In recent years, all states and territories have recognised the phenomenon called "gender reassignment". This means that throughout Australia anyone who wants to switch from being male to female or from female to male can now do so legally and have the change recorded on his or her birth certificate. The person concerned does not even have to undergo any surgery. It is enough to simply adopt what the legislators call a "transgender identity" and then fill out the forms. A distinction that was once thought to be irreducibly grounded in biology is now a matter of choice.
In most cases, the governments concerned did not introduce any new laws but amended those covering birth registrations and/or anti-discrimination provisions. Western Australia went the furthest when in 2001 the government passed the Gender Reassignment Act and established a Gender Reassignment Board. New South Wales, which recognized "transgender" persons in amendments to its anti-discrimination legislation in 1996, changed its Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Regulations in 2001 to include the text of the Western Australian Act.
What this means is that the word gender, which until recent years was little more than a politically fashionable substitute for sex, has now been enshrined in legislation. Since the number of people directly affected is small, the change is primarily linguistic and symbolic, but no less significant for that.
It is a change that happened surprisingly quickly. Well into the 1980s, the preferred term was still sex. The Hawke government introduced the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984. That is why Pru Goward is still called the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. The Bannon Labor government of South Australia introduced its Sexual Reassignment Act in 1988.
Had a Sex Discrimination Act been initiated today there is no question that Ms Goward would have gender in her title. In the media and most other public discussion, sex has now been largely purged in favour of the newer usage.
For instance, recent newspaper stories report that the Government Insurance Office calculates car insurance risks on "make and age of vehicle, age and gender of owner/drivers"; the Sydney radio station Nova provides "an eclectic mix of music which caters for no particular age or gender"; the new Speedo racing swimsuits "are specific for different strokes as well as gender". Other stories have discussed the "gender pay gap", the "gender reading gap", "gender issues", "gender relations', "gender discrimination", "gender equality", "gender imbalance" and "gender impact statements".
Prime Minister John Howard has himself succumbed. On March 11, announcing a proposal to amend the Sex Discrimination Act, he said it would allow the Catholic Church to "offer gender specific scholarships to encourage men into teaching".
Despite this acceptance, traditional usage has not been completely eradicated and inconsistencies abound. Earlier this year, the phrase "same-sex marriage" was commonly used to describe the spate of ceremonies performed in San Francisco and Massachusetts, although one publication of the Anglican Church in Sydney preferred the term "same-gender marriages". A story in the Sunday Telegraph said a "transgender" golfer had had a "sex-change operation".
Even the Gender Centre in Sydney, an organisation funded by the NSW government to support transgender people and to educate the wider population, still feels the need to explain the term:
If you live, have lived, or want to live as a member of the opposite gender (sex) to your birth gender, the New South Wales anti-discrimination law counts you as transgender
under NSW law, only some people who are transgender are legally counted as being the opposite gender (sex) to their birth gender (that is, as their preferred gender).
Some might think gender has gained its current acceptance either because it is a more polite term or because it removed the ambiguity that emerged in the twentieth century when sex became publicly used to refer not only to the distinct status of males and females but also to sexual intercourse. However, there is much more to it than that.
Gender is a term that reeks of the sexual politics of the Seventies. It made its first appearance when gay activists began to demand that homosexuality be not merely tolerated but given equal standing with heterosexuality in all things. It was reinforced by feminists who wanted to eliminate the differences between men and women.
These activists had to face the fact that sexual differences are grounded in biology. They are determined at conception by the distribution of X and Y chromosomes and cannot be altered, no matter what identity a person assumes, how many hormones someone ingests, or whatever surgery is performed. Moreover, the biology of sexual difference has no place for homosexual activities. Indeed, it implies they are unnatural.
A reconceptualisation was obviously needed and the linguistic term gender came to the rescue, even though there is no gender assigned in the English language. In those languages that do use it, gender is applied arbitrarily and by custom. There is no inherent reason, apart from customary use, why the French language, for instance, applies the feminine gender to "the sea" or "the mountain", la mer, la montagne, or masculine gender to "the dog" or "the desk", le chien, le bureau. If gender is arbitrary and customary, it can be altered by changing the language.
The activists saw that if sex was redefined as gender, it too became arbitrary and changeable. Hence, masculinity, femininity and homosexuality were transformed from the realm of biological necessity to that of custom. Since the mantra of Seventies radicalism was "the personal is political", the way to ensure change was to engage in political struggle to have the new concept socially accepted.
