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Culture War Politics And The English Language
Orwell and the mind-deadening neologisms of our time.
The relationship between language and politics — how each can inform or derange the other — was never better explored than in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, and his essay, “Politics and the English Language.” After reading these in my early teens, political writing became a vocational challenge of sorts to me. How to say things as clearly and honestly as Orwell? How to “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about,” as he deftly put it?
Language is always in flux, of course. But Orwell was not talking about the way in which spoken English has always mutated and shifted from the ground up. Like most writers, he thrilled to new permutations of idiom and invention. He was talking rather about how people in power can use and create new language to deceive, conceal or confuse.
That’s what “newspeak” was: a language in which it becomes hard to understand something because the words describing it are too vague and abstract to mean anything recognizable; and, more worryingly, a language in which it becomes impossible to know something because the language itself has already excised the words needed to understand it.
It was during the war in Iraq that Orwell’s insistence on clear language first came roaring back. This time, the newspeak was coming from the neocon right. We heard the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what any sane person would instantly call “torture.” Or “extraordinary rendition” — which meant kidnapping in order to torture. There was “environmental manipulation” — freezing naked human beings to near-death and back again. All the terms followed Orwell’s rules for new words “needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” All the new terms were opaque and longer than the original.
And then, in the era of “social justice,” the new words began to come from the far left. Words we thought we knew — “queer” for example — were suddenly re-purposed without notice. Gay men and lesbians, with our very distinct experiences, were merged into a non-word, along with transgender people: “LGBT.” That was turned into “LGBTQIA+” — an ever-expanding acronymic abstraction that, in Orwell’s words, “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”
Orwell’s insight was that these terms are designed to describe things you want to obscure. Hence one of his rules: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Writing the English that people speak every day is essential for a flourishing democracy.
Which brings me to that old English term “sex change.” Everyone instantly understands it. Which is, of course, precisely the problem. So now we say: “gender-affirming care.” Or take another word we all know: “children” — kids usually up to puberty. Also way too understandable. So “sex changes for children” suddenly becomes “gender-affirming care for minors.” These are the words, again, that are “needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
Or take the term “transgender” itself. Remember when it was “transsexual”? Or when “sex” was first distinguished from “gender” — and then replaced by it? The usual refrain is that “the community” switched the terms, which means to say that a clique of activists decided that gender would be the new paradigm, and include any number of “queer” postmodern identities, while sex — let alone “biological sex” — was to be phased out and, with any luck, forgotten. Now notice how the new word “transgender” has recently changed its meaning yet again, and now includes anyone, including straights, outside traditional gender roles — whatever those are supposed to mean.
Or check out the new poll from the Washington Post yesterday, in which a big majority of transgender people do not consider themselves either a “trans man” or a “trans woman” at all. They prefer “nonbinary” and “gender-nonconforming” — and distance themselves from both sexes. Less than a third physically present as another sex “all the time.” The vast majority have no surgery at all.
Now read Masha Gessen’s recent interview with The New Yorker, and get even more confused. Gessen denies that transness is one thing at all. S/he says it’s a different thing now than it was a decade ago, and that “being transgender in a society that understands that some people are transgender is fundamentally different from being transgender in a society that doesn’t understand.”
S/he says that there are “different ideas about transness within the trans community … probably different trans communities.” S/he denies a “single-true-self narrative” as some kind of anchor for identity. S/he believes that transitioning can be done many times, back and forth: “Some people transition more than once. Some people transition from female to male, and then transition from male to female, and then maybe transition again.”
If gender is entirely a social construct, with no biological character, why do transgender people want hormones — an entirely biological intervention? Because “being trans is not a medical condition, but it marries you for life to the medical system.” Huh? By the end of the interview, you get the feeling that trans is whatever Gessen bloody well wants it to be, and yet at the same time it remains beyond interrogation.
In this gnostic universe, there is nothing “natural” about the human body, because nature itself is a social construction. It is a mere playground for the psyche to use and tweak, mix and match, subvert and shock. Puberty is not a common, humanizing fate — but an individual choice. It is, in fact, unethical to prefer a natural puberty for a child in their own sex over an artificial one in the opposite. Breasts are removed, “penises” constructed from other limbs, “vaginas” carved into the body requiring constant dilation to prevent the wound from healing — not as an attempt to overcome crippling dysphoria or more happily live as the opposite sex, but to show the limitlessness of human autonomy, and its conquest of nature.
