Sunday, July 13, 2008

Meet my Big Brother

I was at a party yesterday and as often happens when everybody has had too much to drink, we started talking about things that none of us could articulate in our drunken state. One of the topics dealt with why it isn’t appropriate for women to go topless everywhere, another dealt with how to grow peppers in our shitty soil. I think at one point we were talking about how the CIA uses cats to spread a virus that makes us want to buy more things at Wal-Mart. Things got a little weird. One topic that I do remember has come up a lot in the past, so I thought I’d think about it a little while I’m sober. We were talking about words and language. About weather some things should or should not be said.

I guess I’d like to start out with a quote; "It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought…should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.Many of you will recognize that from George Orwell’s 1984. If you haven’t read the book, you should. It’s one of the few important works that are actually well written. To sum it up, it is about a totalitarian regime that controls all aspects of life and has a figurehead called Big Brother. Not only does the quote fit the discussion at hand, but it is also the opening quote in The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. I wish I were making that up. The idea of politically correct speech is essentially the same as Orwell’s dystopic view. According to PC advocates, defusing linguistic triggers helps social stereotypes on their way out. In other words, if you stop calling black people niggers or gay people faggots, then the societal view towards the subject at hand (sex, religion, race, age, disability, etc.) will change. This idea comes in part from something that’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which holds that language influences our worldview and powerfully conditions all our of thinking about social problems and processes; it is the major force in constructing what we perceive as reality.
Going back to 1984 for a second, Orwell’s totalitarian state-controlled language is called Newspeak. The limited vocabulary of “Newspeak” helps to keep things simple. Since thoughts are formulated in words, there are no synonyms or antonyms, just words bereft of emotional expression. Nothing to incite or illicit emotion, and, inevitably, society becomes a reflection of that. Traditionally, when society changes language follows suit. What PC is trying to do in today’s society is the opposite: use language to change the way society thinks. Starting to see a pattern? I don’t really have a problem with some of the tenets of PC. I’m pretty sure it’s not appropriate to tell racist jokes during a Power Point presentation at work, or during a press conference. I understand that neutering of some words like chairman, postman, policeman, and the like are part of addressing how society has already changed, but we shouldn’t be calling the boogeyman the bogeyperson in order to force change on our imaginary demons.

Political correctness has become a mockery of itself and thus has diminished the importance of what it has tried to accomplish. For example, imagine you were having a conversation with someone that continually referred to women as bitches, hos, and cum-catchers. You politely ask them to tone it down because you think those words aren’t appropriate for the audience at Shady Hollow Senior Center. They say “Well! Aren’t you just soooo PC.” PC has become so over the top that it has become an excuse for not being PC. The real problems of prejudice, racism, inequality, and powerlessness, cannot be significantly tackled without honest, open dialogue, however messy and hurtful it may at times be. Forbidding or discouraging certain terms or certain kinds of speech won’t help the process, and may instead drive another kind of wedge between groups which must deal with other issues that already divide them. To me, politically correct language is nothing but a cover up which hurts language in the process.

I think the real scoop is this: some people want to tell you how to talk – to tell you what you can and can’t say. Political activists, anti-bias groups, special interest groups, and some individuals want to control your language. Government agencies will tell you saying something is against the law, against regulations or secret. Religion has things that you can’t say because they are sins. As we said before, they want to control information and control language because that’s how you control thought. By changing the words we think with they change the quality of our thought, and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our thoughts. Remember, there is nothing wrong with the words that are targeted in and of themselves. Words are neutral until they are put into context. It’s the context that matters. If some ignorant, bigoted troglodyte jumps into a conversation and starts dropping n-bombs all over the place ask them to tone it down (or distract them with a Dixie flag and a NASCAR hat), but don’t vilify the word. And certainly don’t make it illegal to say those words because it would make a lot of jokes really crappy. It truly is the user that puts the intent behind words that make them good or bad. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. It’s the context that makes them good or bad. This may offend some people, but, frankly, (to paraphrase George Carlin) this type of language was created by smug, greedy, well-fed, white people in order to conceal our sins. I think that what it boils down to is that there will always be some portion of society that is ignorant, and no amount of dicking around with words is going to change that.

"The destruction of words is a beautiful thing." Geoege Orwell, 1984

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