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Controlling Thought

Too great attention to the use of language is a distraction from the essential and easily becomes mere pedantry; but to pay too little is to risk being deceived or manipulated by those who use language wrongly. Words, Aristotle said, should not bear more precision than possible; but neither should they bear less than possible.

Words have connotations as well as denotations, and one way of insinuating an untruth into someone’s mind is to disconnect the two, so that the denotation and the connotation are at variance and even opposite. An excellent example of this is in the use of the word austerity as applied to certain government economic policies. Frequently one reads, for example, that the difficulties of countries such as Britain and France in the matter of responding to the Covid-19 epidemic were caused by previous government austerity, that is to say, failure to spend more. But irrespective of whether, had the governments spent more (and France already devotes a greater proportion of its GDP to healthcare than the great majority of countries at the same economic level), the epidemic would have been more easily mastered, their policies in restricting their expenditure cannot be called austerity, because they still spent more than their income: as, in fact, they had done almost continually for forty years.

Supposing I were to say, “This year I’m going in for austerity. Last year I spent ten per cent more than my income, but this year I am going to spend only five per cent more,” you would think I were uttering a sub-Wildean paradox. But if I were to say only, “This year I’m going in for austerity,” you would think I were going to wear a hair shirt and subsist on locusts and honey. To say that the British and French governments have exercised austerity is to mean the first and imply the second, which is clearly dishonest: though we should note that the proper term, reduction of the deficit, is neutral as to whether it is economically wise or unwise. After all, I can borrow equally to start a business or drink champagne for breakfast.

Another sinister and increasingly common confusion which I see both in British and French newspapers is that between refutation and denial. A man accused of something, either by the law or a political opponent, says “I refute that charge,” and is duly reported in the newspapers as having refuted it. But of course he hasn’t refuted it, he has denied it, which is only the same thing when everyone is deemed to have his own “validity” or “truth,” which is to say when the epistemology of egocentricity and inflamed individualism is prevalent. I can deny by mere assertion but I cannot refute by mere assertion; and the fact that the confusion is motivated is demonstrated by the fact that, while people mistake denial for refutation, no one ever mistakes refutation for denial. The word refutation has connotations of disproof that any guilty person would delight to attach to his false denial.

The mills of linguistic reform grind exceeding small.

Semantic shifts are, or at least can be, important. For example, the word unhappy has been almost expunged from the lexicon in favour of depressed. This is important because it implies a) that happiness is the normal human state of mind and that b) deviation from it is an illness which a doctor can, or at least ought to be able, to treat, thereby reducing life to a technical problem, in the present state of urban mythology that of balancing the neurotransmitters in the brain.

Changes in usage and semantics, when imposed, are usually exercises in power. These days, pressure for their adoption, like censorship, comes not from government but from pressure groups, small but well-organised and determined. Resistance in small things to monomania not being worth the effort among the better balance, the changes first go by default and then become habitual.

I have noticed an interesting difference in the linguistic demands of ardent feminists in Britain and France. In England, for example, it is now quite wrong for a right-thinking person to use the word actress in reference to a female who acts on stage or screen: she is an actor and not an actress. Thus, Sarah Bernhardt was a famous actor of the later 19th century, as Mrs. Siddons (or should I say Ms Siddons?) was in the previous century.

Recently I saw in a newspaper local to my home in England that a village nearby has the oldest postmaster in the country, who had worked for the Post Office in the village for sixty years and was now ninety-two. The postmaster was actually a woman who, until a few years ago, would have been referred to as the postmistress. In the article she was also referred to as Ms. White rather than Miss or Mrs. The mills of linguistic reform grind exceeding small.

In France, by contrast, it is now necessary to call a French female writer an écrivaine, the female form of écrivain, and increasingly the masculine form of a word is not allowed to stand for both male and female.

What is interesting about this difference is that, on neither side of the Channel were words such as actress and postmistress on the one hand, and écrivain as applied to a woman terms of disrespect. It is true that in my adolescence, the first risqué joke I knew was to add “As the actress said to the bishop” to anything than anybody said, which automatically lent it a slightly salacious tone that caused me to giggle: but it was no more respectful of bishops than it was of actresses, and was surely very innocent. To say of Margaret Rutherford that she was an actress had no connotation of disrespect.

As for the word postmistress, it conjured up someone who was at the centre of village affairs and might have been a gossip, but who was regarded with both respect and affection.

I need hardly say the word écrivain conjures no disrespect in France, on the contrary: for no country has (or at any rate used to have) greater respect for its writers than France. How, then, are we to explain the difference between the two countries? The words actress, postmistress and écrivain are not inherently derogatory. Thus, the demand that they should be replaced is a small, and small-minded, exercise in power—as Humpty Dumpty would say, that’s all.

Reader Discussion

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on June 08, 2020 at 10:37:31 am

As always, Dalrymple persuades.
I would change the title of the essay to "Eliminating thought" as this is what the dissolution of language both intends and accomplishes.

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gabe
on June 08, 2020 at 10:53:47 am

"... the epistemology of egocentricity and inflamed individualism"

A timely turn of phrase, that. The subversions and corrosions of language and meaning, of ratio, of logos, are the foremost and most vexing redoubts and battlements of the left. They take on varied and sundry forms, prominently including Alinskyite tactics, gaslighting, Kafkatrapping, and polished and highly sophisticated forms of disinformation.

