It’s Nineteen Eighty-Four All Over Again

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It was a good year for many of us. An economy that had sustained a heavy blow under President Jimmy Carter was recovering under Ronald Reagan. Aside from the skirmishes in Lebanon, the nation was at peace. And as a college freshman away from my mother’s scrupulous gaze, I was at last free to leave my dirty socks on the floor with impunity.

It was not the best year, however, for Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston and his inamorata, Julia, spent that year living under the unscrupulous gaze of a totalitarian regime that monitored their every move, tolerating no dissent in word, deed, or even thought. The regime’s architects knew that it was not enough for its people to pay lip service to the party line. They actually had to believe it. To that end, the English Socialist Party devised numerous strategies to brainwash its citizens into swallowing the steady diet of propaganda fed to them. One of the most effective strategies was the development of its infamous political language, Newspeak.

As a talented writer, Orwell was keenly aware of the power that language has to influence uncritical thought. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” for instance, he maintains that our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish” and that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In short, our thoughts shape our language, but our language also shapes our thoughts.

Having survived both world wars, Orwell saw firsthand the way political regimes manipulated language to sway public opinion in their direction. Among the euphemisms that governments of his day used to whitewash their dirty deeds were “pacification” for the bombing of defenseless villages and “transfer of population” for the expulsion of residents from their homes.

Yes, people actually do fall for such linguistic charades—at least some of the time. Research has shown repeatedly that the way a topic is broached linguistically affects the way people think about it. Want to know what public attitudes are regarding people who live in the U.S. without citizenship or residency? As any good pollster knows, the answer depends on how you articulate the question. The phrase “undocumented residents” will elicit one response, and “illegal immigrants” another, despite the formal equivalence between the phrases. Want to know how Americans feel about welfare? Then don’t ask them about “entitlements.” This ability of language to shape perceptions has been recognized to such an extent that psychologists have a name for it: framing.

Once the domain of advertisers and pollsters, framing is now being used with great success by leftist cultural warriors. Books have even been written on the topic. According to George Lakoff, professor emeritus of linguistics and cognitive psychology at UC Berkeley, framing is so important to the life of our nation that it cost the Democratic Party the 2004 presidential election. According to Lakoff, conservatives have traditionally been more successful than liberals at framing important policy issues, which is why he penned his book Dont Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. An unabashed liberal himself, Lakoff subtitled the book The Essential Guide for Progressives. It is essentially a manual to help the left reclaim the political landscape. Among Lakoff’s advice to his comrades is: don’t call yourself “liberal.” Instead, say “progressive.” After all, who doesn’t want progress? The moniker has the added benefit of relegating those who disagree with progressive policies to the category “regressive.” We don’t know exactly what they are regressing toward, but it is presumably to medieval times, when Christianity reigned in the West, burning at the stake countless witches and free thinkers who dissented from its dogmas.

As a glance at any newspaper reveals, those on the left who have adopted Professor Lakoff’s strategies are witnessing cultural victories that would have made Saul Alinsky proud. The Obergefell v. Hodges case, for instance, was framed as an issue of “marriage equality.” Those who opposed the decision were thus accused of promoting social inequality. In rendering its decision, the high court also granted its imprimatur to the redefinition of the term “marriage,” which—as a search of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary reveals—as far back as the year 1300 had meant, “The legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman as partners in a personal relationship.” The redefinition of marriage will undoubtedly further erode the dignity the word once possessed. As Orwell noted, sloppy thinking leads to sloppy language, which leads to more sloppy thinking.

Many other examples of the way the left has used language to reframe the cultural landscape can be cited. Among the most familiar are the phobe pejoratives, such as homophobe, Islamophobe, and xenophobe. These invectives are engineered to shame one’s opponents by suggesting that they have acted intolerantly toward others. Indeed, “tolerance” has been one of the left’s rallying cries in recent years. In the proper context, the word is devoid of cultural baggage and can be used with equal facility by those of any political persuasion. There are myriad things in life that none of us tolerate, whether it be rude behavior or mosquitoes at a picnic. This is the normal transitive use of the term. What the left has done with the word, however, is detransitize it so that their political opponents are no longer intolerant of something in particular, but merely intolerant. When the word is haphazardly tossed about like this, decoupled from an object, it assumes the force of a vague insult. And that, I think, is the whole point.

