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Weaponizing Words: Language and Oppression

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.


Robert D. King is a retired professor of linguistics, Germanic Studies, Jewish Studies, and South Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His book Goodbye Chomsky, and Other Essays on Language will be published in 2020.  


  1. @quillette

    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.

    It is no accident that today the most eloquent voices in protest are those of the retired.

  2. Words are words. Violence is violence. Weapons are weapons. The left’s urge to redefine these words really shows me that they have no ground to fight on. There isn’t any real violence against them, so they must invent it by redefining what violence means. Its really hard to be a victim when nothing bad happens to you.

  3. The objection to the use of the gender neutral “he” in writing, the invention of a female grammarian, has been replaced in academic writing by either the illiterate plural “they” in place of the singular, even when the gender is clear, or the new politically correct “she”. Apparently we are now to swallow whole the absurd argument that 1). The use of “he” is sexist because it is exclusionary; and 2). The use of “she” is acceptable because it is politically correct ; and 3). feminists abhor double standards based on gender.

    For a full discussion of how feminism now erodes logic in order to deflect criticism, see my post in the Quillette article The Misguided Campaign against Objectivity in Journalism.

  4. The use of s/he is a fairly minor contrivance. But while politically correct culture first feigned a desire for neutrality or fairness, it quickly moved into the territory of loaded language and compelled speech. When I was at university in the 1990s “heteronormative” was well in vogue. It’s a bizarre word. As Camille Paglia, a lesbian, pointed out, heterosexuality is the norm: nature and life depend on it thoroughly. Now far from gender neutral terms we have a whole smorgasboard of zhe and zher and an ever expanding list of genders and gender pronouns. That is compelled speech. To add to this bizarreness, you must address nutcases by their preferred nomenclature while they in turn are free to deride you as cis or toxic. If you are white, you are must accept that you are guilty of racism and oppression, and deserving of criminal status and punishment.I could go on, but the point is: the changes to language are not there to accord neutrality or afford dignity but to obtain power.

  5. I’d never say “always” but I will state that the Left has very deliberately weaponized the language, and the goal is power, which has been attained. Worse still, it has validated hate action. Because “words are violence” it is deemed acceptable (for the radical left) to retaliate physically: to strip someone of their job, to riot, to physically assault. These terms have not elevated discourse to a level where we can speak of things in more neutral, less biased ways. They have made discourse more animalistic.

  6. One example of the language of the “woke” is noted by Theodore Dalrymple. Remember the recent “Princeton is racist” flap? The man who officially declared this is one Dr. Eisgruber.

    Darlymple notes (slightly edited):

    The fact is that there are two Dr. Eisgrubers, one real and one fictional. The two are so easily confused because the real Dr. Eisgruber plays the role of the fictional Dr. Eisgruber in public, and does it very well. The fictional Dr. Eisgruber says, or writes, things like the following:

    Racism and the damage it does to people of color persist at Princeton…. Racist assumptions from the past remain embedded in structures of the University itself.

    Alas, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, obviously didn’t study literature at school and fell straight into the trap of confounding the two Dr. Eisgrubers. Hence her demand that > Princeton prove that the fictional Dr. Eisgruber was not speaking the truth, on pain of losing and having to repay federal funding.

    The words repeated by the fictional Dr. Eisgruber meant one of two things: “Look at how good the real Dr. Eisgruber is, how broad-minded, how generous-spirited, how truly egalitarian”; or, “If I say these things, will you leave me alone to get on with my prosperous, comfortable, and privileged life without interference?”

  7. Yes, but more to the point: they want to be violent against others. Words become violence, so that physically violent acts in response are seen as “justified” retaliation.

  8. Words are violence (“hate speech”) but violence is words (“mostly peaceful” protestors)

  9. An interesting question. I think works of fiction are an exception, because in many ways the author is allowed to play God. It’s probably where the postmodern falsehood that language constructs reality actually comes from- because a particular skilful writer can use fiction as subterfuge to influence their reader. Lional Shriver recently talked about this. Her contention was that if you are writing a magazine piece or an article then you’re necessarily largely going to be preaching to the converted, but fiction allows you do draw in a wider audience and use your plot and characterisation to influence readers.