The counter to all this purposefully confusing and chaos-orienting admixture of truths and seeming-truths is a return to a humble reverence for ratio, for >logos, for the art of discerning and conveying meaning. Only in this manner and one by one will those redoubts and battlements be overcome.

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Michael Bond
on June 08, 2020 at 11:03:26 am
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Michael Bond
on June 08, 2020 at 12:00:17 pm

Well, Mr. Bond, why need we "return to a humble reverence for ratio, for logos, for the art of discerning and conveying meaning?"

Isn't that what K-16 is all about? Hasn't it brought us with contemporary journalism a new wave of language appreciation and verbal skill? Do we not now have in public education, journalism and politics some of the finest, most truthful purveyors of concision, clarity and objectivity in the use of language since William Strunk and E.B. White, George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge, Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln?

And need I remind you of the outstanding ratio decidendi of our modern jurisprudence (the beneficent consequence of K-19, the added three years spent honing the lawyer's linguistic impartiality?)

Nope, just ask Mencken, The American Language is an art bound by rules and shaped by tradition. Language is most certainly not a construct of power in my country. And that is a true blessing of the unfiltered democracy of our politics, the unrestrained racial diversity and sexual perversity of our universities and the persistent dedication to historical revisionism and intellectual deconstruction of our professoriate.

Every day I give thanks to our selfless public teachers and the union for which they stand and to the Goddess Veritas who inspires academia.

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Paladin
on June 08, 2020 at 17:02:10 pm

So, we're in agreement, there are ample opportunities for reform.

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Michael Bond
on June 08, 2020 at 18:15:48 pm

The use of language as a weapon in culture wars has a very well-defined structure. It is based on a simple premise: that manners and respect are essential elements of a civilized society, and by twisting language of political opponents to appear unmannerly and disrespectful, those opponents are thus silenced.

The assault on language is based on two simple premises: 1.) that it is easier to enrage than to persuade, and 2.) that it is easier to coerce than convince. To use these principles to advantage, the modern culture warrior does two very simple things: insinuate therapeutic language into every discussion; and validate emotional, rather than rational reactions to controversies. The first tactic, insinuating therapeutic language, is used to dissuade aggressive defense of reason on grounds that the opponent is afflicted in some way, i.e. that he is hors de combat if required to defend a position, but allowed to attack unhindered. The words used to affect this illusion are things like "trauma," "healing," "feeling unsafe," "uncomfortable," and "anxious." College students resort to therapeutic language to demand that finals be canceled, or that grades take of account of subjective psychological fragility. In the extreme, it is claimed that opposing views put "lives in danger." The narrative is that a person's birth is traumatic, and he spends the rest of his life trying to heal, being constantly buffeted by "micro-aggressions," imagined slights, and the protean wounds inflicted by "privilege."

The second tactic, to prioritize emotion over reason, is observed in the frequent and reflexive accusations of "hate" and "racism." The media can be counted on to note the "outrage" that attends every dissident idea or, in fact, thought that does not conform to social media orthodoxy. It will be noted that hate and outrage are emotions. So ingrained has this tactic become that politicians and commentators, even the most conservative and rational must preface their arguments with assurances of how "disturbed" or "saddened" or "angered" they are by whatever has led to the controversy on which they seek to opine. Pseudo-empathy has become social currency.

Once reason has been made to defer to emotion and therapeutic artifice, the spurious redefinition of words can commence without vigorous opposition. The word most favored at the moment is "violence," followed somewhat at a distance by "privilege." In modern cultural silliness speech is violence, as is silence. Note the dilemma here. Rather than address these absurdities, their proponents fall back on the claim that opposing them is a result of bad character. Silence is not violence because it shares any attributes of violence, but rather because disagreeing with that notion is a confession of racism or the aforementioned privilege. Ideologies are assumed by their adherents to be pure, They need not be reasonable or even defensible, since the only grounds for questioning them must naturally be bad character. The goal is that, by arguing that things that are not violence, and which in fact are necessary to civil society, are violence, one may justify the use of actual violence in response.

It is interesting to note that defense of violence, (the real kind, not the rhetorical fiction currently in vogue) by Georges Sorel influenced both Lenin and Mussolini. The appeal of violence is non-selective. The fact that Sorel's writing, specifically Reflections on Violence had a stimulative effect on the development of fascism seems not to have occurred to the modern radical. It is simply arrogant stupidity that allows those radicals to believe that violence will respect ideological boundaries, and won't result in fascism and humanitarian disaster this time.

I think Dr. Dalrymple was closer to the mark in when he opined in another essay that the goal of getting people to confess things they know are untrue is not to get them to believe those things, but rather to demoralize and intimidate them, so that it does not matter what they think.

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z9z99
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on June 30, 2020 at 18:01:07 pm

[…] Changes in usage and semantics, when imposed, are usually exercises in power. These days, pressure for their adoption, like censorship, comes not from government but from pressure groups, small but well-organised and determined. Resistance in small things to monomania not being worth the effort among the better balance, the changes first go by default and then become habitual. – Theodore Dalrymple […]

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.