Weaponizing Words: Language and Oppression

Weaponizing Words: Language and Oppression

Robert D. King
Robert D. King
9 min read

An article in Tablet magazine last month by Paul Berman, “Lynching and Liberalism,” paints the gloomy history of coercion from the Stalinist excesses of many radicals in the 1930s down to the blowback against the recent Harper’sLetter on Justice and Open Debate.” In discussing the “New Left” and “post-New Left” movement that arose in the late 1960s and 1970s, most strongly among faculty in humanities departments of American universities, Berman calls our attention to their view of language as a force for coercion and oppression. He writes:

They [the post-New Left] fell under the influence… of a series of avant-garde philosophical theories from France… marvelous theories, designed to sprinkle shimmery dust of the new on any topic that came to mind. In their American application, though, the marvelous theories were taken to be radical extensions of Marxism, capable of revealing the ultimate source of oppression. The ultimate source turned out to be the structures of language and word choice


Some people found in [these theories] a left-wing permission to escape from the rigidities of old-fashioned Marxism—a permission to explore, say, the cultural emphases of a modern feminism. But other people… lost themselves in an unspoken supposition that oppression, being linguistic in origins, is psychological in its results… [Emphases mine]

The first contact I had with this “language as an instrument of oppression” disturbance in the ether came in the 1970s when my university issued a style sheet calling for gender-neutral usage in all communications. It was rather tame stuff at the beginning. Avoid phrases such as “Every American should do his duty…” and replace them by “All Americans should do their duty” or, gag, “Every American should do his or her duty.” Blessedly behind the curve of bicoastal cultural innovation then, the University of Texas was not prepared back then to advocate the barbarism “s/he” in place of “she” or “he.”

As an academic linguist I didn’t like the feel of the thing. We are (were?) trained to the mantra “Leave Your Language Alone!” Also, it was an ancient grammatical convention of English (and other European languages, probably most other languages for that matter) that silently assumed that “his” in “every American should do his duty” meant men, women, and children, everybody. It has been called “the people plural.” To academic colleagues who got worked up over such things my attitude was “Get a grip! America is crumbling, another part of the globe is falling apart, the Chinese and Russians are being even more thuggish than usual, and you expect me to worry about a language usage that not one person in 50 notices?”

Some of the gender-neutral changes I didn’t mind—for example, the suggestion to use both male and female names in exemplification. In linguistics publishing we were enjoined by editors to avoid solely male-examples in our writing. In introducing ambiguity one might have earlier used a sentence like “John was too hot to eat,” where either John (subject) had been running and felt too hot to eat immediately, or the cannibals who had cooked John (object) found him too hot to dig into. We were told to say “Jane and John were too hot to eat.”

Fine. I’m easy. I can make some of these changes and not feel put upon. It was, for me, a matter of common decency as much as anything else, the inclusive thing. But I didn’t like the odor of coercion I perceived lurking behind the words: Write the way we say if you expect us to publish your articles and books. Above all I simply didn’t believe, for reasons I will shortly elaborate, that language adjustments of this sort would really change the way people regard gender-relationships. Language does not form our view of the world and its inhabitants in any meaningful sense. It does not change behavior in any non-trivial sense. I didn’t accept the “unspoken supposition that oppression, being linguistic in origins, is psychological in its results,” as Berman wrote.

I don’t know what the gender-neutral movement had to do with the “avant-garde philosophical theories from France… marvelous theories, designed to sprinkle a shimmery dust of the new on any topic that comes to mind” of which Berman wrote. But the two sprang from the same impulses: We can use language to force social change; language can be an instrument for seeing other people differently; language can oppress.

The two—gender-neutral language and French postmodern philosophizing—were in the air at the same time, the late 1960s and early 1970s. I always found what Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and the other French postmodernists wrote almost impossible to appreciate let alone comprehend, but I cheerfully confess that that may be due to my deficient grounding in philosophy as well as my lack of interest in “Collège de France” and “École normale supérieure” philosophical emanations. I hoped when the Belgian Paul De Man, a kingpin of poststructuralism, turned out to have had a nasty anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi past, that affection for this kind of theorizing would have lost its appeal, but it didn’t. His other deficiencies—bigamy, fraud, wife and family desertion, a general sleaziness of character—don’t seem to have dimmed his bling.

Gender-neutral is enshrined nowadays, and I’m okay with that up to a point. Time and mores transform things, and only a dull-witted writer deaf to the spirit of the age and its changing opinions of what is stylistically acceptable can today remain aloof to a “political correctness” prevalent in our time that is exquisitely sensitive to verbal slights, perceived or real, to our gender, our ethnicity, our race, our religion. It’s not for me a big imposition to write “Americans should do their duty” and not “Every American should do his duty,” or “Let those without sin cast the first stone” in place of “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

The gender-neutral issue initiative was followed by a gender-cleansing movement in language in general. “Flight attendant” in place of “steward” or “stewardess” was recommended. There were people able to learn to say “waitperson” and “chairperson” or “chair” instead of “chairman” without stumbling. And matters did not stop at gender. We were told we should use phrases like “sanitary maintenance worker” instead of “plumber” or “sanitary worker” in place of “garbageman.” I follow a NatGeo series “Nazi Megastructures” hosted by people we used to call “military historians.” Now they are described as “conflict archeologists.” My gorge rises. Notice that gender is not involved here. The idea, one supposes, is that “conflict archeologist” is a kinder, less harsh term than “military historian” and that that will somehow make for a more caring, gentler world. Fat chance of that, I say.