The institution that did most to foster this reconceptualisation was the university. The agenda was set by the humanities departments when the fledgling "women's studies" courses of the 1970s were transformed into "gender studies" in the 1980s. The feminist jargon and moralistic speech codes adopted within most Australian universities at the time were largely the work of academics from these departments. When their graduates eventually entered the bureaucracies, they took their linguistic concepts with them.
Meanwhile, the public at large remained oblivious to this sleight of hand. Most people never understood the issues at stake and saw nothing to get upset about, let alone any evidence of a campaign to impose an ideological orthodoxy. Even most of those who made their living as writers in the media saw no need for any fuss and, unwilling to offend the protagonists, they allowed gender to take the field without a struggle.
This strategy has been remarkably successful. One doesn't have to subscribe to the false theory that language determines all our thoughts to agree that a change to the language can influence some of our thoughts. This has certainly happened in how we now think about sex. We no longer talk about two sexes but of at least six varieties of gender preference: male and female heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered.
This is not to mention several further categories: cross-dressers, drag queens, transvestites, hermaphrodites, plus pre, post and non-operative transsexuals. (I quote this inventory from a recent policy document of the Tasmanian Department of Education entitled Challenging Transphobia.) There is now an academic journal called Genders, to emphasise how many there are.
Hence the idea once confined to radical circles that heterosexuality and homosexuality were not biological imperatives but personal and political choices is now much more widely accepted. As a result, the ability of sexual activists to recruit followers in schools and universities at a time when adolescents are often confused or uncertain about their sexual identity has been made all that much easier. The left has chalked up another victory in the culture wars.
Much the same has occurred with the term partner. News stories about entertainers, sporting celebrities and political identities now rarely bother to portray their characters' sexual relationships precisely. Recent stories about footballer Jamie Lyon, athlete Darren Clark, Coffs Harbour mayor Jenny Bonfield and Tasmanian green activist Naomi Edwards all described them as having not wives, husbands, girlfriends or spouses but partners. The Sunday Telegraph recently advised pregnant women to avoid intercourse if "your partner has a sexually transmitted disease". A story in the Daily Telegraph said married women often put on weight because they "no longer needed to look attractive for a partner".
Even Liberal Party ministers use the same terminology, such as Assistant Treasurer Helen Coonan who distinguished in a recent news release between the single rate for pensions and "the maximum partnered benefit".
Like gender, the term partner has now been written into legislation. In 2000 the New South Wales Parliament passed the Superannuation (Same Sex Partners) Bill allowing homosexual couples to leave their superannuation to each other. In Australia, however, we still have some way to go to match the Dutch Parliament which, when it passed a bill in 2002 to allow homosexual marriages and adoptions, ordered that terms such as husband and wife and man and woman be replaced by partner in all legislation.
In traditional usage, partner described a business relationship. In the 1980s, when homosexual couples began to be openly discussed in print, for lack of a more polite term each came to be commonly described as the other's partner. It is this homosexual definition, not the business version, that is now widely applied to heterosexual couples.
Until quite recently, the common name for a live-in, unmarried lover was de facto. A de facto relationship is essentially a heterosexual one, something like a marriage but without the legal and ceremonial confirmation. This term still crops up occasionally in the media, such as the recent Daily Telegraph story about a man bashed by a gang in Campbelltown: "He and his de facto had been walking along Queen Street
" These days, however, this usage stands out because it has become so rare.
Indeed, it was revealing that when Australian animator, Adam Elliot, won an Academy Award this year for his film Harvie Krumpet, he publicly thanked his "boyfriend", Dan Doherty. Asked whether he was aware he was the first to use that term in an acceptance speech, Elliot replied: "The reason I didn't say partner is because it's ambiguous." In other words, partner is now such a ubiquitous term for both homosexuals and heterosexuals that Elliot felt he needed to use another word to assure his audience that he was actually gay.
What the rapid demise of de facto and its replacement by partner signifies is the reduction of heterosexual relationships to a common linguistic denominator with those of male homosexuals. It redefines the traditional life-long heterosexual bond of marriage, which evolved primarily for the need of children to be reared in a stable and loving household, as no more than one of a series of impermanent relationships built entirely on the sexual desires of the participants and which can be broken at whim.
