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Political Correctness is 1984's Newspeak

July 30th, 2015 | Posted by pftq in Essays | #
I just saw an article about the University of New Hampshire's "Bias-Free Language Guide" this morning.  At first, I thought it was a joke or satirical post of some sort on political correctness, as it seemed like something straight out of Orwell's 1984, but it was on the college's official site as an actual resource.  It's since been taken down, but it's hard to "unpublish" webpages now, especially if it's been up for years. I managed to save a static HTML copy here: University of New Hampshire's Bias-Free Language Guide (as of Jul.29 2015)

I often say the peak of my last 10 years was in high school, that things just went downhill through college where so many seemed to get brainwashed into robots or beaten into conformity.  I don't know if it's college itself or just society in general.  I've literally had peers tell me they made some decision x because it was "socially validated" (data driven, has reviews, whatever); I didn't even know that phrase existed before.  Other times it would be that they do x because of how they label themselves (I code because I'm an engineer) or because of some vague catch phrases that say nothing about why they *personally* made the decision (I work in x because it's "disruptive," "innovative," and "makes the world a better place.").  Recently, I just came out of a presentation where someone proclaimed, "Let me paint you a picture," and then proceeded to say, "Imagine your name is Tom." What in the world does your name being Tom look like?? It adds absolutely nothing. The presenter was just blindly throwing together phrases with no conscious attempt to paint anything, no different than a machine simply doing pattern recognition or copy-pasting metaphors. It's as if people just speak in soundbites now because that's what they're *supposed* to say without actually thinking about what they're trying to say or why they're saying it.  Nothing has meaning anymore.  Nothing has intent. It's all the more ironic then when I come across a university actually spelling out for its students explicitly how to think and talk.

One novel that immediately comes to mind is Orwell's 1984.  When I first read it in high school, most my peers and I thought it very unrelatable, but now it's pretty scary how close we're getting to some of its themes.  Here are some comparisons to illustrate the point:

Orwell's 1984:
Quote
- "[The] purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever." (Orwell, 1984)
- Examples:
     - The word "bad" does not exist.  Only "ungood" exists, but it sounds so ridiculous it loses its meaning.
     - "Ownself" - Anything done for yourself or as an individual as taboo. aka everyone is equal.
     - "Unperson" - Erasing dissenters from society, fabricating a character to represent the side of the person you agree with.
     - "Doublethink" - aka WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
UNH's "Bias-Free Language Guide:"
Quote
- "Inclusive Language is communication that does not stereotype or demean people based on personal characteristics including gender, gender expression, race, ethnicity, economic background, ability/disability status, religion, sexual orientation, etc."
- "A micro-aggression is a subtle, often automatic, stereotypical, and insensitive behavior or comment or assumption about a person’s identity, background, ethnicity, or disability. Micro-aggressions may be intentional or non-intentional... Micro-aggressions hold a lot of power and especially because of their frequency in our culture. They may appear subtle and harmless, but we must address them if we wish to consider ourselves a truly civil society." Example of "verbal attack": “Dogs smell funny” to a blind person using a guide dog.
- A list of "preferred" and "problematic" phrases...
     Preferred: people of advanced age, old people.  
     Problematic/Outdated: older people, elders, seniors, senior citizen

     Preferred: person living at or below the poverty line, people experiencing poverty
     Problematic/Outdated: poor person, poverty-stricken person

     Preferred:  person of material wealth
     Problematic: rich

     Preferred: people of size
     Problematic/Outdated: obese*, overweight people

     Preferred: "non-disabled" is the preferred term for people without disabilities.
     problematic: normal, able-bodied, healthy or whole
One takeaway is how it is now socially acceptable for someone to be blamed for an offense they did not intend or know they committed (aka micro-aggression).  In law, you need to have the intent to commit crime, but here the requirement has come down to only the victim (sorry, for the use of the taboo word) needing to perceive the crime.  The logic has gone in reverse where the victim actually is the one educating you on what your "true" intentions were.  In other words, you're evil and just didn't know it.  I thought "micro-aggression" was something randomly made up to describe this, but it turns out it's actually been around for a while.  Matt Walsh does a pretty good write-up on this under If You're Offended All the Time, as does Janelle Hanchett [#] on how infeasible it is to have the rest of the world go out of their way not to offend you.  The level of outrage for someone unwittingly being offensive is also just insane.  It's like watching a guy pull a shotgun on anyone that accidentally stepped on his lawn.  There is so much hyperbole that we end up escalating the most trivial problems and trivializing the more serious ones.  We use the word "racist" to equally describe both someone who would commit genocide and someone who simply thinks not everyone is equal (So what? It's his own view that affects no one else.).  It's technically true, but you've broadened the category to the point the word loses its meaning.  It's a suppressed correlative fallacy.  You might as well say we're all murderers for the bugs we kill each day.  If you issue death threats when someone accidentally offends you, you have no reference point anymore for when someone is actually *trying* to kill or behead you (in other words, "war is peace").

