My twelve-year-old recently finished George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. When I asked her whether she had taken any lessons from the book, she airily replied, “The individual is powerless, so there’s really no point in trying.”
Alarmed, I tried to explain that the world was an altogether cheerier place than Orwell, writing in 1948, could have imagined. Unrepentant socialist as he was, he never overcame his belief that the free market was doomed. He would have been stunned by the way that seventy years of exchange and specialization have served not only to make us wealthier, but to make us more autonomous.
Instead of being watched by the state through telescreens, we carry our own screens—ones that put more information at our fingertips than an entire government department could have compiled in Orwell’s day. Big Brother has been defeated by capitalist technology.
But if, like most of his contemporaries, he was too gloomy, Orwell got one thing uncannily right. In an appendix to his dystopian novel, he discussed how an idea could be made literally unthinkable if there were no words to express it. The illustration he gave was the word “free.” In Newspeak, “free” could be used only in the sense of “this field is free from weeds” or “this dog is free from lice.” The concept of political or intellectual freedom had disappeared, because no one could put it into words.
What an eerily prescient example to have chosen. In recent years this is more or less what has happened to the word “free.” In 1948, “freedom” still had its traditional meaning of a guarantee against coercion: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship. Since then, however, “freedom” has come to mean “entitlement,” as in “freedom to work,” “freedom from hunger,” “freedom from discrimination,” and so on. Thus, the notion that the state ought not to boss us around becomes harder to convey, and the politician who supports that notion is disadvantaged.
Any discussion of the relationship between government and citizen is perforce conducted in loaded terms. You can still make the case for greater liberty, but not without sounding rather mean. A glossary will give some indication of how loaded the linguistics are against conservatives.
RIGHT-WING: Baddie. Vladimir Putin, a lifelong KGB man who regrets the break-up of the USSR, is invading neighboring countries. This is a bad thing, so he must be “right-wing.” The mullahs in Iran abolished the monarchy, nationalized industry, and drove most of the middle classes into exile. But they’re also nasty, so they, too, must be “right-wing.” A crazed gunman goes into a school and . . . oh, you get the picture.
DIVERSITY: People who look different but think the same way. Diversity applies to race, sex, disability, and sexual orientation. It emphatically does not apply to opinion. Indeed, when it comes to political views, it has taken on more or less the opposite of its Oldspeak meaning.
GREED: Wanting to keep your own money.
NEED: Wanting to be given someone else’s.
COMPASSION: A politician arranging the transfer.
FAIRNESS: State-enforced equality. It absolutely doesn’t mean reciprocity, proportionate reward, or just deserts.
INVESTMENT: Government spending. Any lingering trace of the original meaning—that is, of assets producing some kind of return—was obliterated by the spending splurge that preceded the 2008 crash. The beauty of the word, from the Left’s point of view, is its flexibility. Almost any financial settlement can be described as “underinvestment,” in the sense of being a smaller settlement than someone, somewhere would ideally have liked.
DISCRIMINATION: Being unpleasant to women or black people. Literally, of course, discrimination simply means discernment. It is something we practice every time we decide between alternatives. But its political undertones have spilled over into every usage of the word, so that discrimination, in any context, becomes discreditable. A firm that discriminates in favor of properly qualified applicants, or a university that insists on good exam results, cannot wholly escape the sense that it is doing something shameful.
COMMUNITY: The state—or, more precisely, the state’s bureaucracy. The one thing it emphatically doesn’t mean is a voluntary association of individuals. When people talk of “involving the community,” they invariably want more legislation.
FAMILY VALUES: Hilarious escapade involving a conservative politician. In fact, even the phrase “conservative politician” is taking on comical connotations. Mention it in front of a hip talk-show crowd and you’re guaranteed an appreciative titter.
