Politics & Policy

Enemies of Language

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What would happen if conservatives started to change the words we use for political ends?

Throughout history, revolutionaries of all stripes have warped the meaning of words to subvert reality.

And now here we go again, with another effort — spearheaded by the media and universities — to use any linguistic means necessary to achieve political ends.

“Sanctuary city” is a euphemism for the local and state nullification of federal law — a subversive tactic that dates back to the nullification crises during the Andrew Jackson administration and, later, in the years leading up to the Civil War. 

This makes a mockery of the simple constitutional principle that cities and states cannot subversively pick and choose which federal laws to obey.  

The term “sanctuary” would never apply to conservative jurisdictions that in similar fashion sought to offer “sanctuary” to those dissidents who disobeyed federal gun registration, income tax, or environmental laws.

College administrators boast of offering counseling and therapeutic help to students and faculty members distraught over the recent election. They use terms like “divisive” and “polarizing” in describing the election, when in truth they wish to hide from their donors, alumni, and half the country their own abject and one-sided contempt for incoming president-elect Donald Trump.

Note that in the highly emotional elections of 2008 and 2012, universities did not offer commensurate counseling services — because their own preferred candidate won and was thus his victory was not “polarizing.” Once upon a time, campuses did not worry about whether independent faculty and conservative students were sullen and depressed in adolescent style over the implications of President-elect Barack Obama’s radical promises to “fundamentally change America.”

Campus “safe space” is another vocabulary distortion. Such places are often set-aside spots that actually discriminate on the basis of race or gender.

Likewise, college “theme houses” often admit residents on the basis of segregation by ethnicity or race — in a way that would have been considered deplorable during the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the word “segregation” has now virtually disappeared from our vocabulary because it could more likely apply to left-wing rather than right-wing protocols.

“Microaggression” is certainly not aggression as usually defined. Instead, the term seeks to stifle free expression on the principle that one can still be dubbed a racist or sexist by saying something that normally would not offend anyone — at least not without arcane academic inventions of bias.

Both right-wing Nazi Germany and the left-wing Soviet Union banned old words and created new words that furthered political agendas and warped reality.

Both right-wing Nazi Germany and the left-wing Soviet Union banned old words and created new words that furthered political agendas and warped reality.

“Trigger warning” should mean that readers or viewers are advised that literature or media could be obscene or threatening. In fact, this one-sided term only applies to material — from Roman elegiac poetry to the works of Mark Twain — deemed potentially hurtful or unfair by 21st century progressive standards of race, class, and gender. No one on campus is given a trigger warning before reading the left-wing manifestos of Eldridge Cleaver or Malcolm X, despite their calls for violence.

There are also lots of Orwellian nouns and adjectives to describe those from other countries who broke federal immigration laws to enter and reside in the United States.

“Illegal alien” used to be a neutral and descriptive legal term — one still preferred by the Supreme Court — but is now seen as counterproductive to the agendas of the open-borders movement. Thus the more inexact “undocumented alien” followed, although few who entered illegally ever had immigration “documents” of any sort. Next came the term “undocumented immigrant” — on the theory that the ancient word “alien” (from the Latin word alienus, meaning “belonging to another”) is offensive and also unhelpful to the open-borders project.

Finally, the ambiguous word “migrant” is being used to suggest that there is really no difference between entering and exiting a country under any circumstances.

The danger of destroying rules of language is that revolutionaries of any stripe can join this crooked game.

What if a right-wing movement wished to redefine “sanctuary cites” as “subversive cities”?

Would it be any more biased to call the sites of university post-election counseling services “progressive lamentation centers”?

Would a visitor from Mars be less confused about “safe spaces” if they were rebranded by right-wingers as “segregated set-asides”? Would “microaggressions” be better understood if they were renamed “nanno thought crimes”?

#related#Perhaps “trigger warnings” could be rephrased by counter-revolutionaries as “censorship protocols”?

Of course, no one would like such linguistic payback.

There would be howls of protest if the new Trump administration rebranded extraconstitutional executive orders as “pen and phone liberation acts,” or named its substitute for Obamacare “The Real Affordable Care Act.”

To prevent this endless cycle of corrupting words, members of the media and academia should act as our linguistic guardians. Instead, for short-term political gain, they have abandoned their professional responsibilities to become our worst subverters of language.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2016 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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