What do Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, George Orwell, and post-modern feminists have in common? They all triangulate on the fact that we think in words. And so if you can control what can be said, you can control what can be thought. And since, as Thomas Hobbes observed, “a man’s [sic] actions proceedeth from his opinions,” it follows that by controlling the language one speaks, you can pretty much control how he can behave.
Whole libraries have been written about this connection, and about how it’s so readily exploited. But here I want to focus on the colonization of language, by which I mean how a word with a perfectly serviceable meaning can be expropriated and assigned a completely different one, rendering it impossible to say what we would have said but now can’t because we no longer have the words to say it.
For example, a terrorist used to mean someone who targets a civilian population with a view to bringing pressure on its government to accede to the terrorist’s demands. But now it means someone who, to that end or just for the fun of it, attacks a civilian target or a military one, but is, alas, unauthorized to do so, unauthorized by the government being attacked. But – and this is what does the heavy lifting – only certain governments are authorized to authorize their own behavior and unauthorize the like behavior of others. So whereas one used to be able to see the symmetry between the shelling of an apartment building in Gaza and the bombing of a night club in Tel Aviv, the cases are now completely distinct.
There’s nothing wrong with redefining our words. Otherwise ‘sincere’ would still mean ‘without wax’. But it’s an albeit clever sleight of hand when the new definition inherits the moral baggage of the old. For example, rape used to mean sexual intercourse against the other’s will. But now it includes sexual intercourse with a willing participant under an age determined by the jurisdiction in question. So a violation of a moral norm has been replaced with a violation of a legal one. And yet the moral judgment remains attached to the term notwithstanding its altered meaning.
Racism used to mean treating people of different races differentially. Today it includes being the beneficiary of that differential treatment by people long since dead. As a result we are now all racists unless we’re descendants of those who were at the shit end of that treatment.
Surely someone learning our language can be forgiven for interpreting an adjective as modifying the noun to which it’s contiguous. Thus hate speech would be speech which is driven by hatred. And yet that’s not what these words now mean. If I were a fanatical Spencerian, and I thought the only sure-fire way to eliminate Tay Sachs from the gene pool would be the extermination of all Jews, notwithstanding some of my best friends are Jewish, such advocacy would count as hate speech, notwithstanding nothing even approaching hatred can be found.
I could go on, pretty much indefinitely. But the point should be clear. Because the only way I can say what I want to say would be racist or hate speech or a defense of terrorism or pedophilia, I can’t say it. And since it can’t be said, it can’t be thought. And since it can’t be thought, any rethinking of the issue at hand it otherwise would invite can’t get off the ground.
There are ways around this, but they’re highly circuitous, and fraught with dragons. So I recommend a more direct and safer strategy. Feign ignorance. Pretend to have just woken up after being in a coma for fifty years. When you discover that some women now have penises, don’t wait to be court-ordered to a linguistic re-education camp. Volunteer to go. And once there, be its most enthusiastic inmate. Learn. Work at it, Yes, it’s work that will set you free. Can anyone tell me how to say that in German?