The deeper issue, however, is whether language can be used to impose changes in perception and behavior. Does forcing inorganic language change really produce a better world, a world of gentleness and right-thinking? Do plumbers feel oppressed when we call them “plumbers”? I doubt many do, even female plumbers. What, if anything, does language have to do with our view of people and the world? Which brings us to what linguists call the “Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis” or the “Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis.”

The idea that language is a prism through which we see and interpret the world is an old one. Greek and Indian philosophers struggled with it. The Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Most linguists today do not believe the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis is true in any significant or useful sense. They may believe, as I do, that language conditions our behavior in certain ways, but this is trifling alongside the view that the world we see or experience “out there” differs in different languages—or the view that saying “every American should do his or her duty” will produce a more level playing-field or less patronizing of women by men.

The strongest form of the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis—that our view of the world is determined by the structure of the language we speak—is not something many academic linguists believe. Linguists, when wearing the laboratory coat of the scientist, do not find the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis interesting because it lacks the essential thing a hypothesis requires, in the eyes of the scientist: A test for disproving it empirically (cf. Karl Popper).

The question is: Is the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis true or false? Here the ground gets slippery. To begin with, one can distinguish between weak and strong forms of the hypothesis. The weak form says: Language affects behavior. This is true, trivially so. When you seek a restroom, the words WOMEN or MEN will affect which one you go into. But this is small beer. The strong form of the hypothesis is something altogether different. It says: Language frames our view of reality, indeed creates it—and can change the way we think of and treat other people. In its strongest form, it says that our language imprisons us within a certain perception of the world, that language is a tyrant. If you speak a language like English or French (languages the Benjamin Lee Whorf of Whorf-Sapir called “Standard Average European”) you see one kind of world; if you speak a language like Zulu or Chinese, your world is different.

The problems of proving the strong version of the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis are manifold. First, is it culture or is it language that constructs our view of reality? Hard to say, impossible to prove. Second, exactly how does one determine “view of reality” except by using language to describe what you see “out there?” But if you’re using language to establish a claim about language, then haven’t you trapped yourself in a vicious circularity? Using language to talk about language is, as one linguist said, like keeping a fire burning in a wooden stove. Third and most important, what would it take to falsify the strong form of the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis? I say “most important” because falsifiability lies at the heart of the scientific enterprise: If a hypothesis cannot be disproved, i.e., falsified, it is worthless as a scientific hypothesis.

Though appealing to many intelligent minds—Wittgenstein believed it, so did George Orwell; the gifted science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin used it—the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis in any non-trivial sense has few adherents these days. The prevailing view among American linguists is this:

There is no interpretation of [the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis] that is both plausible and exciting; it is wildly implausible to claim that our minds, concepts and languages construct the world out of experience… How could anything a person does to his [sic] experience—how could any of his [sic] modes of representation—affect stones, trees, cats and stars? (Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny, Language and Reality, 1999.)

That is the voice of the contemporary linguistic Establishment: “There is no interpretation of [the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis] that is both plausible and exciting.” But many smart people have believed otherwise, notably George Orwell as already mentioned. Orwell wrote in an appendix to 1984 called “The Principles of Newspeak”:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression… proper to the devotees of IngSoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted… a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.

To give a single example: the word “free” still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as “The dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free,” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

Language in other words, according to Orwell, is a way of changing behavior and by extension a way of changing how people see and think about the world and its inhabitants. Which is what the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis is all about.

Language can effect trivial changes in behavior, yes. If you go unisex and change all the restrooms formerly marked “Men” or “Women” to “Men and Women,” then I will start using more formerly “Women” restrooms. However, I won’t start thinking about it a lot nor will I construct a new perception of the restroom—nor, I think, will anyone. And if I am instructed to be more gender-neutral in my writing and my income depends on it, I will watch my wording. Does it lead me and everybody else to have a somehow more “compassionate” or “caring” view of the role of women in society? I doubt it.

Common sense should rule, but so rarely does these days. If common sense could speak, it would say that it’s simply a matter of respect for other people, women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and others, to use language that is not offensive. I haven’t called SARS-CoV-2 the “Wuhan virus” in a while since I don’t like always being obnoxious. It is for me a sign of politeness to follow the new norms or at least many of them. I have no illusion that, in doing so, I am helping construct a new and better view of male roles and female roles in society, a new view of reality, or that language-policing will lead to a kinder, a less male-dominated universe. Would that life were that simple. George Orwell, my hero of thinking, courage, and writing, here got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

It is nowadays taken for granted that language is an instrument of oppression. One wrong choice, one false step, tiny as it may be, and you could end up being “canceled” as Paul Berman implies. This does not make for a healthy discourse, for a healthy society. It makes people hate other people more than is absolutely necessary. Language is, as W.H. Auden put it in his great poem on William Butler Yeats, “a way of speaking, a mouth.” It is not more.

I close on a note that sounds terribly retro and simple-minded in our day. I suggest that we leave language alone and luxuriate in its richness and its wonder, its power to move us, its sound, without trying to forge it into a political or ideological instrument. That will make for a better world.

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Robert D. King

Robert D. King is a retired professor of linguistics, Germanic Studies, Jewish Studies, and South Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.