Of course, in this case there is some reality behind the terminological change. As divorce rates and unmarried pairings both escalate, traditional marriage patterns do seem to increasingly resemble the kind of transitory relationships that were once identified more with male homosexuals. The shift in terminology has no doubt followed the shift in life patterns rather than been a cause of it.
The growing use of partner, however, has had its own effect. It has helped cement this change more firmly into place by defining serial relationships as the norm rather than the exception. The rise of the term partner is another example of the homosexualisation of our culture. Once again, this is a considerable victory for the sexual radicals.
In these language wars, conservatives have not been completely subdued. Indeed, they scored a notable triumph in the 1990s when politically correct became part of common usage. Politically correct had the great virtue of being a satirical term. It was used by conservatives to send up leftist attempts to impose speech codes that forbade negative descriptors based on race, sex, class, ethnicity, sexual proclivity and disability. The disabled were no longer to be called blind, deaf, dumb or crippled. They were simply different, indeed "challenged" by their difference.
The worst offenders were bureaucracies and public education. In the early 1990s, the suffix -man was ruled sexist by the Australian Government's style manual for official publications, which forbade terms such as sportsmanship, workman and statesmanlike. Guidelines for American university presses declared a wide range of prohibitions including massacre, which was "highly offensive" when used to refer to a successful American Indian raid or battle victory against white colonizers and invaders. White Americans, however, could still be said to massacre the Indians. No one could be called deranged, insane or deviant, let alone mad or crazy. Even virgin forest was out, along with any other comment about sexual experience or sexual violation. In many government offices, schools and universities "Merry Christmas" became "Happy Holiday" or "Season's Greetings", lest it offend the non-Christian. These therapeutic euphemisms were so transparently self-righteous and paternalistic they became a standing joke.
Political correctness is often portrayed as a conservative plot against the left. This was the claim of a 1995 counter-attack by John K. Wilson, author of The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. It was echoed by the outspoken Scottish feminist lawyer Helena Kennedy: "Political correctness is an invention of the right". This is a misunderstanding that grew from the fact that the acronym PC first gained notice in an anti-left student cartoon strip produced at Brown University, Rhode Island.
Political correctness works so well because it satirises terminology long used by the left itself. A recent analysis, Political Correctness and the Theoretical Struggle by Frank Ellis of the University of Leeds, shows that rather than being a stuffy but essentially harmless effort to avoid offending people, the concept has long been deeply embedded within radical culture.
It originated in the early writings of Vladimir Lenin and evolved as a concept in his work up to 1917. The phrase politicheskaya pravil'nost' derived from Lenin's insistence on a rigidly enforced party line on all questions. Lenin argued that only a specifically revolutionary theory would prevent the revolutionary movement from abandoning "the correct path". Before the Russian revolution, to be politically incorrect meant being denounced by Lenin as a "revisionist", "factionalist", "wrecker" and "enemy of the people". After the revolution, to be politically incorrect meant a death warrant. Joseph Stalin used the phrase in the 1920s to destroy his rivals Trotsky and Bukharin.
Mao Tsetung's China was similarly obsessed with the concept. The cultural revolution of the 1960s declared that China
needs a unifying thought, revolutionary thought, correct thought. That is Mao Tsetung Thought. Only with this thought can we maintain vigorous revolutionary drive and keep firmly to the correct political orientation.
In other words, political correctness means there is only one line on any issue, and we who control the party will tell you what it is. The concept is profoundly authoritarian, it tolerates no opposition and denies its adherents the right to think for themselves.
The New Left that emerged in Western universities in the 1960s initially declared itself opposed to this kind of totalitarianism. However, by the 1980s, when it had expanded its constituency to encompass gender, race and class and gained widespread control of academic departments of humanities and government institutions for affirmative action and multiculturalism, it had reverted to type.
It was the left's attempt to impose its brand of authoritarianism through various speech codes, racial vilification and anti-discrimination laws that provoked conservatives into a reaction. All they needed to do was reproduce the left's own terminology verbatim for most people outside these circles to recognize it for what it was.
So it is not surprising to find Don Watson provides only a brief mention of political correctness in his new book Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. The former Keating government speech writer says he has written this work as an assault on obfuscation and euphemism and to critique the way people in authority use language to intimidate and manipulate.
