On zombie words and phrases.
The news came last night from The New York Times. “The Obama administration is planning to issue a sweeping directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.” That’s also the way I heard it first thing this morning from CBS radio news (“heard by 30 million listeners a week”). By now, of course, it’s no surprise that the law is being supplanted by executive “directives” from an increasingly lawless administration. But the terms in which this process is reported reveal how much it has been helped along by a decline in the standards of our common English tongue. The word “identity,” as we are now to understand, has joined a host of other once-useful words—“truth,” “lies,” “justice,” “honor,” and “reality” among them—in becoming completely subjective and therefore meaning whatever the speaker or writer wants them to mean.
Which, as a moment’s thought will tell us, is tantamount to meaning nothing at all. These are zombie words: dead as semantic entities but still walking around as if they referred to something real. Except that, since “real” is another zombie word, hardly anyone notices anymore. Someone at The Washington Post must still be vaguely troubled about this, as their lead to the story (by Juliet Eilperin and Emma Brown) on which the Times had scooped them read: “The Obama administration on Friday will direct schools across the nation to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities—including bathrooms and locker rooms—that match their chosen gender identity” [Emphasis added]. That doesn’t really help, however. It only makes explicit the means, merely assumed by The New York Times and CBS, by which the life-blood of meaning has been drained from the word.
First, that is, you choose your “gender”; then you lose your identity. And so does everyone else. We might have seen this coming years ago when people started “identifying” with fictional characters and then—full of compassion, naturally—with each other. We pedants might have pointed out that what they meant was that they identified themselves with those who inspired in them fellow-feeling of one sort or another, but hardly anyone saw the need to retain this second, crucial element in the process of identification—even of self-identification, which was thus deprived of an essential limitation on that “large discourse,/ Looking before and after” that Hamlet pairs with “godlike reason.”
Since his time, of course, “God” and “reason” have also joined the ranks of the subjectively defined (and therefore undefined) zombie words and all identification has become self-identification, a mere fantasy of otherness, that everyone now can feel he or she has a right to—like, as it turns out, the right to be he or she. Nor, as the latest news informs us, is it only the right to one’s “chosen gender” that one is entitled to but the right to have everyone else forced to play along with the fantasy, as always in the name of compassion. I’ve no doubt that, when all words have become zombie words and the language, drained of meaning altogether, has become a barren nothingness, “compassion” will still stand triumphantly astride the smoking ruin and, rightly, claim the credit for it.
Spot the logical flaw in this headline from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, to an article by Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham. “The middle class is shrinking just about everywhere in America.” That’s right. “Middle class” also appears to have been zombified. Properly used, it has to be a relative term—meaningless apart from some comparison with upper and lower classes, on whose position the middle must depend. If the middle class is shrinking, then the entire population must be shrinking unless we’re talking about a mere statistical artifact, created by arbitrarily drawing the lines between middle and upper or middle and lower in different places. But however big or small you decide to make it, there has to be a middle of more or less the same size unless you simply choose to call it something else. What the authors presumably mean is that, even though the middle class is not shrinking, independently of our statistical legerdemain, it is getting poorer in absolute terms. But, given the mess they’ve made out of saying so, I don’t think I’m quite prepared to believe them.
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