    That’s the whole point. The Left want to control the cultural means of production in order to shape society towards an imagined utopian goal. It’s why they are so keen to cancel dissenting views. They fatally underestimate just how immutable people are, in terms of their viewpoints and beliefs. If anything, many of the ideas and prejudices they seek to supress only become more potent when silenced. It’s bit like having a kettle without an escape valve- with predictably catastrophic results. The irony is that the evidence shows that Western societies have generally become more tolerant and inclusive since 2000- not because of their intervention, but despite it.

    Most people are wired for fairness in their dealings, rather than than equality- and it’s fundamentally unfair to treat someone differently, because of their race. You should try taking the Moral Foundations test online- maybe even ask your other half to do the same- it might be instructive in the way divergent cultures see things differently. I would definitely read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, or read up on W.E.I.R.D. people online- it’s why cosmopolitan liberals find it so difficult to understand everyone else in the world.

  10. From the “Underground Grammarian”:

    We know them well. They are all the glib
    examinees. They flourish diplomas in all the
    trendy undisciplines, unsubjects like education,
    marketing, urban studies, recreation counseling,
    personnel administration, and all the pullulating
    offspring of the two great mothers of armed
    inexactitude sociology and psychology.
    In such “fields,” (also known—and why not?—
    as “areas,” or “spheres,” or “arenas”), the glib
    practitioner can natter endlessly, freely adducing
    the unfalsifiable in support of the unverifiable.
    His “science” empowers him confidently to
    predict that what will happen will happen, unless,
    for one reason or another, it doesn’t, in which
    case something else may or may not happen, just
    as he predicted. His “knowledge” is of such an
    unusual nature that the next practitioner down the
    hall, who just happens to be testifying for the
    other side, can ‘know’ exactly the opposite. His
    language is clouded by dark jargon and
    undefinable terms, lest he, and his colleague
    down the hall be exposed as charlatans,
    pretending to knowledge where none can be had,
    in the vagaries of the human heart, and to
    measurement where there are no units, in the
    mysteries of man’s estate. Clarity, simplicity, and
    precision would destroy his racket utterly and
    drive him into the streets, to seek, in vain, the
    honest labor of which his empty and pretentious
    schooling has made him absolutely incapable.

  11. One of the issues with the policing of language is that although the main meaning may be retained when pgrases are modified to comply with current sensibilities some of the subtler meaning and implications are lost.
    “Every American should do his duty” is far stronger than “Americans should do their duty”. The first says that every american without exception should do their duty rather than the second which is that americans collectively should do their duty. The second allows individuals to do nothing as long as the group acts. There is a third layer of implied sacrifice and risk because “his duty” has historically meant risking life in a way that their duty has not.
    Another example is the phrase from Star Trek “To boldly go where no man has gone before” implying that the journey may be to places where humanity has not visited but creatures not human have. This meaning and the strengh of the phrase is lost in the replacement phrase “… where no one has gone before”.
    The truth is that no one in reality ever was offended by this sort of speech and the differences between the sexes are collectively profound and are not linguistic in origin, albeit that we have far more in common than differences. The pretence of offense or even actual injury from speech with an innocent intent damages everyone. It encourages mental a d emotional fragility in those groups designated victims and unfairly attacks and penal uses those designated as agressors or oppressors.

  12. Sometimes I think we miss the obvious: don’t play. I simply refuse to play the game. It’s the engaging with them that gives them power. I use “his” to mean “the people’s” and continue to abide by other grammar I learned in school. If someone (rarely) attempts to call me out, I just laugh at them - but as if they had never said a word, I never respond - and go on with conversation.

    True, I’m retired and, now it would appear, wisely eschewed all forms of social media fifteen years ago, so they have no means of “cancelling” me, but to the extent possible, I would urge Everyone to simply not play the game.