As a loyal leftist, Watson avoids a proper discussion of political correctness, except to try and turn it against conservatives. He lumps both political correctness and "its equally irritating twin anti-political correctness" together as a form of language that "inclines to the arcane or inscrutable." However, Watson doesn't give any examples of either arcane or inscrutable anti-politically correct language, so it is hard to know what he means. Later he claims that the label politically correct is a form of abuse designed to channel "frustrations felt by the politically powerless". But he gives no clues about who or where these frustrations are channeled nor who he defines as politically powerless.
Watson is also concerned about several other terms wielded by conservatives in the language wars, especially elite, chattering classes, café latte and black-armband historians. Yet his book is an argument against verbal sludge and in favour of striking and imaginative language. If any Australian-originated phrase qualifies as striking, it is surely black-armband history, coined by Geoffrey Blainey, one of this country's most imaginative writers, and a more impressive practitioner of the art than poor Don Watson will ever be. Blainey's phrase summed up the entire left-wing school that had dominated Australian historiography since the 1970s and at the same time told us what was wrong with it. Were Watson less politically jaundiced and more genuinely interested in feats of verbal dexterity, he might have grudgingly dipped his lid to Blainey for this one.
Watson's book is apparently selling very well, largely, one suspects, to the many readers of his earlier eulogy for Keating's Prime Ministership, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. No doubt his readers are coming to the new work hoping for some original, devastating insight into the culture of the Howard era. They will, however, be disappointed.
Death Sentence is a quickie. It has 198 pages, set in large type and every second page has a narrower column to fit in drop quotes that illustrate Watson's thesis. It is a long essay padded out to look like a book. It has no table of contents, no chapter titles or headings and no index. It has a glossary of objectionable words and phrases but there are only twenty items in it, as if the author couldn't be bothered gathering any more examples. The book has a rambling, incoherent structure and is very repetitive, so that often the eyes glaze and the mind wanders.
Watson's principal aim is to advise his readers to respect the English language, to avoid clichés, cant and jargon, and to recognize and denounce what he calls "managerial writing". He says there is something rotten about this kind of writing and gives a number of examples of what he means. Here is his worst case, from a fax by the Department of Finance and described by Watson as "a true, possible world class, death sentence":
Given the within year and budget time flexibility accorded to the science agencies in the determination of resource allocation from within their global budget, a multi-parameter approach to maintaining the agencies budgets in real terms is not appropriate.
He also quotes an example from the English syllabus of the New South Wales Department of Education to show what high school teachers and students now endure:
This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops a student's understanding of questions of textual integrity.
Watson is quite right to use these as examples of bad writing but, if he'd put in a little more work, he could have found many worse than these. Had he done what he conspicuously avoided doing, and examined the output of his friends among today's academic left, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media studies, gender studies and literary theory, he would have found not just passages but whole books full of the very thing he despises.
The founder of the Arts and Letters Daily website, Dennis Dutton, regularly lampooned this material throughout the 1990s with his annual Bad Writing Contest, of which Watson is unaware. In 1994, one of the nominees was Julian Pefanis of the University of Sydney's Department of Fine Arts. Pefanis only won second prize but his effort is worth reproducing:
The libidinal Marx is a polymorphous creature, a hermaphrodite with the "huge head of a warlike and quarrelsome man of thought" set atop the soft feminine contours of a "young Rhenish lover". So it is a strange bi-sexed arrangement giving rise to a sort of ambivalence: the Old Man and the Young Woman, a monster in which femininity and virility exchange indiscernibly, "thus putting a stop to the reassuring difference of the sexes." Now the Young Woman Marx, who is called Alice (of Wonderland fame), is obfuscated by the perverse body of Capital
Watson also missed the Postmodern Essay Generator, a satirical website www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern/ that automatically invents pretentious guff of this kind, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes.
Nor did he cite the work of Stuart Hall, the English Marxist who played a big role in founding the field of cultural studies. Here is Hall trying to explain what effective communication involves:
The overall intention of effective communication must, certainly, be to 'win the consent' of the audience to the preferred reading, and hence to get him to decode within the hegemonic framework. Even when decodings are not made, through a 'perfect transmission', within the hegemonic framework, the great range of decodings will tend to be 'negotiations' within the dominant codes -- giving them a more situational inflexion -- rather than systematically decoding them in a counter-hegemonic way.