Remember the celebrated figure depicted on a December 2021 cover of New York magazine, who bragged of a body that had a vagina nestling next to a new penis, carved from “a 40-square-inch hole in my thigh where I’d been skinned down to the muscle”? He is the current avatar of “transness”: “I didn’t need a penis to be a man,” the subhead read. “But I needed one to be me.”
Days before my penis’s first birthday, the warmth and weight of it lay against my vulva, each supporting the other, holding me.
This, we are told, is also “trans.”
What we’re seeing is linguistic chaos, a conflation of the rare, real experience of feeling you are one sex when your body is another — being transexual — with any number of vague, postmodernist gestures at androgyny, and épater les bourgeois chic. Among the latest innovations, we have “gender-diverse person” and “gender-expansive person,” terms designed to conflate gay men and lesbians with trans and, yes, straight people. NPR, which has openly delegated its vocabulary to activist groups, says “gender-expansive” means “someone with a more flexible gender identity than might be associated with a typical gender binary.” Isn’t that everyone?
Why mix all this up? You might as well ask: why mix up the lesbian and gay experiences with the trans and bisexual and postmodern “queer” identities? The answer is that confusion and conflation is the point — in the way that the impenetrably hideous prose of Judith Butler is the point. The point is to “queer” everything — the trans experience, the gay one, the lesbian one, and the straight one — to foment a permanent revolution against the sex binary, which is to say, against reality itself. It’s just a bonus that this also means vast amounts of money — for surgeons and endocrinologists and “DIE” entrepreneurs.
And remember that the “+” in “LGBTQIA2S+” is utterly open-ended. Who knows what the “+” will reveal next? The consonants will keep coming, and you’ll be a bigot if you don’t keep up. Already, there is “aliagender” — “a nonbinary gender identity that doesn’t fit into existing gender schemas or constructs”; there’s “gendervoid” — “a term that describes someone without a gender identity”; and there’s “novigender” — “having a gender that can’t be described using existing language due to its complex and unique nature.” Like being a tree or a fish, I suppose. Notice, as Orwell did, that using Latinate phrases helps lend the meaningless an air of faux authority.
There will never be an end to all the oppressions, just as there will never be an end to all the nonsense genders. This is a machine for endless social revolution, not a one-off change to accommodate and protect a discrete, tiny minority. That’s why it is not a logical consequence of the marriage equality movement, as some conservative writers have claimed. It is, in fact, a riposte to the whole idea of it, which is why its leader, Chase Strangio, has described marriage equality as furthering an “inherently violent institution” and causing “significant harm” to society as a whole.
Human nature hasn’t changed. Our very language has been altered to distort our grasp of it. That’s the bottom line. Every definition and framing in the WaPo on trans people yesterday, for example, is copied verbatim from critical queer theory advocates at GLAAD, the Trans Journalists Association, InterAct, and the Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Check out the guide from the TJA here, if you want to see how activists dictate coverage; and how the MSM usually just obeys.
“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing,” Orwell noted. “Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” This is why, in our time, Substack exists. Because the lifeless, imitative copypasta of queer theory is mandatory everywhere else.
And this movement is not about the liberation of gay people or trans people, who have achieved amazing progress in liberal society, with liberal means, and have, at long last, full civil rights. It’s about the eradication of biology as a guide to human health and happiness; it’s about the expansion of the term “transness” so it is divorced from anything material or biological and can absorb everything; and it’s about binding the very definition of homosexuality to the radical, queer left, as a way to marginalize the majority of gays and lesbians and trans people who have not signed up for revolution.
It’s also, deep down, about the integrity of our language, which is the lifeblood of a working democracy. The language is being re-written in order to make actual, informed debate harder and harder; to obfuscate and numb. In the face of all the neologisms, euphemisms and deceptions coming at you, I can only offer you Orwell’s admonition: “The worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them.”
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my eye-opening talk with Hannah Barnes on her investigation into Tavistock; many reader dissents over DeSantis and Ukraine; seven notable quotes from the week in news — including an Yglesias Award on free speech; 20 pieces on Substack that we found illuminating this week; a sizable Mental Health Break of iconic guitar riffs; an uneasy window view from Utah; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge from the countryside. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A quick note from a subscriber in England:
I love the Dish. I don’t think there is any other publication on the planet where topical issues are discussed from every possible angle and perspective, and where readers and listeners can truly understand and appreciate the arguments on both sides of an issue. Thank you for all that you and Chris do.
New On The Dishcast: Hannah Barnes
Hannah is an award-winning journalist with 15 years at the BBC. She is currently the Investigations Producer at Newsnight — the BBC’s flagship program for news and current affairs — and before that she was in BBC Radio, producing and reporting documentaries. She just published her first book, Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children. Twenty-two publishers turned down the book in the UK, it has no US publisher, yet it’s already a Sunday Times (of London) bestseller.
