Politics and culture have long fought over language. Language itself has been the instrument used to conduct those contests. Rhetoric was the most powerful tool of rule and law in ancient Greece. Writing’s origins were to track stuff that belonged to rulers and gods, the power and exploits of rulers and gods, articulate the rules set forth by rulers and gods, or conjure the power of rulers and gods. The earliest form of western education was structured around the ‘trivium,’ or three subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
There is a long tradition in Jewish thought that has assigned speech and language a major role in the act of creation, that even God’s particular words and letters used are specific to what is created. For example, man is God’s word made flesh. Words matter so much because from words come what they are used for. Language is not used to reflect creation but rather its use is creation.
In Genesis, after God has created Adam, he then creates all the other living things of the earth. God then brings all the living creatures before Adam and gives Adam the task of naming them.
Words produce magic; “open, sesame!” in One Thousand and One Nights, or “abracadabra” or any words spoken to conjure, as in Harry Potter. Language is important and words matter because they are power.
Today’s culture wars stand on a long history of what boils down to controlling the narrative. When Walter Lipman wrote Public Opinion or even when Chomsky and Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent, the question concerning language and its use was about the state’s interest in controlling a narrative to achieve the state’s aims.
Today’s culture wars stand astride a long history of what used to be controlling the narrative. But today, the right and left are more than just trying to control a narrative (though even using the labels ‘right’ and ‘left’ is problematic given the way those words have changed in their application and meaning over the years since their introduction to the American vernacular).
There is a meaningful difference between the current state of competition for control between these ends of the cultural spectrum. It used to be that the contest was for votes supporting political ends. That’s no longer the case. The right’s ham-handed albeit effective means of spin has largely been performative politics. The spin-doctoring of Frank Luntz or the legislating of Governors Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, and Kristi Noem; or the histrionics of Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Green, have all involved using language that amount to enshrining behaviors they favor and sanctioning behaviors they don’t using language everyone already understands.
The left has chosen a very different path. The cultural left seeks change by going right past behavior and to thought directly by renaming or creating new words, which in turn will change thought and lead to the desired behavior. The left is trying to spread an ideology in the same way missionaries did; rather than convert the natives by using their own language, they impose a new language and change the labels of those things that are familiar. Going straight for the mind has led to a clumsy and often absurd display of linguistic gymnastics that does more to alienate those whose thoughts the left wants to change than it does to affirm those whose thoughts the left already embodies.
Stanford University’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative by its IT department was one of many recent exercises in relabeling acrobatics. The list published online in December consisted of 161 words and phrases, like replacing “addict” with “person with a substance use disorder” or “victim” with “person who has been impacted by.” The words and phrases should be swapped out due to their ableist, ageist, racist, or person-first nature. The backlash was so swift and hard that Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne softly repudiated it, and by January the site was taken down and the initiative canceled.
The Associated Press announced its new style book, issuing a Tweet as part of the effort that read “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”
The backlash was immediate and often hilarious. The French Embassy suggested whether this means that from now on it should be referred to as “The Embassy of Frenchness.”
The degree to which institutions on the cultural left are looking to placate its members has become so outlandish that even establishment media institutions that ordinarily advocate for such lexical acrobatics like the New York Times have published columns by otherwise reliably left writers questioning the ongoing effort to relabel the world around us. In a heart-is-in-the-right-place effort to be inclusive, the American Cancer Society now recommends cancer screenings for “individuals with a cervix.” The CDC offers guidance “for breastfeeding people.” The American Media Association issued a 54-page guide on ways language can be used to address social injustice and inequity, like replacing “underserved communities” with “groups that are struggling against economic marginalization.” (Writing instructors across the land must be cringing at all this use of the passive voice). As Nicholas Kristoff points out in his recent column on the subject, “Hmm. If the A.M.A. actually cared about ‘equity-focused’ outcomes in the United States, it could simply end its opposition to single-payer health care.”
To use language to change thought is not without its merit. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a concept in linguistics that posits that the language one speaks is what shapes thought, and not the other way around. We don’t say what we say based on what we think, but rather, we think what we think based on what we say. By getting mass culture to use the language it wants, the left can get it to think a certain way.
