Language, Politics, Top Stories

The Prison-House of Political Language

Of all the stunningly awful attempts to explain away the reasons why the 2016 US Presidential election did not produce the result that the elites wanted, perhaps the worst – and certainly one of the most persistent – has been the claim that Donald J. Trump is a would-be Hitler leading his Nazi followers to power. Almost two years after Trump’s victory, plans have now been announced to once again adapt Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to the screen but this time with “Trump hanging over it.” So as well as being the embodiment of evil, does President Trump also have an Orwellian Big Brother stranglehold on the media?

Let us look at some facts. Of America’s Top 100 newspapers, only two endorsed Trump in 2016. Since January 2017, Trump has not polled higher than 50% with any of the major polling outlets. Major award ceremonies now seem dedicated to venting celebrity hate with the President as Emmanuel Goldstein. At the same time academics (who, remember, tend to be Democrats rather than Republicans at ratios as high as 132 to 1 at the 66 most elite universities) found that in his first 100 days, Trump was covered by the major news networks three times more than any other President, without a single instance in which the coverage was more positive than negative. I’ll admit this does all look somewhat Orwellian, but the “Ministry of Truth” does not seem to be working for President Trump.

George Orwell once said that the “English intelligentsia…can swallow totalitarianism because they have no experience of anything except liberalism…So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.” Having experienced the reality of totalitarianism first-hand, Orwell knew all too well the ways in which people far removed from it employ “soothing phrases” to disguise more sinister ends. Of course, he would later coin the term “Newspeak” in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). This was the totalitarian language created to meet the ideological requirements of English Socialism under Big Brother.

In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (2015), Roger Scruton reminds us that “intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society in the belief they will be in charge of it” (p. 12), and this is one reason why they most often start with the area over which they have the most control: language. Another reason is because reality has a stubborn habit of not cooperating with their utopian visions: thoughts are easier to control than economies or the revealed preferences of individuals. In this article, I will explore the various ways in which the political left uses the techniques of Newspeak in the real world, in Britain and in the USA, while projecting their own totalitarian motives onto their opponents.

The US media, stocked with coastal elites who all seem to be on the same page politically (including on the issue of blacklisting those with dissenting opinion), has more or less devoted itself to daily preaching against Donald Trump for the past two years. Criticising or morally condemning Trump is hardly edgy or even a courageous act of sticking one’s head above the parapet; it is expected. Yet these people still call him a totalitarian. How can we account for this lack of self-awareness on their part? One of their own thinkers, the Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, argued that people in the grip of ideology “believe themselves by definition outside ideology…ideology never says, ‘I am ideological.’”

In plainer words: if you are trapped in an echo chamber without anyone to challenge your ideas, it is difficult to be self-aware because there is no motivation to do anything other than revel in the righteousness of your cause. Inside the confines of your own imagination, you are a freedom fighter, a member of the Rebel Alliance – or should I say, #TheResistance – fighting the evil Empire. Under such circumstances you are likely to become intolerant of anyone who isn’t in your view also fighting against “The Dark Side.”

Given this fact, people who are part of the “Rebel Alliance” develop a way of speaking designed to circumvent the possibility of debate or even the introduction of evidence. They employ what Thomas Sowell called, in The Vision of the Anointed (1995), “pre-emptive rhetoric” (p. 64), a set of words and phrases that assert the correctness of the argument before anything else has even been said. At their most effective, such pre-emptive strikes become what Scott Adams has called, in Win Bigly (2017), “linguistic kill shots” which he defines as “a nickname or short set of words so persuasive that it can end an argument or create a specific outcome” (p. 28).

Thinkers who typically oppose the left have long pointed out that they have been losing the war of words. As David Horowitz puts it in Take No Prisoners (2014):

Whenever a Republican and a Democrat square off, it’s Godzilla versus Bambi. They call us racists, sexists, homophobes, and selfish pigs, and we call them … liberals. Who’s going to win that argument? They spend their political dollars calling us names and shredding our reputations; we spend ours explaining why the complicated solutions we propose will work and why theirs won’t. But when you are being called a racist, an enemy of women, and a greedy SOB, who will listen to your ideas about the budget? Who is going to believe you when all of your motives are portrayed as vile? (p. 105)

Writing in The Times, Matt Ridley finds a similar state of affairs in the UK:

