July 21, 2021
By Timothy Sandefur
“Mothers” are “birthing persons”? “Equity” is replacing “equality?” In the latest installment of Stossel TV, I sat down with the legendary John Stossel and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter to discuss the ways in which social justice activists seek to manipulate language to accomplish political goals. It’s a tactic being employed by today’s Critical Race Theory movement, whose adherents are seeking to redefine the vital concept of justice in America by rewriting history, eroding free speech, and attacking the institutions of civil society, as the Goldwater Institute has written about here.
As Stossel notes, the effort to cleanse language of any implication of ideas that are now construed as damaging is hauntingly familiar to students of political philosophy. In his dystopian novel 1984, author George Orwell imagined a future in which language was systematically destroyed in order to ensure that the people are unable to express, or even to think, untoward thoughts. Although today’s social justice activists haven’t gone that far, they share a basic principle with Orwell’s chilling tale: the idea that the only truth in the world is power, and that language, as the medium of power, is the means of controlling and changing society. It’s an idea I explored in more detail in a chapter I wrote for the book 1984 and Philosophy as well as my remarks at Pacific Union College last year:
The reason I invoke Orwell is that few other writers have written so profoundly of the threat posed by the principle of power. Power, that is, as opposed to reason. What…Winston [Smith] is forced to unlearn in Room 101—is that there is a qualitative difference between what I call the world of nature, which is comprehended by reason, and the world of power, which is governed by will. The world of nature—the world of objective reality and our rational comprehension of it, is not dictated by the human mind, but understood by it. It is metaphysically independent of our consciousness. It cannot be changed by wishes or commands. That sometimes frustrates us, because we would like to control reality by some kind of magic spell. But the objectivity of the world is actually a great blessing, for it gives us a fundamental and permanent grip upon our lives—a ground to stand on when things seem insane. We can always stand upon the truth. By contrast, in the world of power, everything is said to be a “social construct,” meaning that it can be altered by our conscious thoughts, or by the will of those who rule. This sometimes seems liberating, because it tells us that there are no limits to our moral capacity and that we can make the world better if we only believe it strongly enough. In this view, institutions are created by the powerful, at the expense of the weak, and we can revolutionize the world and make it better if only we believe hard enough…or if only we are forced to believe hard enough. After all, in this world of power, in which everything is a function of the will, the world’s evils must ultimately be our own fault. If reality is a social construct, then evil must be the result of somebody’s evil will; and ultimately you are to blame, because you have not believed hard enough in what we today call “alternative facts…” That is why the idea that reality is a social construct is always accompanied by persecution and hysteria.
The idea that speech can be silenced or that language and thoughts can be cleansed is not theoretical. Violent protests have shut down controversial speakers on campuses across the country, while Critical Race Theory is being used in K-12 curriculum to change how children view themselves and their country. The Goldwater Institute is working to restore free speech on college campuses with a model bill designed to ensure free expression within America’s public university systems. And we’re combating Critical Race Theory in the classroom by empowering parents with the knowledge of whether it is being taught to their children. You can read more about that effort here.
Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.