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.