It feels as if the left has always been better at vocabulary than the right. “Capitalism” was a word largely invented by the opponents of commerce … Ever since, the left has used “capitalism” to imply that all free-market commerce is run by big financiers, with massive investments, rather than merchants and entrepreneurs taking risks on behalf of consumers and driving down prices. For reasons I don’t fully understand the champions of commerce fell in with this scheme and have spent the last century and a half trying to defend the word “capitalism,” instead of “commerce” or “enterprise”… Likewise, the term “Tory” for a Conservative is generally intended as an insult, as is the term “socialist” for a Labour person (it remains a puzzle that we have never coined a noun for Labour members). But note that a diligently impartial newscaster on, say, Channel 4 will not hesitate to use “Tory prime minister” to describe Theresa May, but would never call Jeremy Corbyn the “socialist leader of the opposition.” Why is that?

Indeed, one of the ironies of Ridley’s piece is that he is forced to use the term “right” for “opponent of the left,” but I am not convinced that the “right-wing” exists except as a weapon of ridicule for the left to wield; it is a smear-word, another linguistic kill shot, a way of dismissing any counterpoint without the burden of engaging with the substance of what is actually being said. The left exists as a unified utopian vision built on abstract ideals that are deemed so pure they must never be tested. What all brands of leftism seem to share– whether that of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Fidel Castro, or Joseph Stalin – is a tendency to speak of what ought to be, as opposed to pragmatically dealing with what is, while then seeking to implement their utopian vision using the instruments of the state.

In considering the leftist definition of “the right,” what then unites Southern Baptist preachers, certain Catholics, Lockean classical liberals, Rothbardian Libertarians, One Nation Tories, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, Fascists, Nazis, “the alt right”, and all other ragtag groups that the left sees as a unified group? The answer of course is “not much” because what the left sees as a monolithic “basket of deplorables” is nothing more than a disparate jumble of distinct groups thrown together with the express purpose of tarring them all with the same brush. This is why the term “the right” such as it exists today could only be accurately described as “opponents of the left for any reason,” which is why I refuse to use the label. As Sowell put it, the left-right dichotomy, as it stands, “is a somewhat Ptolemaic view of the political universe, with the political left being in the center of that universe and who all who differ – in any direction – being called ‘the right.’” (Vision of the Anointed, p. 208).

On a recent podcast, Jonah Goldberg – someone who has addressed these language games in both The Tyranny of Clichés (2012) and Liberal Fascism (2007) – complained that those on the American left can seldom, if ever, accurately summarise their opponents’ positions in a form to which said opponents would be willing to subscribe. They routinely use “the right” as linguistic kill shots, whether wrongly calling John Bolton “a neo-con,” or smearing Candace Owens as “toxic” and “far right,” or defining Jordan Peterson as “alt right.”  Actual neoconservatives tend not to like Bolton (and vice versa), and the same can be said of the actual alt-right, in relation to both Owens and Peterson. The point is not that the left simply does not care about fact checking, but rather in each of these cases their implicit hope is that the stigma of the label will stick, regardless of the facts. Pre-emptive rhetoric is an attempt at thought control: put the words “Jordan Peterson” and “alt right” together in a headline enough times and it will be one of the first two or three things that the average person will accept about him, irrespective of what he’s actually said or done, so that fewer people will listen to Peterson or engage in the substance of his ideas.

One side effect of dealing with political opponents in this manner is that the left has become increasingly accepting of straw man fallacies created out of their own righteous bigotry and refusal to respectfully address counterpoints. They have no concept of Jonah Goldberg’s philosophical world of Burkeans, Straussians, Hayekians and so on, because many of these people are so ignorant that they genuinely believe that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sit closely on a political continuum with Adolf Hitler. Hence, here in the UK, Labour activists burned effigies of Thatcher when she died and also draped a sign saying “HANG THE TORIES” over a bridge in Manchester, without any of their moralistic cheerleaders batting an eyelid. The left generally revels in its own distasteful behaviour not only without critique but also as still further confirmation of their righteousness. When you see your enemies as pure evil as opposed to trying to understand the merit of their ideas, bigotry becomes inevitable.