  13. During one very heated House of Commons debate last November Boris Johnson was rounded on by Labour MPs for his description of a bill (intended to deny the possibility of a no deal Brexit) as the “Surrender Bill”. One Labour MP tore into the PM, invoking the memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox, and insinuating that such “inflammatory” language was somehow the cause. Seemingly unaware that far and away the most needlessly inflammatory part of the entire debate was her using the memory of a murdered colleague to score a political point. It was, frankly, despicable.

    The BBC & Guardian, indeed much of the Remain lobby, went into meltdown castigating the Right for their intemperate and inflammatory language. Rarely mentioning that both sides do it, before insisting that it is naturally worse when the Right do it because they, somehow, mean it. One overwrought poster on the Guardian received many upticks for proclaiming that when Boris used the term “Surrender Bill” he was “…. literally worse than Hitler!”

    Owen Jones, the ludicrous Marxist 3rd former and Guardian columnist, swung into hyperbolic overdrive the day after the debate, and penned an article insinuating that any insult from the Left to the Right is morally justified, yet a (far milder) insult from the Right to the Left is incontrovertible proof of violent intent.

    In response, I wrote the following to him at the time …

    “Can you really be so monocular as not to see the blatant inconsistencies in this article, in your whole position on this? ALL threatening and intimidatory behaviour should be condemned - no matter who is doing it. No matter which political tribe they belong to.

    Yet you have a long history of giving those on “your side” a free pass, whilst castigating your opponents for far milder and less threatening comments.

    Where were you when John McDonnell joked about “lynching” Esther McVey?

    Or Ed Davey about “Decapitating” Boris Johnson?

    Or Jess Phillips about “Knifing” Jeremy Corbyn in the Front?

    You had great fun tweeting in support of those who milkshaked Nigel Farage – and had no issue with Jo Brand joking it would have been better if they’d thrown battery acid.

    Like any sensible person, I’m perfectly willing to accept that none of those comments should be taken literally but, be honest Owen, had any one of those comments come out of a Tory’s mouth you would have been screaming for their resignation - and probably their arrest.

    So, why all the inconsistency? Could you really have been unaware of it? Did you not even read your own article?

    As ever, you try to give yourself cover in your writing to what you know will be the criticism coming your way for the obvious double-standards, but surely you can see that doesn’t excuse it?

    You say, “That isn’t to deny there is intemperate or aggressive language on the left, but rather to acknowledge where the threat of violence is chiefly coming from” which is simply a perpetuation of exactly the double standard I’m talking about. In effect you’re half admitting that both sides are guilty, whilst reaffirming that the “other side” is more guilty. That’s pretty weak stuff, even for you.

    If you truly believed what you say, that “both left and right have an equal responsibility to dial down the rhetoric” then perhaps you could start by disavowing the comments made by the man you want to see as the next Chancellor, John McDonnell. Who announced to cheering crowds (including you, if I’m not mistaken) that he wanted to see “a situation where no Tory MP, ….can travel anywhere in the country, or show their face anywhere in public, without being challenged, without direct action.”

    In what possible world is talk of “lynching”, “decapitation” and “knifing” not inflammatory and yet talk of a “surrender bill” is? You cheered on a man who was calling for all Tories to be confronted in the street with “direct action” yet insist it is the Right who are whipping up hatred? Can you be morally serious and make such a claim?

    You tweeted in support of “the brilliant” Aamer Rahman about “the morality of punching Nazis” - presumably that is okay because we are all agreed that Nazis are bad.

    But we don’t seem to agree on who actually are the Nazis. Do we?

    Hitler? Yes, definitely a Nazi.

    But how about Jacob Rees-Mogg?

    David Lammy described the ERG as Nazis and when challenged suggested he had understated the criticism, that they were in fact “worse than Nazis”. So, by your lights, is it okay to punch JRM?

    You routinely describe people as fascists. Many of your readers and supporters (if the Guardian Comments pages are any indication) firmly believe that anyone who supports the Tory party is a fascist. Can you not see, then, that you might be a larger part of the problem than the very people you are criticising?

