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Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Dalrymple also wrote an excellent and humorous piece this week on political correctness and the idea that language determines thought (one could say that this is closely tied to the prejudice discussion in my last post).
The relation of language to thought has long been a philosophical puzzle, one to which no universally accepted answer has yet been given. Is language a precondition or determinant of thought, or thought a precondition and determinant of language? For myself, I incline to the latter view...

Not every one agrees, of course, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell put forward the rather dismal idea that reform of language – that is to say, the imposition of certain locutions and the prohibition of others – can actually mould the content of thought, making some ideas unthinkable and others unchallengeable.

This, of course, is what politically-correct language is all about. It is certainly what its proponents hope.

I was recently the victim of a politically-correct sub-editor of a distinguished medical journal for which I write. I do not claim to have suffered inordinately as a result; at most I experienced a brief spasm of anger, leading to a slightly longer period of irritation.
On the other hand, as Burke said, liberty is seldom lost all at once; usually it is nibbled away, until – to change thinkers to Tocqueville – people become ‘a herd of timid and industrious sheep, of which the government is the shepherd.’ (It needn’t be the government that does all the shepherding, intellectual apparatchiks will do just as well.)

Therefore, at the risk of sounding and even becoming a little paranoid, and of seeing dangers to our freedom lurking everywhere, even in insignificant phenomena, it is necessary sometimes to protest at the most minor acts of arbitrary power.
[T]he change made by the sub-editor was to substitute ‘humankind’ for ‘mankind.’

My first objection to this is aesthetic. The phrase ‘whose moral commitment to the welfare of mankind’ is much more elegant than the phrase ‘whose moral commitment to the welfare of humankind.’
But my other objections to the substitution are more serious, at least if moral considerations are more important than aesthetic ones. Of course, to object to the use of the word ‘mankind’ because it is sexist is as absurd and literal-minded as to object to the word ‘person’ because it, too, is sexist: who, after all, is this ‘per’ whose son has given his name to everyone in the world? Surely, to be absolutely egalitarian between the sexes, it should be ‘peroffspring’?

Come to think of it, ‘humankind’ is also sexist, very nearly as sexist as ‘mankind,’ for it contains the world ‘man’. It should therefore, in all consistency, be changed to ‘peroffspringkind.’ Moreover, the word ‘woman’ should likewise be changed to ‘woperoffspring.’ The possibilities for language reform are almost infinite, at least in English.

Enough of satire – if only because satire these days has an inherent tendency to turn into prophecy. There are enough mad ideas in the world without my adding to them. Let us turn, then, to the meaning of this substitution.
Was the substitution by itself an example of the descent into Newspeak? It is unlikely that anyone thinks that machismo or misogyny will be much reduced by the universal and compulsory adoption of humankind in place of mankind, let alone that it will actually do so. And yet it is one manifestation of language reform that is intended first to make people afraid to say certain things, then to think them, before reaching the highest stage of thought-control: to make them unthinkable.

Things are worse in this respect, and have gone further, in America than in Britain. Reading American academic books as I quite often do, I have been struck by how common, indeed universal, the use of the impersonal ‘she’ has become. Occasionally, authors get their knickers in a twist as they try to alternate the impersonal ‘she’ and ‘he’ (incidentally, the phrase ‘she and he’ has now replaced ‘he and she,’ though to my ear the latter is more euphonious): for quite often when they try it, they do not remember whether their last impersonal pronoun was ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Incidentally, I have never heard anyone say ‘the hangperson’ instead of ‘the hangman,’ or even ‘the taxperson’ instead of ‘the taxman.’
Here an ideological obsession, cheap and silly as it is, trumps any sense of reverence towards real distinction. This is barbarism.

It is also the worst and most dangerous form of censorship. There are two kinds of censorship, the negative and positive. The negative proscribes, the positive prescribes.

As far as art is concerned, there is a lot, historically, to be said in favour of negative censorship. Most of the greatest art, certainly, has been produced in conditions of such censorship, and – as we have seen in the last thirty or forty years – an absence of even the degree of censorship that can be ascribed to self-restraint has not necessarily resulted in an improvement on the paintings of Piero della Francesca, the plays of William Shakespeare or the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Of course, there are arguments against negative censorship, but the good of art is certainly not one of them.

The positive kind of censorship is much worse than the negative and, if it goes very far, is almost incompatible with either deep thought or good art. It co-exists with the negative form of censorship, but in addition to making some things unsayable it prescribes what must be said, in the way that any thesis on any subject whatever in the old Soviet Union was obliged to carry quotations from Lenin, showing that Lenin had come to the right conclusions years before.
There is an informal type of positive censorship (at least, I assume it is informal), as well as a formal one. For example, I have noticed of late that when American academics want to illustrate the concept of genius with a list of geniuses, they almost invariably include a sportsman. I doubt that university presses insist upon this as ‘house style,’ as it were; rather, the academics concerned fear to be accused of elitism by their peers, and elitism carries with it all manner of unpleasant political associations. In a free, or free-ish, society, there is no fear as great as that of losing caste.

The quasi-compulsory inclusion of sportsmen in lists of geniuses is not socially harmless or without effect. To suggest that a basketball player can be compared with Mozart is to put all human activities on the same level; and since some activities come easier and more naturally than others, it has the effect of reducing, indeed making quite pointless, any form of cultural aspiration. If what comes easily is as good as what comes only with deep effort, thought and intelligence, why go to any trouble? There is a Gresham’s law of culture: without a scale of values, the bad will always drive out the good.

Thus the intelligent flatter the unintelligent, without, in their hearts, meaning a word of what they say. What seems at first sight progressive is in fact deeply reactionary, in the worst possible sense: it does not permit or encourage social ascent, and changes class societies (such as capitalist democracies have always been) into caste societies.

In the meantime, I look forward (though do not expect) the time when Satan will be referred to routinely in academic books as ‘she.’ That would be one giant step for humankind.


Chris A said...

Yeah, this is an excellent piece. To the question of whether language is "a precondition or determinant of thought, or thought a precondition and determinant of language," I say it can be either. But certainly there is a conscious modern manipulation of language, the intent of which is to make "some ideas unthinkable and others unchallengeable." In this respect, 1984 is prophetic, though it is not exactly the satire that the author ascribes prophecy to. This manipulation is done through Newspeak, the addition of terms to the language which manipulate thought in favor of government control.

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The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
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