My real question is why we continue to take such people seriously when it is clear that they do not demonstrate even the merest whiff of intellectual curiosity or charity – as Paul Krugman’s bafflingly long-running New York Times column shows every week. Scruton accounts for the leftist need to control language as a type of pathology:

Behind the impassioned rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, behind the pseudo-science of Marx’s labour theory of value, and behind the class analysis of human history, lies a single emotional source – resentment of those who control things…it seems to me that it is not an accident that the triumph of leftist ways of thinking has so often led to totalitarian government. The pursuit of abstract social justice goes hand in hand with the view that power struggles and relations of domination express the truth of our social condition, and that the consensual customs, inherited institutions and systems of law that have brought peace to real communities are merely the disguises worn by power. The goal is to seize that power, and to use it to liberate the oppressed, distributing all assets of society according to the just requirements of the plan. Intellectuals who think that way are already ruling out the possibility of compromise. (Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, pp. 15, 13)

In the following table, I chart some of the newspeak ardent leftists have used over the years in order to avoid arguments, counterpoints and facts. They avoid these things precisely because their aim is full control and total capitulation, rather than compromise or negotiation. Here, next to each leftist buzzword or phrase, I will provide the ostensible definition (the way most people understand the word or phrase), and then the definition of leftist intent, whereby we can see the political intention behind its usage.

Newspeak word or phrase

Ostensible definition

Definition of Leftist Intent

Crisis

A time of intense difficulty or danger

Something that we want done must be done now because we want it

Urgent need

Requiring immediate action or attention

Something that we want done must be done now because we want it

Public service

Anyone providing a service for the public

Government-appointed bureaucrats who can make the top-down decisions we want enacted are good

Greed

Intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food

The sinister and malignant motives of our enemies who must be brought to heel

Access

The means or opportunity to approach or enter a place

Barriers imposed on those who we like but who are not being admitted into desirable places in high enough numbers

Progress

Development towards an improved or more advanced condition

Social or political change in a direction that we like

Here to stay

Something that has stopped being unusual and has become generally used or accepted

A change that we like cannot be unchanged because we say so

Inevitable

Certain to happen; unavoidable

A change we like is destined to happen because we say so

Outmoded

No longer modern, useful, or necessary

Something we don’t like has gone away and cannot come back because we say so

Unrealistic

Having a wrong idea of what is likely to happen or of what you can really do; not based on facts

A change our opponents want but which we don’t cannot happen because we say so

(Social) Justice

The system of laws in a country that judges and punishes people; equality under the law

Equality of outcomes enforced through coercive top-down redistribution

Diversity is Our Strength

It’s good when people have many different ideas or opinions about something

It’s good when people have different skin colour or genitals, as long as they agree with us

Representation

A person or organization that speaks, acts, or is present officially for someone else

The demographics of an industry, institution, or media outlet that do not reflect the percentage breakdowns we see in the national demographics, and think, for reasons we will never explain, that they should

Austerity

Difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure; sternness or severity of manner or attitude

The evil opposition are telling us we cannot run up huge national debts; all they want to do is cut spending (and kill innocent children) because they are evil and have no compassion

This table might go on for pages, but just the few terms I’ve included do enough to demonstrate the subtle reframing of everyday terms to obscure radical ends, for which few people outside the extreme-left would voice support if they were stated clearly and openly. These terms and phrases are designed to provide the left with moral high ground and to manufacture consent for extreme positions hidden behind innocent-looking façades. The moral high ground is all too frequently conceded by their less verbally dexterous opponents, who then proceed to argue on the back foot in a defensive position in which they are implicitly arguing against the side of the righteous.

If you are ever in a situation in which you face the rhetorical kill shot (and the other rhetoric that is sure to follow) my recommendation is systematically to deny them this moral turf. Get them to explain what they mean in plain English, and if they will not or cannot do so, then do your best to redefine what they mean there and then. It is important to insist on this clarity, in order to uncover the real intentions behind the employment of loaded jargon, which if left unchallenged will undoubtedly obscure true meaning. Then press further: why is what they want desirable? How is it defensible both morally and economically? What are the costs of implementing it? Who should pay and why should they pay? What are the likely long-run consequences of enacting this policy? What evidence do they have that this will work? Demand a fact-based approach. It is only fair that those who would redesign society from the top down should be put on the back foot in defending the radical utopian changes they want to see.

 

Neema Parvini is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Surrey. He is the author of five books, the most recent being Shakespeare and New Historicism Theory (2017) and Shakespeare’s Moral Compass (forthcoming 2018). He also presents a popular podcast series called Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory.