One of the More Idiotic of False Equivalences

Sometimes you hear people complain about ‘politically correct’ changes in language by comparing them to Orwellian ‘newspeak’ – for instance, this article makes that claim about the BBC’s move to use ‘CE’ and ‘BCE’ in place of ‘AD’ and ‘BC’. This article doesn’t go quite that far but does call it “an example of the BBC trying to undermine Christianity by pushing an aggressive secularism.”

Without wanting to dignify with a response the claim that this represents “a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within”, I think it’s worth pointing out that the aims of ‘political correctness’ and of ‘newspeak’ are actually precise opposites.

The goal of newspeak, in 1984, was the narrow the range of available thoughts, by having fewer words, so that each word would cover and blur together a greater range of meanings. The goal of the linguistic tendencies labelled ‘PC’ are, at bottom, to widen the range of available thoughts, by separating distinct meanings.

For instance, replacing ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’ doesn’t abolish the words ‘chairman’ and ‘chairwoman’, it keeps them as gender-specific terms for when you want to convey information about gender, rather than having a single term that means both ‘person who chairs, of unspecified gender’ and ‘man who chairs’. That’s not a narrowing of the range of available meanings.

The AD/CE case is similar, though the meanings here are very subtle associations. If you want to specify a year and also suggest that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was the most important event in human history, you can still do that, but saying CE also allows you to do the former without doing the latter. Maybe that’s a trivial benefit, but if it’s not worth doing it’s also not worth predicting the end of Western Civilization over.

As for the idea that these linguistic changes make bigoted claims impossible, it seems they do quite the opposite. If the people who just want to specify sexual orientation, and the people who want be generically insulting, both stop using the word ‘faggot’, your ability to use it to insult people with specific reference to their sexual orientation is increased. And if you’re worried people will misunderstand, you can still always fall back on more complex phrases like “your romantic habits render you subhuman”.

Now, this diversification of words might work against ease and naturalness of speech, might make people inconveniently self-conscious; indeed in the short-term that’s probably inevitable. But that’s the opposite of what you would go for if your aim was to make people docile and unthinking drones who automatically accept a party line. If you want to indoctrinate people you want to make the words just slip from their mouths like a vegan lactose-free spread that mimics the viscosity and melting point of butter. If you see what I mean. You can be a pedant or a populist but not both at once.

Anyway, I’m probably beating a dead horse in a barrel of fish, but I’ve seen this link made a few times and it just struck me how upside-down it is.

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One Response to One of the More Idiotic of False Equivalences

  1. Pingback: The Libertarian: PC running Amok in the UK

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