If you have bought the line that concerns about child transitions are entirely from the bigoted right, Hannah Barnes is an antidote. She is fair and measured throughout the episode. For two clips of our convo — on the unfounded activist claims of trans-kid suicide, and the dramatic shift toward girls getting hormones with little oversight — pop over to our YouTube page.
Listen to the full episode here. That link also takes you to commentary on recent episodes with James Alison on Christianity and John Gray on the threats to Western liberalism. I also respond to several more dissents over Ukraine and DeSantis, as well as Masha Gessen’s deliberate distortion of my trans position.
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy. A fan of last week’s convo:
Many, many thanks for the James Alison episode. What a wealth of good thinking. I listened to the whole thing and then, a day later, listened to the whole thing again.
Enduring ideas in Christianity (and all the world’s wisdom traditions) are always in need of defamiliarization, productive estrangement, and new words for old concepts. And Alison had them in spades. “For the joy set before Him,” “Abel’s blood cries out to Me from the ground,” and above all, “Fear not” — I heard all these passages as though for the first time.
I am in RCIA now, at nearly 50 years old, though a longtime Christian. This vivid evocation of Aquinas and Girard, plus an energetic engagement with the scripture, was exactly the gift I needed in Lent. Thank you for keeping all the social complexity for this fellow traveler on her way to first communion.
And so many good guests lately! One after another. I love the long and meandering form. Please keep it so.
A hat-trick from this listenter:
I listened to your conversation with John Gray three times and found something new and insightful each time. Just extraordinary.
I’m a 71-year-old straight white guy, born and raised in a highly segregated East Texas. I’m ideologically conservative in the classical liberal tradition — and, as you would probably guess, Episcopalian. I’m married to a marvelous woman, have three grown daughters and two grandsons. Educated at the University of Texas, I’ve lived and worked in Texas (Longview, Austin, Dallas, Houston and Galveston) and Tennessee, DC and briefly in New York. Mostly retired now and trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up, so reading and listening to the Dish helps!
One more listener:
I’m a 33-year-old American mother of two, living in a stone house in a field in Oxfordshire. Thank goodness I discovered the Dish after becoming deeply disillusioned with the woke left of my own generation. It has been such a joy and relief to get to know your ideas and personality on the Dishcast.
I loved your intellectually rigorous discussion with Aurelian Craiutu on moderation, and more recently the rather beautiful conversation with James Alison — during which I laughed out loud at your line about the “deadest end” for Christianity being Donald J. Trump (too true). I was also touched by your personal experience of the gentle and loving tone of God enfolding you in that rough period in your life. (I am a committed Anglo Catholic and did theology at Keble.)
So this is just to say thank you for your voice and your generous, capacious, earnest, and deeply sane intellect in this time of utter insanity. I rejoice in it each week.
Dissents Of The Week: Trump’s Deviant Standard
A reader responds to my latest column, “The Biden-DeSantis Re-Balancing Act”:
I share your desire for a return to the reasonable center. But we have to be careful not to let that desire become so strong that we see it even when it’s not there. And I’m afraid that’s exactly what you’re doing with DeSantis. Is he a fascist? Of course not. Is he as bad as Trump? No — but since when should that be the standard?
To allow Trump to successfully move the goalposts of acceptability is the quieter danger. If we look at DeSantis not through the lens of Trump but through the lens of what we all understood by pre-2016 standards to be the proper measure of a leader, there is nothing in DeSantis’ record or temperament that is either centrist or reasonable.
Read the rest of that dissent, along with my response to that one and others, here. There’s also much more dissent on DeSantis, Ukraine and torture over on the pod page — check it out. And as always, keep the criticism coming: email@example.com.
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting about 20 of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Trump’s trials, and TikTok on the chopping block. Below is one example, followed by a brand new substack:
Three cheers for South Park’s exposé on Big Toilet Paper.
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for this week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. One of the endearing entries from last week:
I’ve stayed at this hotel! In fact, I’m one of a small subset of people that regularly visits Indy from out-of-state for no business or familial purpose. It’s the site of GenCon, a yearly gaming convention started by the late, great Gary E. Gygax, a co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons. Every summer 45-55,000 nerds convene to play games, dress up as their favorite characters, and spend loads of money on dice.
Fun sidenote: Gencon stands for “Geneva Convention.” The con originally started in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin as a war-gaming convention. Oh the irony!
See you next Friday, nerds.