    When you were assaulted in the street (by people you described as “far Right”) I would hope that everyone would condemn the violence. No one should ever be threatened or physically attacked for their beliefs or opinions, yet you have supported the egging, milkshaking and punching of those you deem “Far Right”. But given how elastic that term seems to be, given how many people routinely describe even liberal Tories as “extremists”, “fascists” and “Far Right”, can you not see the danger in the message you have been putting out for many years?

    If you were serious about what you say, perhaps owning up to your own part in that might be a good place to start.”

    Needless to say I got no response from young master Jones, his mission is to enrage his supporters rather than engage with his opponents.

    Whipping up his base to hate those who disagree with them, yet claiming it’s his opponents who are intolerant. If he weren’t quite so poisonous he’d be a joke.

  14. Call me a strong Whorfian: we think with language; we can’t think without it. To have a two-word vocabulary is to have almost no capacity for thought. To seek to control language is to seek to control thought. Not one inch, not one syllable to the thought police. And thanks once more to Quillette, where free thought still lives.

  15. What a great topic, as it gets at the heart of how our opponents weaponize their ideology. Unfortunately, it’s only a glancing blow, but still, it’s a well written and thoughtful essay. It’s also humble in that it doesn’t try to answer the question, but rather points out the unanswerable nature of the question while reminding us of the ineffability of our experience using language.

    I delved deeply into the linguistic ideas of Heidigger and Wiggtenstein long ago, and received training in how to “manage” my thoughts via the use of language, in the sense of exercising my agency over the stream of words that run through my mind. Humans are accustomed to experiencing this stream of words as though they are unbidden, however one can quiet this voice. I did so, and it was an utterly transformative experience, but not in the way you might expect.

    Before I share my experience, I think the story of Helen Keller is so relevant. Being deaf and dumb from birth, she was raised and behaved as an uncivilized animal in many ways. from how she ate to how she interacted with her family, there was no communication or real humanity evident in her behavior. Anne Sullivan, her legendary teacher (fyi, this is an example of a cultural story all children of my generation were taught and wondered at, yet i think the current generation knows nothing of her) made a huge breakthrough by teaching her language.

    Helen Keller describes the experience, I’ll try to summarize but really, it’s worth reading up on her if you haven’t. It’s an incredible story. She says, roughly, that until she had a “word” in her consciousness that her experience of life was an undifferentiated miasma of sensations and emotions. And only when she learned her first word, which was “water”, did the world occur to her in contrasts and categories. She could now distinguish sensations as water or not-water, and they built up from there. I’m mangling it horribly but it’s so profound. In other words, according to a woman who had no language, the instantiation of language was an existentially transformational event for her. She didn’t perceive her own existence or the world around her in any clear way until that moment.

    I was a practicing buddhist at this time and if you are taught properly as a buddhist, the inquiry into the nature of the “monkey mind” is foundational. The Monkey Mind is their name for the stream of words that move through our consciousness. In my initial practice noticed that my perceptions occur to me as words. Much of what one is doing in meditation is building up a conscious awareness of this stream of words and detaching from them. Being able to “be” with it. Over time the voice does seem to calm down if meditating properly. Let me take a little excursion here cuz it’s Sunday morning, I’m deep into a pot of coffee and I think folks here enjoy it, or at least some of you, hehe.

    Most Westerners do not meditate with the correct mindset from my POV. My original practice was based in a Western Sangha that was intentionally segregated from the Sangha for the Vietnamese monks who practiced at the temple I attended. The master did a separate “sit” and Dharma talk on Sundays, just for westerners. And while the master was truly a numinous character, brilliant and uplifting in ways that are indescribable, the Sangha (group who meditate together and follow the same master) was awful. It had a competitive nature and seemed to attract just awful people. I would join them to eat a vegetarian meal after but the community was lifeless. None of them seemed happy. Most were ally anxious people, or alternatively, were folks who would project an overt “spirituality” that made you want to slap them silly after 5 minutes. Note that the master never came across this way, nor did the many Asian buddhists I began to meet at this ecumenical monastery. It’s in Carmel NY, it has the largest Buddha in North America. It’s a cool place to visit, an easy ride up from NYC.

