This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The invention of new speech codes and the censoring of “outdated” words is no longer confined to the university. Departments of state, public sector organisations, corporations and cultural institutions are all complicit in the re-engineering of the English language.
Whereas once upon a time campus radicals were in the forefront of challenging traditional language usage, today sections of the cultural and political establishment are playing a pivotal role in the promotion of semantic engineering. The media has become so habituated to the practice of semantic engineering that Buckingham Palace’s official recognition of the vocabulary of transgender identity politics (preferred pronouns) in its New Year Honours list scarcely registered.#
Freedom of expression is trumped by the necessity of avoiding an impression of prejudice
Semantic engineering aims to change public language to transform prevailing cultural attitudes and norms. It offers its practitioners control over language and serves as a source of cultural power. This point was recognised decades ago by the culture warriors, who gained institutional authority though imposing politically correct speech codes on campuses. Today, this approach is widely practiced by state institutions.
The recently published revised edition of the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book provides a striking illustration of how leading members of the British Judiciary have become zealous advocates for the adoption of a new gender-neutral language. The book exhorts the judiciary to use “gender-neutral language where possible; ‘businessperson’ not ‘businessman’, ‘postal operative’ not ‘postman’, ‘flight attendant’ not ‘air hostess’, ‘chair’ not ‘chairman’”.
The Equal Treatment Bench Book has thoroughly internalised trans-genderist ideology and the language recently invented by activists associated with this movement. It instructs judges to use the preferred personal pronouns of transgender people. It warns: “Be alert to issues about how someone prefers to be addressed: showing respect for a person’s gender identity includes using appropriate titles (Mr/Ms) and personal pronouns (he/him/his; she/her/hers). Some trans people prefer gender neutral terminology (Mx/they/them/theirs), which should be accommodated if that is known.”
The Equal Treatment Bench Book advocates the cultural attitude towards communication associated with the victim narrative of critical race theory, and gender and identity politics. Its central message is to watch your words and how you express yourself. The authors claim that “a thoughtless comment, throwaway remark, unwise joke or even a facial expression may confirm or create an impression of prejudice”.
When even one’s facial expression requires the policing of the self, it becomes evident that an obsessive vetting of communication and language has acquired a disturbing presence in public life. In effect, freedom of expression is trumped by the necessity of avoiding an impression of prejudice.
Compared to other institutions, the semantic engineering ambitions of The Equal Treatment Bench Book comes across as relatively restrained. Take the American Medical Association. Its pamphlet, “Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language and Concepts”, bears all the hallmarks of an officious censor’s dictionary. The AMA self-consciously contrasts what it characterises as “traditional/outdated terms” with “equity-focused alternatives”.
Language does not simply mirror people’s reality but also, to some extent, constructs it
Thus the equity-focused alternative to “fairness” is “social justice”. “Ex-con/felon” becomes “formerly incarcerated/returning citizen/persons with a history of incarceration”. It wants “illegal immigrants” to be rebranded as “undocumented immigrants”. It prefers “historically marginalised or BIPOC” (black, indigenous and people of colour) to the word, “minority” and “social injustice” to “social problems”.
In their study, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, Keith Allan and Kate Burridge argue that whereas traditional censoring activities were about maintaining the status quo, what came to be known as PC language was more about promoting political and social change. The attempt to change language is motivated by the objective of changing how people behave and how they identify. For example, the promotion of a gender-neutral language aims to alter the identity of a man and a woman or a boy and a girl.
Allan and Burridge observe that semantic engineering has been “extremely successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour”. Altering how people speak serves as a prelude to changing the way people think and act. Language and the policing of verbal communication have become crucially important for guiding behaviour and shaping attitudes. Through the re-engineering of language, the meaning that people attach to their experience is altered. History shows that language does not simply mirror people’s reality but also, to some extent, constructs it.
The spectacular advance of the revolution against traditional language usage has been underwritten by the complicity of sections of the cultural and political elites. Language and the policing of verbal communication have become crucially important for guiding behaviour and shaping attitudes. A dramatic illustration of the influence of re-engineering the meaning of words is evident in its impact on race relations.
Take the word “white”. It has gradually acquired such negative connotations that it is frequently used as marker for moral inferiority. There is nothing neutral about a reference to “straight white man”. At the very least the word “white”, particularly, when it is coupled with “man” conveys a note of disparagement.
The most fervent practitioners of the demonisation of white-related terms are to be found in the ranks of the cultural elites. It was Cassian Harrison, the white highly-educated editor of BBC Four, who informed the Edinburgh International Television Festival that no one wants to watch white men explaining stuff on TV anymore. The normalisation of associating negative connotations with being white has been underwritten by a semantic revolution. The growing usage of the term “whiteness” indicates that the construction of a new reality surrounding race relations has become institutionalised.
The concept of whiteness turns racism into an unconscious act. This means that no light-skinned person can claim immunity from the charge of racism. Indeed, those who protest that they are not racist, or do not even perceive themselves as white, are denounced for failing to come to terms with their white privilege. Whiteness is the equivalent of original sin, and white racism inescapable. This sentiment is also communicated through a variety of recently invented terms. “White privilege”, “white fragility”, or “white supremacy” communicate a sentiment of unquestioned contempt.
The creation of a new reality is also exemplified by the influence of the language of transgenderism. Guidance issued by the Ministry of Defence claims “not all women are biologically female” and instructs staff to be careful using the word “female,” in case it “erases gender non-conforming people and members of the trans community”. MoD personnel are advised to publicise their preferred pronouns on their email signatures, on their social media profiles and at the start of meetings and presentations.
The project of displacing the male/female distinction with gender-neutral language is promoted through some of the most grotesque examples of the re-engineering of language. When “woman” is replaced by “menstruating person”, “mother” gives way to a “parent who gives birth”, “breastfeeding” becomes “chestfeeding”, or “pregnant women” is reframed as “pregnant people”, a new reality is well under construction. This unpleasant reality is unapologetically communicated by the leading medical journal, the Lancet, when it decided to refer to women as “bodies with vaginas”.
Our language is a precious possession
The attempt to replace biological gender with the phrase “sex assigned at birth” is a particularly egregious illustration of the corrosive influence of semantic engineering. The term “sex assigned at birth” renders one’s biological sex arbitrary and irrelevant. It implies that the description of a baby as he or she is a provisional one that is likely to alter as a child grows up.
The premise of the phrase “sex assigned at birth” is that it is the developing child and teenager who will eventually choose an identity — preferably a gender-neutral one — for themselves. Through downsizing the status of one’s biological sex, young people are left with the task of deciding their gender. In this way their very identity becomes undermined.
It is the young who are most susceptible to the corrosive influence of semantic engineering. Sadly, schools are busy recycling the latest inventions of semantic engineers. Young children are encouraged to adopt a negative view of the “myth of gender”. Many teachers promote the virtues of a gender-neutral language and implicitly encourage children to question the gender they were assigned at birth. There have been instances of primary school children being instructed to tackle their white privilege and criticised if they don’t buy into the narrative of white fragility.
Until now the accomplishment of semantic engineering has faced little challenge. Those who laughed off bizarre PC language codes have tended to underestimate the challenge they posed to the integrity of civilised cultural norms.
But semantic engineering is no joke. Challenging the arrogant project of imposing a gender-neutral language is much overdue. We owe it to the young to prevent the dispossession of their biological identity by dogmatic semantic engineers. Our language is a precious possession that must be protected from those who seek to transform our life through taking control of what can be said.
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