Newspeak and the Controllers of Thought

On October 5, 2011, in Culture, Education, Freedom, Language, Literature, by Derrick G. Jeter

Ours is a euphemizing culture. Words no longer mean what they mean. Oh, to be sure, many of our euphemisms are harmless: custodian for “janitor,” correctional facility for “prison,” a little thin on top for “balding.” But some euphemisms are more troubling. For example, “torture” is now enhanced interrogation; “the war on terror” is now overseas contingency operations; and “paying one’s taxes” is now making an investment—with the obligatory to the federal government assumed. The problem with euphemisms, particularly when referring to words and phrases of a moral or legal nature is that we tend to forget the meaning of the original word or phrase, as Professor J. Budziszewski pointed out:

As any sin passes through its stages from temptation, to tolerance, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten. A colleague tells me that some of his fellow scholars call child molestation “intergenerational intimacy”: that’s euphemism. A good-hearted editor tried to talk me out of using the term “sodomy”: that’s avoidance. My students don’t know the word “fornication” at all: that’s forgetfulness. [1]

No one captured the nature of a euphemized culture better than George Orwell in 1984. In the book, those engaged in propaganda and historic revisionism are euphemistically referred to as working for “The Ministry of Truth.” The terms Orwell invented to drive the narrative of the novel were “newspeak” and “doublethink.” We’ve combined these two words into “doublespeak,” but the ideas are the same: the pairing of contradictory words to create a completely new meaning that is understood only by those who created the pairing; for all others confusion. Most famously in 1984 is the contradictory combinations “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.” What do these mean? Big Brother knows, even if you don’t.

The goal of newspeak and doublethink, as well as doublespeak is to control the meaning of words and phrases in some cases and to disallow the use of certain words and phrases altogether in other cases. This is how Orwell put it:

“Don’ you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime [free thought and expression] literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” [2]

But why—what’s the purpose of shrinking thought by shrinking words and shrinking meaning?

Before answering that question, we should first understand why language and the meaning of words are so important.

Words are the only objects of human creation that endure through the ages. Pyramids decay, buildings crumble, and paintings fade. But words—whether three thousand years old or three minutes old—possess the potential to enter the soul as fresh and as forceful as the day they were first uttered or penned.

Words are the stuff of humanity. Speaking and writing—using words with fixed meanings—is the daily mirroring of God’s image. But if words lose their meaning—if “it depends on the meaning of what the word ‘is’ is” becomes the linguistic norm—then our culture will fall into confusion and chaos. [3] And few things could be more unGodlike than confusion and chaos.

Before God caused men to babel at Babel, all of humanity spoke one language and understood one meaning from the words spoken (Genesis 11:1, 6). However, because mankind didn’t obey God’s original command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28), but cloistered together in one place, God “confuse[d] their language, so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). That did the trick—mankind scattered and has remained scattered ever since (11:8–9). But you say, “Ah hah! Derrick you just wrote yourself into a corner. See, confusion isn’t unGodlike!”

Not so fast. Across the barriers of different languages you might have a point. But don’t miss one critical distinction: not being able to speak or understand Swahili is one thing, not being about to speak or understand the language of your native tongue is another thing entirely. That kind of confusion is unGodlike because we, as a group of image bearers, can’t function as a society if we can’t agree on the meaning of words in our own language.

And this is where we find ourselves today.

Historian and educator Diane Ravitch, in her book The Language Police lists 40 pages of banned words, usages, stereotypes, and topics from American schools and politics. This is political correctness (the euphemism for words, thoughts, and actions deemed detrimental to socio-economic classes, races, or sexual distinctions) run amuck!

Why do school boards, textbook publishers, and politicians spend so much time and energy on such nonsense? Ravitch explains:

The goal of the language police is not just to stop us from using objectionable words but to stop us from having objectionable thoughts. The language police believe that reality follows language usage. If they can stop people from ever seeing offensive words and ideas, they can prevent them from having the thought or committing the act that the words signify. If they never read a story about suicide or divorce, then they will never even think about killing themselves or ending their marriage. If they abolish words that have man as a prefix or suffix, then women will achieve equality. If children read and hear only language that has been cleansed of any mean or hurtful words, they will never have a mean or hurtful thought. With enough censorship, the language police might create a perfect world. [4]

Those who engage in newspeak and doublethink want to create a utopia—a place that is literally no place; a place that doesn’t exist and never will exist. In short, the policers of language, the controllers of thought, and the shrinkers of words want nothing less than to be the regulators over the minds and liberties of the people.

This is not to assign to these elite and enlightened minds some nefarious reasons for wishing to gain more control over society. They don’t all have to be Orwell’s Big Brother. Nevertheless, in many ways their goodheartedness makes them more dangerous. At least Justice Louis Brandeis though so: “The greatest dangers to liberty lurks in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” [5]

This idea of controlling the thinking of the people, by controlling the language of the people, thereby controlling the people themselves is well put by Lewis Carroll in his whimsical childhood fantasy Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” [6]

In other words, he who controls the language controls.

[1] J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spencer Publishing, 1999), 20.

[2] George Orwell, 1984, in Animal Farm and 1984, reprint (Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2003), 136.

[3] William J. Clinton to Federal Grand Jury, August 17, 1998, in “Starr Report: Narrative, Nature of President Clinton’s Relationship with Monica Lewinsky,” 108, Referred to the United States House of Representatives, September 9, 1998.

[4] Diane Ravitch, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (New York: Knopf, 2003), 158–59.

[5] Louis D. Brandeis, dissent, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 479 (1928).

[6] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: Norton, 2000), 213.

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