Political Correctness has reached a new high — or low — at the University of New Hampshire, where administrators have issued a Bias-Free Language Guide. Forbidden words include the following: “mothering, fathering, healthy, homosexual, rich, poor, senior citizen, and American.”
Perhaps we should find it comforting that a taxpayer-funded school is prepared to go so far to protect its students from hurt feelings. Presumably, educators believe that this measure will improve student’s self-esteem and thereby lead to greater success in the workplace.
Once again, life imitates art, as I discussed in this essay from 2009, written to honor the 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s 1984.
If only they would teach it in New Hampshire.
It never takes more than a day or two into the new school year before I hear the chant of my students’ favorite refrain: That makes no sense!
“What you mean,” I answer the first student who utters that unutterable phrase, “is that you don’t understand.”
“That’s what I said,” the student responds, predictably. “It makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” I insist, “as you will see once you understand it.”
The student doesn’t give up without a fight. “You know what I mean,” he says. “What difference does it make how I say it?”
“It makes no sense implies that, if the material we are learning does not conform to your way of thinking, then it must be wrong. I don’t understand acknowledges the possibility that the flaw in reasoning may reside in you, rather than in the material.”
He stares back at me, trying to digest this new idea. Over the course of the year, through constant repetition, most of my students will learn never to saythat makes no sense. At least not in my class.
I’ve been challenged on this many times. Is it really my job to belabor this point, to demand that my students express ideas concisely, even when the intent is clear? After all, I’m not a speech or language instructor. Why not just teach the material I’m being paid to teach?
WE THINK WHAT WE SPEAK
In his essay “The Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to his classic novel, 1984 (published 60 years ago this month), George Orwell describes how the leaders of his totalitarian future have contrived to assure their hold on power by replacing English with Newspeak, a language containing no vocabulary for concepts contrary to the platform of the state-run Party. By controlling language, the Party controls its people’s very thoughts.
Intuition suggests that language is a product of thought: if we think clearly, automatically we will speak clearly. Orwell demonstrates the opposite, that thought is a product of language. Because we formulate our thoughts in words and sentences, incompetent use of language guarantees muddled thinking. If there are no words for rebellion, uprising, or discontent people will find it difficult to formulate and articulate the concept of overthrowing even the most corrupt and oppressive government.
Students of Orwell will shudder when applying this simple axiom to the corruption of modern language. Advertisers and politicians have known for years that the best way to manipulate public perception is by arranging words in unconventional combinations. Car dealers know that potential customers will feel better buying cars that are “pre-owned” rather than “used.” A certain former president knew that the American people would not respond to the gravity of his presidential peccadilloes if distracted by pondering what the meaning of “is” is.
But linguistic confusion became institutionalized with the rise of political correctness. By dodging frantically out of the rain of potentially offensive terms, we soak ourselves in a torrent of euphemisms for simple words the thought-police deem pejorative. When illegal aliens become “undocumented workers,” we lose all sense of the danger posed by the porous condition of our borders. When terrorists become “insurgents,” we more readily accommodate the moral equivalence that blurs the line between aggressors and defenders. When abortion becomes “reproductive freedom,” the horror over the indiscriminate murder of innocents vanishes altogether.
Similarly, when marriage is bereft by judicial fiat of the definition that has served for thousands of years, the foundations of the family structure erode like sand castles before the approaching tide. And as it becomes taboo to make any direct reference to race, class, ability or performance without fear of hurting one group’s collective feelings or another group’s collective self-esteem, the words that form our thoughts and understanding end up so fully shorn of their dictionary definitions that they cease to mean much of anything at all. In short, nothing makes sense.
CONFUSION BY DESIGN
In truth, for advertisers, politicians, special interest groups, and the politically correct, the real purpose of language is no longer to convey meaning – it is to obscure meaning, to appeal to emotions while bypassing the intellect. Their motive is obvious: it is far easier to evoke a strong emotional response than it is to present a logically developed argument. But by allowing meaning to be drained from our language and our words, we have not only denuded them of their clarity, but also of their depth.
Even worse, we are no longer allowing confusion to reign free but legislating it into the public square. Earlier this year, London decided to remove apostrophes from its street signs. King’s Heath will now become Kings Heath. What’s the reason? Apostrophes are too confusing.
According to Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city’s transport scrutiny committee, “Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed,” he said. “More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don’t want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.”
Linguistic laziness in both syntax and vocabulary has worn smooth the sharpness of our minds. When I say that I love my wife, and I love my car, and I love ice cream, am I not indulging a subtle self-hypnosis that affirms an equation between all three, that suggests that my feelings for my wife is no more profound than my taste for Baskin Robbins and BMW? By impoverishing our words, we impoverish our thoughts as well.
What is love? And what is honor? and loyalty? and commitment? As we strip our language of both its clarity and its nobility, these concepts become caricatures of what they once were, defined by the mass media who, like the Orwellian Party, have as their only concern the selling of their own values and their own agenda. And as much as we the people are willing to buy, they will continue to sell.
“Teachers, be careful with your words,” warns the Talmud, “lest the disciples who follow you will drink of evil waters and die.” When the waters of wisdom become polluted with confusion and contradiction, it is society’s youth who will pay the price through the erosion of moral clarity and moral principles.
Back in the classroom, my student continues to stare at me, contemplating my rebuke for a few more seconds before he responds. “What I meant to say,” he finally answers, “is that it makes no sense to me.”
I shake my head. “Don’t make it sound like what you want it to mean,” I tell him. “Just say it the way it is.”