nature and can exist outside the parameters of structural oppression. So they find ways to define us in terms of queer theory, insisting there are only oppressed LGBTQ+ people. That’s also why, for example, so many on the left insist that gay white men had very little to do with Stonewall, which was led, we’re told, by trans women of color, subsequently betrayed by white men, who stole the movement from them. That this is untrue is irrelevant. It’s a narrative which serves to dismantle structures of oppression. And that’s all that matters.”

      My own suspicion is kinda close to that of Sullivan’s: the word “gay”, like “lesbian”, are not only close to human nature, they point to stable gender/genitalia attraction. And the woke hate biology and the implications of evolution because it may not be that we are “blank slates”.

      I take it you know that if a gay man is unwilling to date and, ahem, “date”, a trans man (a biological female claiming to be a man),than he is transphobic. Same variation for lesbians and straight people…..

  9. Some of this does look pretty Orwellian, but the problem is that it isn’t all complete nonsense. We know that language affects perception. It’s so ingrained that we don’t even notice it – unless you are one of the groups that gets the stinky end of the stick from the usage. Doesn’t mean that we have to go around on eggshells or accept nonsensical concepts supporting some political agenda but I know I can benefit from an awareness of how some language may affect groups other than my own.

    1. Yes, and the larger issue is the inability to admit honest disagreement with tenets of the ideology. It’s a totalitarian impulse mixed up with acknowledgment of brutal oppression. The moral high ground – acting in defense of horribly oppressed people – serves the same totalitarian function as religious revelation, as it cannot be challenged.

  10. James Lindsay, who along with Helen Pluckrose (how’s that for a British names!, is creator of “New Discourses” was on Joe Rogan a couple of days ago.

    The conversation was 3 hours long and centers on martial arts, etc, but mostly on “wokeness”.

    Sample or listen to the entire thing……Worth your time.

  11. I may be a Pale Stale Male but my ancestors came from Africa, admittedly a long time ago. Can I now claim to be ‘Black’?

    Perhaps if everybody claimed to be Black the bandwagon would be derailed?

  12. This is much better Sullivan. The whole mess derives from the idea of language as some sort of web within which we are caught and controls us (or rather others, if we are sufficiently enlightened by the latest theories and are therefore in a position to tinker about with language and invent arrays of useless concepts and distinctions that bully and dazzle the unwary and those whose chief object in life is to swim with the tide and kneel before what has the appearance of power) – as opposed to the idea of language as being a tool with a relationship to reality. It derives also from the related idea that the whole human world can be reduced to some sort of grammar – I remember having to read a book on drama semiotics years ago, in which it was pretended that everything in drama (on the stage – positioning of actors, set, lighting, etc) can be reduced to some sort of grammar and analysed accordingly: the book was pedantic, vapid, and unsurprisingly useless to anyone who has been practically involved in drama, as well as anyone who has not.

  13. Introducing neutral words is relatively harmless as long everybody knows what they mean. Toppling statues is also quite harmless; just meaningless symbolism in my opinion. At least in my opinion.

    Critical theory is not very different from previous versions in the previous century. I think what has changed is that political correctness is now backed an promoted by big companies and “serious” journalism. It’s a byproduct of globalization. It’s just a matter of time and politics will follow. At least in my opinion.

    I like the irony that big corporations are now becoming the moral elite, defining what is the new normal and what not, inspired by old fashioned communist ideas.

    The only thing what we can do is error correction, signaling when certain words are not used in the right context, and use humor in our defense, at least as long as there is some freedom of expression.

Leave a Reply