This combination of meaningless abstractions, leftist neologisms and muddled grammar is something that Watson must have come across himself, given that it is a passage singled out in the communications skills textbook I co-authored in 1988, Writing, Researching, Communicating, from which Watson himself lifts other lines, though without proper attribution. Watson's distaste for our book is small-minded since we advocated the same straightforward prose and decried the same obfuscation that he now does.
Had Watson been genuinely concerned about the condition of the English language he might have made the current academic spectacle one of his targets. What little discussion he offers about higher education avoids the question of leftist dominance of the humanities. Instead, he complains about the cult of managerialism within universities and the jargon it has produced: achieved learning outcomes, quality assurance mechanisms, international benchmarking.
I agree with him that this kind of stuff is a menace in these institutions and is one reason why academic life today has become intolerable. But this is a small problem compared to the corruption and politicisation of these institutions wrought by his comrades on the left.
The critique Watson offers has all been said before, many times. Over the past fifty years there have been any number of books telling people not to write bureaucratic jargon and showing them how to write plain and effective English prose.
One of the earliest and best was Ernest Gowers' The Complete Plain Words¸ published in England in 1954. Gowers wrote at a time when both public and private sector bureaucracies grew to sizes never before experienced, especially in those British state enterprises nationalised by the Labour Party after the Second World War. These bureaucracies took on a life and language of their own.
The management-speak of which Watson complains derives more from that era than our own. Gowers' book was aimed at ridding these institutions of their pretentious and often unintelligible prose style. He gave them sound advice: write as you speak, keep it simple, use active rather than passive voice, prefer concrete to abstract terms, and the like. However, large bureaucracies -- both public and private -- seem to inherently foster a culture that favours circumlocution, jargon and euphemism, which means that each generation has to address the problem anew.
Instead of recognising the bureaucratic origins of both the problem and his own critique, Watson tries to give the issue a more contemporary Australian context, blaming economic rationalism, John Howard, the alleged rise of xenophobia, the children overboard affair and several other leftist causes célèbres that came to mind as he dashed off his chapters.
Surprisingly for an author who initially argues that good writing is essential for a democratic culture, towards the end of his book Watson offers some very undemocratic thoughts. Language, he suggests, is actually being corrupted by democracy, especially when it produces inarticulate "mediocrities" like the current American president. "When George W. Bush speaks, we're getting the real thing. It is the mass we are hearing - or more precisely, language that has been programmed for their level of intelligence and interest."
Death Sentence endorses the stance of Nietzsche who, Watson says, characterized democracy as "a political system calculated to make the intelligent minority subject to the will of the stupid". Watson claims we are now witnessing this in the globalization of culture. Dominated by the mass democracy of the United States, globalisation is a process of infantilisation. "When the Texan unfurls his vision in chaotic prose, it is just as Nietzsche (and Flaubert and all the others) said it would be."
This is a revealing comment. It demonstrates the condescending elitism of the political class Watson represents. It confirms the accusation of intellectual arrogance made by a number of conservative authors, especially David Flint in Twilight of the Elites, and provides a good insight into the presumptions of Keating and his camp followers. It also confirms the account offered here about the language wars. They represent a cultural intrusion that feigns support for those ordinary people the left wants as potential constituents, but which is actually deeply contemptuous of them.
On that note, let me conclude with some comments about another of the left elite's currently favoured terms: social justice. This term became publicly conspicuous after the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission appointed an Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Social Justice Commissioner in December 1992. Under the Keating government, the first holder of that office, Mick Dodson, gave the term a high media profile.
Today, Australia abounds with social justice institutions and policies. As well as HREOC, the Catholic Church has a Social Justice Council, the Jesuits have a Social Justice Centre, the National Council of Churches has a Social Justice Network. A policy on social justice now seems to be mandatory for any organisation that wants to regard itself as progressive. Institutions as disparate as the Greens, the National Archives of Australia and the Australian Sports Commission all have one.
Universities, predictably, are prominent advocates. The Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales has a Social Justice Project which undertakes research, teaching and policy development. The University of Adelaide has a Social Justice Research Foundation which, it assures supporters, promotes "progressive research". There are at least half a dozen academic journals with social justice in their title. Most focus on social welfare, crime and legal issues, but one from the University of San Francisco entitled Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, obviously has a more ambitious scope.
Social justice appears to have originated as a term with similar connotations to social welfare. In a 1996 article in the academic journal, Social Justice, Peter Beilharz identified it with the broad objectives of the Australian Labor Party. However, it has since expanded into a catch-all concept used by almost anyone with an agenda for social or political change.
