The War on Words and FactsWendy McElroy
Sep. 17, 2012
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If you control the language, you control the argumentThe deepest form of social control is to govern what a human being believes is true and false, right and wrong. When you short-circuit a person’s critical faculty and moral sense, he will obey authority with no need for force because authority has defined who he is.
Such control requires the monopolization of information. That is why totalitarian states establish compulsory state schools, throttle freedom of speech and the press, broadcast propaganda, legislate the Internet, and obsessively monitor what people say to each other. They need to eliminate any competition in the ‘truth business’. And, so, those who know the "Emperor has no clothes" are silenced by various means.
The control of what is true and false can be called the democratization of reality. ‘Facts’ are manufactured by those who control information and, then, they are broadcast widely to unquestioning people who believe them because the ‘facts’ spew from authorities or the media. If enough people believe the heavily gerrymandered stats on unemployment and inflation, then the economy is not so bad. If the media is upbeat about the economy, then consumer confidence will turn things around. If enough people believe the police "serve and protect," then those who cry ‘brutality!’ become troublemakers. If politicians are viewed as "public servants," then they cease to be masters. Thus, what is reality becomes established by consensus.
There are many ways through which reality is democratized. An important one is through the control of language.
In his essay "Politics and the English Language" (1946), George Orwell wrote, "[The] decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes…. [To] think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous."
A vigorous war on words is being waged. Whether you call the process political correctness, cultural Marxism or thought control, certain words have become crimes; they have become hate speech. Thought-crime legislation prohibits the expression of specific ideas, including religious ones and ones that ‘bully’, while encouraging the expression of sanctioned ideas. It is also illegal to indicate an intent to commit violence -- for example, posting that Obama needs to be shot or the government should be overthrown through violence; it is illegal even if you take no action and have no means to do so.
In other words, some of the pamphlets that sparked the American Revolution would now be illegal. Or they would be rewritten, as school textbooks currently are, to eliminate politically wrong words and ideas.
The attack on words is an attack on your ability to think. Try an experiment. Chose a belief that you have never expressed orally or in writing. Construct an argument for it in your mind and, then, express it out loud. Usually what seems clear in your mind will be clumsy on your tongue because the spoken word is a refinement of thought that reveals fuzziness. Now write the argument down; the written word is also a refinement of thought. Then express the argument to other people. Their response will quickly expose any sloppy definition of terms, counter-evidence, or other flaws in your thinking. This process of refinement begins with having the words with which to think.
Another way to destroy words is through ‘doublethink’ by which a word or term is also used to mean its opposite. An example is "affirmative action"; because it is wrong to judge people on the basis of skin color or gender, universities and employers give preference to people based on skin color and gender. Another example is "diversity"; because differences within human beings are to be celebrated we must eliminate objectionable differences.
The driving force behind the banning of words and doublethink is ideological. Consider radical feminism. The movement views language as a source of women’s oppression. Indeed, language is sometimes viewed as the source. Thus, they consider it an insult to be called ”Madam Chairman”. They insist on replacing the generic “he” with the ungainly “he/she” or merely with "she." History becomes herstory. There is a concerted drive to include feminist, lesbian and gay characters in literature and schoolbooks. History is re-written and taught to exclude prominent white males while including the voices of women, even if those voices were comparatively insignificant.
Words are deemed to be so powerful that they become acts in and of themselves. For example, pornography becomes an act of violence against women.
How did words become actions?
One place to look for an explanation is within academia where the idea of social constructs took root some decades ago. A social construct is commonly defined as "a social mechanism, phenomenon, or category created and developed by society" through which thoughts and action are organized."
Where does the concept come from? In his influential work Les Mots et Les Choses (Words and Things) French philosopher Michel Foucault (1928-1984) introduced the idea that all of reality is a social construct. He argued that history and culture are indispensable in understanding reality. This hypothesis is not a controversial one. But then Foucault introduced the idea of an “episteme” which means “knowledge” in Greek. The episteme of a culture is its self-enclosed totality that includes its language. The episteme is the way that a specific culture or era approaches the world.
As history progresses, one episteme replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of the Renaissance and, then, a new era is said to dawn. The change in episteme literally changes the basic facts of a culture. Consider the human body. Most philosophers assume that there is a pre-cultural human body. In other words, they assume that history and culture do not alter the permanence of man’s makeup. But for Foucault, the human body lived in the episteme and, so, was defined by it. The human body was constructed by society, including aspects that medical science might consider to be permanent physiological ‘givens’. Foucault devoted an entire treatise, The Birth of the Clinic, to the study of what he called the “medical gaze.” The medical gaze objectifies the body and converts it into a well-ordered thing that medicine then seeks to control through surgery, diet, drugs, and so forth. But the medical gaze of the eighteenth century was different from that of the twentieth century because the episteme was different. Therefore, the eighteenth century human body was literally different from the twentieth century one. The body itself is redefined by each society that examined it. Biology is shifting sand with no lasting definition, no lasting ‘fact’. Thus, there is a total historical relativism.
The most important factor in establishing an episteme is the texts of society -- its words. As a way of understanding this point, consider the Victorian era’s repressed sexuality. A common approach to examining it is to look at the contemporary plays and literature, songs and newspapers; in other words, to examine the texts of Victorian society and conclude those texts reflect a sexually repressed culture. Foucault saw exactly the opposite. He believed that the society reflected the texts. The text caused the society, and not vice versa.
It is important to stress: Foucault did not say that society is influenced by the words and images that flow through it: he claimed that the texts created the episteme, which embodied the society itself. He claimed that speaking and writing about a repressed sexuality caused the repression of sexuality. Words construct our world and, so become the key to power over it.
Relativism and subjectivism have had a devastating impact on the status of facts. In a world that is socially constructed, there are no eternal facts; there is only the reality that is constructed by words and that reality can be shifted. The way to alter the reality is to alter the language and the texts. And, so, the task of changing the world involves deconstructing texts; for example, excluding words from Huckleberry Finn to make it politically correct. Then the work of social reconstruction begins by which words are banned, history is rewritten and thoughts are criminalized. An entirely new set of ‘facts’ become the social reality.
Foucault’s ideas have entered academia and society in a somewhat watered down form but they cause harm to words and the very concept of ‘a fact’ wherever they arise. As words become illegal, as words lose their meaning, our ability to think is impoverished. As facts are obscured and purposefully mistated, our ability to reach conclusions based on evidence is diminished. And, if reasoning is a defining characteristic of human being, then we become slightly less human.
Wendy McElroy is Author, lecturer, and freelance writer, and a senior associate of the Laissez Faire Club.