The other side is the sheer act of making words taboo.  It's pretty much censuring except under the guise of being "polite."  By all means, we ought to be considerate but not to the extreme it actually hinders discussion or obscures the truth.  It's like wanting to have world peace and eradicating all life on Earth to do so.  We end up not discussing or addressing a topic simply because there is no word to properly describe it (no word we can actually say anyway).  Apparently, it's "problematic" to use the words "normal," "poor," or "obese," and it takes like 5 words to describe what used to take only one.  A kid can describe what he sees in one sentence, but it might take an adult a whole paragraph of beating around the bush.  If it's a taboo subject, you might even get doxed, shamed, or issued death threats by the social media mob just for using the wrong words, never mind the fact that you are on the same side.  You can be finding the cure to cancer and trying to help the world, but everything you've done gets tossed out if you accidentally come off the wrong way - no questions asked about what you actually mean or what your intentions are (you're simply evil).  Just look at the past few years to see rather extreme "public lynchings" of anyone who said anything even remotely against norms.
- Sir Tim Hunt [#]: Former Nobel Prize winner loses his career and reputation after making a joke about women.
- James Watson [#]: Co-discovered the DNA double-helix only to be shunned for personal views that not everyone is equally intelligent, despite his ultimate intentions being to help people.  Further criticized for selling his Nobel Prize or buying art, even though the majority of the proceeds go to charity and the art will be for the Cold Spring Harbor Lab.
- Justine Sacco [#]: Tweeted a joke about white people amongst friends only to be taken literally by the media and lose her job.
- Sam Biddle [#]: Originally retweeted Sacco's joke to shame her only to ironically face the same fate later on his own joke.

What's more troublesome to me is how readily we're actually letting word choice affect our thinking now as opposed to just miscommunicating our thoughts.  Just the other day, I had two similar-aged peers (early 20s) engaging in a conversation which pretty much amounted to:
A: I'm amazed that you can think so positively and be so productive.  How do you do it?
B: I used to have trouble sleeping or waking up, but it was because I had too many negative thoughts.  Now I just try not to think negatively.  Whenever I start thinking about something that bothers me, I just stop.
A: Wow, I wish I could do that.  That's amazing.

The next 30 minutes they spent sharing tips how to halt their thought process.  It sounds like a pathetic example, but I am quoting that discussion word for word.  If you've ever seen the movie "Donnie Darko," you might remember the scene of the teacher forcing students to categorize everything into the spectrum of fear or love.  That scene immediately came into mind for me, which is sad because I remember we used to laugh at how over the top it was.  The worst part is our language is not even as vague as fear or love anymore; it's now just negative and positive.

There's a strong tie-in here to my last write-up, Hear the Pictures and Not the Words [#], on how we seem to have forgotten how to think abstractly without words.  The whole point of language, at least in my opinion, is to understand what the other person is *trying* to say and not necessarily the words they actually said, to see their *intent* and not just their actions. If you're not sure, then ask rather than assume.  And even if you do not agree with the other person, there is no justification for outcry or retaliation unless that person is imposing his will on others.  There has to be intent.  Unless he is imposing his will on others, others have absolutely no right to impose their will on him.  Instead we have individuals who are being demonized for views or activities they hold entirely to themselves.  We are basically no longer allowed to think in a certain way, even if it has no effect on anyone else's life, even if we're well intentioned or benevolent.

This is effectively 1984's "Crimethink," except it's self-imposed.  We don't need some government or corporation to tell us what not to say or what not to think. We're so obsessed with being polite and respectful that we do that to ourselves.
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