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A Conspiracy Theory of Connotations

The obsessive policing of language in the name of progress relies on magical thinking.

· 7 min read
A Conspiracy Theory of Connotations

Discussions of censorship often operate from the assumption that the main motivation of censors is the suppression of dissent. For that reason, critiques of censorship often attack the idea of suppression: Censorship is often counterproductive and only makes samizdat material more popular. And if an idea is systematically censored, we can never really be sure that it’s wrong, since we’ll never see a full and honest accounting of the evidence for and against it. These are good arguments against suppression, and there are plenty more where they come from.

However, the goal of suppression does not explain a lot of contemporary censorship, which aims to punish innocuous statements alleged to carry some sort of pernicious hidden message capable of changing the way people think and behave. In such instances, the censorious impulse appears to be paired with a clownishly ridiculous idea of how language and society work—a kind of conspiracy theory of connotations. Three examples of this bizarre approach have made the news in recent weeks.

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