    I peeled off more and more from the Western Sangha. I had a work from home sales job (common in tech startups) at the time and could manage my own time a bit. I began going during the week but noticed the big modern temple was empty and that the Vietnamese people went to a smaller temple and that their meditation sessions were different. There was chanting with those throat noises and drumming.

    I went one day when I was quite disturbed and upset about many things. My meditation practice was quite regular and deep had been so for years by this point. I joined before the session started, as the temple is open to anyone and always is. The monks streamed in but i was barely aware of them. The chanting and drumming started, and then my consciousness shifted for a while. I can only explain it in retrospect. What happened is that the stream of words in my head stopped. And my awareness became an undifferentiated miasma of sensation and thoughts drifting around inside of me. There was no narration. I had no awareness of time or myself or others as distinct. I think the best word for it is that I was empty.

    When I came out of this state, I realized I’d been there for about 45 minutes. By now, the chanting and drumming were a cacophony - one that I was not aware of as a distinct thing. My first jolt into consciousness was the moment of realizing the monks had flooded in and were singing and drumming very loudly all around me. I became a distinct thing separate from it, as they did to me, in my consciousness. I FELT it happening. It was profound. The “words” sort of reinstantiated themselves in my consciousness and it was like reality re-assembled itself in my mind.

    What I learned is that the supposed “emptiness” Buddhist seek is a state of nothingness. It’s interesting to experience, sure. And Buddhism as a whole is a valuable practice for developing more discipline and wisdom in dealing with one’s own consciousness, thoughts and behavior. But the enlightenment they seek? It’s just the transcendental state that any meditator can experience. My experience is not so different from what TM practitioners seek.

    This is what I got out of it. This state was not one could be in and function in the world. It wasn’t magic of any sort. It was instructive in seeing how fundamental the labeling and categorization and distinctions between things was is instrumented by language. It can’t work without it.

    Perhaps the most profound part of the experience was feeling “Seeking” fall away utterly. I could see how this acquisitive orientation presented itself even in my meditation. It was why I hated the Western approach to Buddhism as it seemed to be seeking out “enlightenment” as a payoff. Whereas the Eastern message is more about cultivating “wisdom”. Meditation can give on some payoff in and of itself, and many Westerners seem to be chasing the experience I had, but they never get it from Western Buddhist sits - at least I’ve never heard anyone from a Western Sangha I sat in before or since mention any thing like it.

    Westerners also don’t believe me, while Eastern buddhists just nod. Funnily, this experience was the beginning of the end of my Buddhism as I also ended up seeing through all Buddhist mythology via this experience. Lol. It’s not magic, just TM…

    Last. The politics of language today are disgusting. Our wannabe overlords see language as the tool we misuse via our corrupt power-mad nature as white people. Fyi, if you think that’s too harsh, read up on what they think of “whiteness”. So it’s not about language, it’s about the White power structure we supposedly use to embed false consciousness into those from whom we extract submission to our “narrative” and hence our system and “supremacy”. Wow, I’m so much more evil than I ever imagined…

    The author mentions being okay to some extent with “gender neutrality”, I wonder why he feels this throwaway line was necessary? I’m not “okay” or “not okay” with it. Rather, my critical thinking faculties have never found a definition of gender as separate from sex that is valid. And I notice that male and female humans behave and appear differently from birth and the differences only grow as our hormones and genes do their work. I’m not sure what the word “neutral” even means in such a context. Men and women are different.

    If he means affirming feminism? Different conversation and a long one. I certainly think that any reality-based human being must look at the destruction of the family in the West as a result of this “gender neutrality”, served to us by man-hating, angry feminists who seek female supremacy, not “equality”, as deeply problematic for our societies. We aren’t reproducing at high enough rates to continue our societies in the West. This is a not a good thing - yet nobody seems to care about that. We hate our selves so much we don’t even bother to form families and reproduce as a consequence of this “gender neutral” stuff. And women are less happy than ever, lol. I’m not suggesting women get back in the kitchen, but for me, facts do still matter.

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