XENOPHOBIA: Opposition to the European Union. By a curious inversion, you demonstrate your broadmindedness by continuing to support the Brussels racket, however illiberal or undemocratic it becomes, but condemn yourself as a bigot if you value the independence of other countries. Xenophobia (or “Europhobia”) has nothing to do with whether you feel comfortable with other cultures. Neil Kinnock, a former European Commissioner, has helpfully explained that skeptics don’t stop being xenophobes “just because they happen to speak fluent Catalan or whatever.” The only way to escape the charge is to proclaim your support for the Brussels institutions.
PROFIT: Wickedness. Always a bad thing, but the severity of the term varies according to context. When talking about a supermarket, it simply means greed (q.v.) and exploitation. When discussing trains or hospitals, it means homicidal tendencies, and is thus used as an antonym to safety—which, of course, means more regulation.
POVERTY: Inequality. Poverty is officially defined in the U.K. as having an income less than 60 percent of the mean. A few people get rich and, even if you’re better off in absolute terms, you’re suddenly “poor.” Funnily enough, the recent recession, which saw incomes drop at every level, caused a fall in “poverty” by this definition, but Lefties were more upset than ever. There really is no pleasing some people.
DOGMATIC: Believing in free markets, as in “the Republicans have a dogmatic attachment to the private sector.” Here is another example of a word taking on the converse of its previous meaning. Being dogmatic used to mean believing in something against the evidence. Yet free enterprise is counterintuitive: You would think that a planned economy would be much more efficient than one where people were left to do their own thing higgledy-piggledy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the market works in practice. The truth, as Matt Ridley has put it, is that privatization is not a dogma but a pragma.
PREJUDICE: Hating other people. In its literal sense, prejudice simply means pre-judging a new situation on the basis of past experience. If you see an expensively dressed man, your prejudice tells you that he is likely to be well off. If a politician rings your doorbell, your prejudice tells you that he is probably after your vote. As Edmund Burke argued in his Reflections, life would become intolerable if we had to think everything through from first principles. But the anathematization of the word also touches its original meaning. If your common sense tells you that longer sentences would cut crime, or that there is a limit to how much immigration a country can absorb, it’s because you are prejudiced.
PUBLIC: Owned by the state. The original sense of “open to the public” has been almost entirely lost. The gradual elision of the older meaning into the newer has huge political implications. The idea that “public transport” should be operated by private contractors naturally strikes people as anomalous. Ditto
“public health” and “public education.” Britain’s public schools were originally so called to distinguish them from private tutors. Yet that sense has become so archaic that they are now often referred to in print as “public (i.e. private) schools.”
TAX CUTS: Squalid public services. For some reason, talk of tax cuts makes us think not of our tax returns but of our local amenities. It’s not so much that we believe that there is a direct link between spending and performance; it’s just that the phrase “tax cuts” automatically conjures up a series of images in our minds: leaky school roofs, bodies lying on trolleys in corridors, and pin-striped Tory spivs selling off school playing fields to their friends in the City (q.v. “profit”).
FREE SPEECH: Support for racists. We have been told so often that “free speech can never be used as an excuse for racism” that the two things have become conflated in our minds. Arguing for the first automatically opens you to the accusation of supporting the second. If you think that I exaggerate, cast your mind back to the case of the pensioner in Liverpool who was charged with “racially aggravated criminal damage” after scrawling “Free speech for England” on a condemned wall.
CONSERVATIVE: Neanderthal. Like “right-wing” (q.v.), but with the added bonus that it can be applied to both sides in the same conflict. Islamist “conservatives” want to impose headscarves while Western “conservatives” want to ban them. Hardline Israeli settlers and hardline Hamas terrorists are both “conservatives.” And so on.
In such a climate, it is difficult for a “right-wing” party which favors “tax cuts” and “profit” and the rest to make its case. People’s ears are not primed to appreciate the cadences of the conservative message. The very words we use condemn us as heartless blimps before we’ve started setting out our arguments.
Leftists grasped all this long ago. Gramsci, Derrida, and others deliberately set out to affect a semantic shift that would thwart their opponents. It happened to their languages, and now it is happening to ours. Until we can reclaim our vocabulary, we will always be playing with a handicap.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 21
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