Tuesday, January 06, 2015

If no one can put it in words - Liberal lexicon


The power of language: It doesn’t exist if no one can put it in words. George Orwell stumbled on this truth.

Daniel Hannan at New Criterion

…  Orwell got one thing uncannily right. In an appendix to his dystopian novel [1984], he discussed how an idea could be made literally unthinkable if there were no words to express it. The illustration he gave was the word “free.” In Newspeak, “free” could be used only in the sense of “this field is free from weeds” or “this dog is free from lice.” The concept of political or intellectual freedom had disappeared, because no one could put it into words.

What an eerily prescient example to have chosen. In recent years this is more or less what has happened to the word “free.” In 1948, “freedom” still had its traditional meaning of a guarantee against coercion: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship. Since then, however, “freedom” has come to mean “entitlement,” as in “freedom to work,” “freedom from hunger,” “freedom from discrimination,” and so on. Thus, the notion that the state ought not to boss us around becomes harder to convey, and the politician who supports that notion is disadvantaged.

Any discussion of the relationship between government and citizen is perforce conducted in loaded terms. You can still make the case for greater liberty, but not without sounding rather mean. A glossary will give some indication of how loaded the linguistics are against conservatives.

And a few examples from the Liberal Lexicon and its power:

… FREE SPEECH: Support for racists. We have been told so often that “free speech can never be used as an excuse for racism” that the two things have become conflated in our minds. Arguing for the first automatically opens you to the accusation of supporting the second. If you think that I exaggerate, cast your mind back to the case of the pensioner in Liverpool who was charged with “racially aggravated criminal damage” after scrawling “Free speech for England” on a condemned wall.

CONSERVATIVE: Neanderthal. Like “right-wing” (q.v.), but with the added bonus that it can be applied to both sides in the same conflict. Islamist “conservatives” want to impose headscarves while Western “conservatives” want to ban them. Hardline Israeli settlers and hardline Hamas terrorists are both “conservatives.” And so on.

In such a climate, it is difficult for a “right-wing” party which favors “tax cuts” and “profit” and the rest to make its case. People’s ears are not primed to appreciate the cadences of the conservative message. The very words we use condemn us as heartless blimps before we’ve started setting out our arguments.

Leftists grasped all this long ago. Gramsci, Derrida, and others deliberately set out to affect a semantic shift that would thwart their opponents. It happened to their languages, and now it is happening to ours. Until we can reclaim our vocabulary, we will always be playing with a handicap.

The graphic: First edition cover from Brown University Press 

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