For instance, the University of Adelaide defines it as:
a commitment to sustainable economic development, a fairer distribution of income, wealth and power, and a recognition of the critical role that communities, through government, have in forging a more equitable society.
Others apply it more to society's have-nots. The Australian Jesuits say their social justice program is targeted primarily at the poor and marginalized. It includes work in the areas of Aboriginal rights and culture, the distribution of wealth in Australia, migration policy, refugees and asylum seekers.
Yet others see it as focused more on specific political issues. Soon after Saddam Hussein was captured, the Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Bishop Christopher Saunders, urged Australian politicians not to condone the death penalty for him. The annual conference of the Australian Education Union last January endorsed a policy of social justice in education to be pursued through industrial strategies. The Greens maintain: "Social justice requires ecological and economic sustainability, real democracy, peace and nonviolence and a respect for the earth." The Greens' manifesto also rejects consumerism, greed and population growth.
Some even see the concept as explaining the grievances that motivate terrorists. According to Rick Farley in his Inaugural Human Rights/Social Justice lecture at the University of Newcastle in October 2001, it was a lack of social justice that created the conditions that prompted the current spate of terrorism.
Social justice is thus a very open-ended concept, which is part of the reason for its current appeal.
It is important to recognise how powerful a political weapon this little two-word phrase has become. It is a term that few would dare criticize publicly. This is because of the clever conjunction of its terms. If you are in favour of justice -- and who is not? -- you will find it almost impossible not to be in favour social justice, at least in principle. And because the concept can be tied to almost any policy at all, social justice is almost as valuable a term for the left as political correctness has been for the right. Everyone approves it, no one dares condemn it.
Several organisations link social justice with human rights, as though the two were much the same thing. However, they are quite different. Human rights are universal, like the concept of justice itself. Both apply equally to all people. Social justice, however, is a relative term. It is only applicable to certain kinds of people. In some cases, like eligibility for social welfare payments, the targets can be identified fairly objectively by income testing and the process is unobjectionable. But in most cases, the demand for social justice amounts to little more than political preference. It hijacks the universalism of justice to serve partisan ideological ends. It is yet another instrument of Seventies radicalism, the politics of gender, race and class.
For instance, the notion that women as a category or ethnics as a group deserve social justice in the form of affirmative action derives from these interest group politics. The latest constituency is illegal immigrants, who are now targets of social justice programs from a wide range of organisations. The idea that these groups deserve special rights that are not available to others, especially the right to jump queue, undermines the principle of egalitarianism that the same organisations purport to uphold. In some cases, social justice policies are in direct conflict with universal human rights, such as the advocacy of customary law for Aboriginal people which, if implemented strictly, would deny Aboriginal women the right to enter marriage freely.
The universalism of human rights was a product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and since then has been subject to almost constant debate and testing in the field of social reality. Its principles have been written down and refined in declarations and laws, most specifically in the 1948 United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence it is possible to check what they actually say. This is in contrast to the relativism of social justice, which can mean just about anything its various advocates want it to mean and apply to any social group they choose. There is no widely agreed way of ever telling when social justice has been satisfied. It thus offers an unlimited vista of political appeal. Anything - including terrorism - can be done in its name.
In an age of terrorism, debates over language might seem rather trivial but they deserve to be taken seriously. In 1946, just before the onset of the Cold War, a much more dangerous time for the world than our own, George Orwell wrote an important essay called "Politics and the English Language". He began by noting that many people at the time believed Western civilization was decadent and that the language must inevitably share in the general collapse. He wrote:
Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Orwell's essay was an attempt to turn this around. He said the English language was becoming ugly and inaccurate because the thinking of the times was muddled and foolish. Moreover, the process was cumulative since the increasing slovenliness of the language itself made it more likely that people would have foolish thoughts. Orwell argued that if the bad habits of modern English could be eradicated, people would begin to think more clearly and thus take the first steps to political regeneration. "The fight against bad English," he wrote, "is not frivolous and not the exclusive concern of professional writers."
There can be little doubt that we, too, live in a time of cultural and moral decadence, especially with an arrogant and authoritarian left dominating so much of our education, arts and public life. Those who are concerned about this and want to do something about it should recognize that the language itself is one of the critical fronts where this struggle will be lost or won.