The problem is that thinking too often doesn’t have impact. I think every day how I should exercise more, drink less, and read all those books on my shelves. It took nearly 2 years of Covid lockdowns in NYC to finally get me to run regularly. After about two months of going out every other day, it finally became something I did on purpose, of my own volition. But I’m drinking more martinis and watching more TV than I am reading, though. It takes doing something repeatedly to make it a habit, not thinking something.
Too often now language becomes a weapon used to achieve the easy victory of righteousness rather than one committing to the difficult battle of change. It’s a lot easier for a well-to-do and well-meaning white person to use “LatinX” in a conversation, or share their pronouns on LinkedIn, than it is to do the real work of change. Because change is a behavior that works its way in, not a thought that works its way out.
This comes from a heritage founded on the notion of the supremacy of the individual and the essentialness personal experience. The civil rights movement and the re-canonization of cultural capital that followed put the lived experiences of individuals at the center of the effort. Women, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and gay voices were now deemed, rightfully so, worthy of our study not only because of what they said about the communities they came from but because of what they told us about themselves. This was because at the same time the self-esteem movement was burgeoning (anyone else remember “The most important person in the whole wide world is YOU, and you hardly even know you…” from the mid-70s?). Since the bifurcation of the mind and body starting with Descartes, and maybe even since the first stirrings of Lutheran inwardness and the musings of Montaigne, the individual has become – in the West, anyway -- a more and more important consideration for culture, politics, and the state. It’s from this place that the left’s concern with, and use of, language comes from. This is good. It is personhood and the importance of the individual that has made freedom an institutionalized goal.
The challenge is that with so much emphasis on the importance and value of personal subjective experience, the mistake is made that some kind of “private language” is possible that renders that subjective experience always objectively applicable.
The private language fallacy comes to us from the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The argument goes as follows: if a private language were possible, it would mean that the user of a private language would need to be able to identify the objects and experiences they are referring to with complete certainty and without the need for external validation. However, such certainty is impossible because meaning is based on the use of words in a public, shared language, and this use can only be established by means of publicly observable and verifiable criteria. It relies on the idea of a meaning that is not grounded in the publicly shared language and its use. It is in this way that we end up with either words that are entirely fabricated by an individual (LatinX) or word salads that try to explain something so that the old definition can be replaced with a definition that is more accommodating of a rare or subjective experience (“chest-feeding person”).
One way the Left can control a narrative is to control the words we use in that narrative. And if they’re the ones who made up those words, or reassigned a set of words to something those words didn’t use to describe, they get to shape both HOW we talk and even WHO can talk.
The right has often been accused of using language manipulatively, labeling things like the estate tax the “death tax,” or using “pro-life” rather than “anti-abortion.” What the left does is something else. It does one of two things. It creates new words to bring things, states, or concepts into being (“intersectionality,” “Latinx”); or it stops using words already established to mean something (like “mother,” or “breastfeeding”).
Someone wise – I think it might have been Thor in “Infinity War” – said “all words are made up.” At one point in time in a word’s existence, this is true. But language is living, the changes that come to it best and most permanently are the changes that evolve over time. There’s nothing wrong with trying to use words to describe something they didn’t previously describe, or creating new words to describe things that might be better matched to what’s being described. But language by fiat is not a successful strategy to adoption, unless backed by an ideology willing to use authoritarian tactics. Too often it looks like it’s come to just that.
Great article! We have gotten bogged down in semantic virtue signalling instead of directly helping real people in real ways. Which I think is kinda the point. Compelled speech is one of the last nails in the coffin of healthy, free flowing human interaction. If I have to over think every single word out of my mourh, then I am going to avoid talking deeply about anything with anyone. This PC language shit has created a time wasting nightmare in every single system we rely on for survival. Our local County Council which meets only twice a month, for a two hour session; wasted over 30 minutes fighting over whether the code to allow public breast feeding should say chest feeding for women or persons. They spent more time on that craziness than on how to deal with our ever worsening homeless problem! The world is literally falling apart at the seems and we are worried about correct pronoun usage?
Appreciate you being fair handed in your critique of the problem. Got a chuckle out of the 'Embassy of Frenchness'! And well I am still a woman, not a walking chest feeding vagina and anyone who does not like that can just kiss my non gender specific cervix if they dare!
This is another enlightening and thought-provoking article! The topic is one I consider often because language is often used to exclude and oppress. I’ve worked with underprivileged people for many years and when those in power use language and ideas that have been created for the elite, we reinforce the the lesser than narrative. Everyone in helping professions should read this article!