One arena where the left has been less successful engineering language is in the fight over life. “Pro-life” is sincere since pro-lifers seek to prevent the termination (some would say prevention) of a human life. But “pro-choice”? It has always sounded to my ears like a desperate compromise forged in the dead of night by a committee of feminists who suddenly realized that “pro-abortion” would not take them very far in the court of public opinion. The use of “choice,” of course, appeals to our love of freedom. As our Declaration of Independence reminds us, however, life comes before both liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s why only the most obtuse thinker could fail to recognize the epithet “pro-choice” for the smoke screen that it is.

On the other hand, the “pro-life” label has enjoyed such success that even many with left-leaning tendencies are now appropriating it for their own use under the guise of the seamless garment argument. Abortion, we are told, is only one life issue. If we stop there, we are merely “pro-birth.” To be truly pro-life, the logic goes, we must also support an array of government-funded social programs, including a higher minimum wage, socialized medicine, and more liberal immigration laws. Opposition to global warming is also sometimes woven into this seamless garment. I am patiently waiting for a clever seamstress to weave into it the Obama-era “Cash for Clunkers” program. After all, people need a functioning vehicle to survive.

The most Orwellian of the left’s attempts to manipulate thought through language is its aggressive policing of gender pronoun usage. The policing began in the Sixties when feminists began arguing that the English language was inherently sexist due to its reliance on generic masculine nouns and pronouns—as in mankind and the expression “to each his own.” The essay “Language and Woman’s Place” by linguist Robin Tolmach Lakoff (wife of George) was particularly influential in turning the tide. Publishers and academic organizations immediately took note, revising textbooks and publication manuals to eliminate any vestiges of perceived sexist usage. Mankind became personkind, or simply humanity. Even the man in the moon was neutered, along with manhole covers in the street. Now, several decades later, authors who adhere to traditional English usage are virtually guaranteed to receive rejection letters if they submit their work to mainstream publishers.

The insanity escalated to unprecedented heights with the introduction of gender mislabeling laws, which criminalize language that does not conform to an individual’s gender identity. An example of such legislation is California’s Senate Bill 219. Now signed into law, SB219 makes it a misdemeanor offense for long-term care facilities to, among other things, “willfully and repeatedly fail to use a resident’s preferred name or pronouns after being clearly informed of the preferred name or pronouns.” In short, if John retires to a nursing home and instructs the staff to address him as “Jane” and to refer to him with the pronouns “she” and “her,” the staff must comply with the request or face legal consequences, which potentially include a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.

The California law is no anomaly either. Similar laws have emerged in other states, as well as in other countries. The province of Ontario, for instance, considers it discrimination to “misgender” a person knowingly, including “non-binary” individuals (that is, those who identify as being neither male nor female). According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual sense of being a woman, a man, both, neither, or anywhere along the gender spectrum.… Traditional gender pronouns (she/her, he/him) do not fit everyone’s gender identity.”

One might ask what could possibly lead otherwise rational people to adopt such irrational views. It makes as much sense to say that a square is a circle and that 2+2=5 as to say that a man can become a woman or that a person can be both male and female or neither.

One reason is a misguided sense of compassion. People with gender dysphoria often suffer emotional anguish and social alienation. The problem is that rather than help these individuals find their place in this world as children of God with a purpose and a mission, our secular society merely affirms them in their confusion.

Compassion alone, however, does not explain the aggressiveness with which these gender ideologies are being foisted on the public. Something more is going on.

This leads us back to George Orwell.

In the final chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four, our protagonist is arrested by the Thought Police and tortured by an interrogator known as “O’Brien,” whose objective is to break Smith’s will and rehabilitate him into a faithful party member. But O’Brien knows that it is not enough for Smith to confess allegiance to party doctrine. He must actually believe it.

In one scene, O’Brien holds up four fingers and asks Smith how many fingers he sees. When Smith replies four, O’Brien rejoins, “And if the party says it is not four but five—then how many?” Smith is shocked repeatedly until he learns to see things the party’s way. With his rehabilitation complete, Smith is released from detention and reintegrated into society, a loyal member of the party, half-consciously believing 2+2=5.

While it’s true that no one in the democratic world is being tortured over his party allegiance, it’s also true that many good men and women have lost their jobs or been dragged through court because they refused to profess seeing five fingers when only four were in the air. And with the proliferation of gender mislabeling laws, stiffer penalties are undoubtedly on the horizon.

The year 1984 has come and gone. Hopefully, rationally-minded people everywhere will unite to ensure that Nineteen Eighty-Four never arrives.

Photo credit: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Frank W. Hermann

By

Frank W. Hermann, PhD, is associate professor of English at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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