The dictionary of the demagogues
In the dictionary of the demagogues there is only a single word: obey
Recent news that the online Webster’s Dictionary has altered the definition of the word “preference” to add the notion that the term was “offensive” in order to support Democrat attacks on the new GOP Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett strikingly brings to mind a remark by the Spanish diplomat, Catholic apologist and journalist Donoso Cortes that in times of civil discord there are effectively two dictionaries, or “two idioms, which, even if they appear to be identical, are contradictory, or at least different. One is the dictionary of the demagogues; the other is the dictionary of the people.”
Whereas, according to Cortes, in the dictionary of people words cohere to their popular, everyday meaning, in the dictionary of the demagogues “the same word takes on a different meaning, a sense which is not proper to them, which is not sanctioned by all men, in permanent contradiction to their ideas, which introduces disorder into the moral world and rejects the conscience of the human species as absurd.”
The dictionary of the demagogue is fundamentally anti-democratic
Many will have recognized one aspect of this phenomenon in the last four years in the onslaught of what scholar of rhetoric Richard Weaver called “devil terms” to dehumanize opponents of the contemporary Left. In truth, neither more historical terms like “racist” “fascist” and “Nazi” nor recent labels like “white privilege” “ableist” or “Terf” belong to the dictionary of the people. Not one predates the twentieth century, some are less than three years old, and their usefulness for drawing intellectual and critical conclusions is highly limited. What they possess instead is a visceral emotional power which short-circuits understanding and creates an agitated and confused reaction. It is for precisely this reason that they feature prominently in the dictionary of the demagogues.
The dictionary of the demagogues is a kind of grimoire, bound in human skin, which compiles words as instruments of power and especially the power to disturb, rather than as instruments of truth. Here, words feature not for their discriminating qualities, although the word discrimination is now itself included, but rather on the basis of their counterfeit authority. Already in 1945 George Orwell, a great tribune of the people, who emphasises the clarity of words above all things, recognised the term fascism “has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies something not desirable.” Instinctive undesirability combined with unclear meaning defines the dictionary of the demagogues as a whole.
The dictionary of the demagogue is fundamentally anti-democratic, and this is also by design. Dependent for their power on the monopolistic domination of a specific kind of artificial speech, it is a definite priority for demagogues to restrict the free exercise of language generally, and in this way restrain the exercise of thought. The more the field of language is narrowed to the dictionary of the demagogue, the greater political and social power that the demagogue enjoys.
Demagogue means literally the leader of the mob, but is almost better understood as its unconscious, insofar as one cannot really lead a mob anywhere, except towards violence and destruction. Accordingly, a demagogue may miscalculate, but is never wrong, since the veracity of what they say is entirely irrelevant to the purpose of their speech.
Social media has generated millions of mini-demagogues
The demagogue justifies their position on the basis of his claim to speak on behalf of the people, a claim implicitly requiring that the actual people continue to be silenced. Towards this end, defining certain forms of language as potentially offensive establishes a justification for policing it, and thus censoring opponents on the basis of infractions. These tactics are especially useful in regard to less well-educated speakers, who lack the technical vocabulary to articulate their points of view or their objections in accordance with the demagogic nomenclature.
The misperception that the demagogue represents the people, rather than the mob, is a misperception that the demagogue further reinforces by proposing as a definition of the people a set of artificial social categories of mysterious and recent origin (“POC”, “BAME” “LATINX” “LGBTQ” etc) which correspond to nobody’s self-description and hence can nowhere be located, except among the demagogue’s own followers.
In truth, not only are the people and the mob not the same, but the mob is animated by a furious hatred for the people, from whose ranks they’ve exited, or been expelled. In this, the mob finds allies in the oligarchy, which likewise stands above the people and against them; the demagogue is the conduit between them.
Between the people and the demagogues, a single word can mean two completely different and opposing things. Hannah Arendt in the The Origins of Totalitarianism observes the persistent confusion between a political idea of equality, conceived as equality before the law and with respect to equal rights, and the idea of equality as sameness, which ends with a destruction of difference in a totalitarian state.
According to Cortes, a popular demand for justice in the nineteenth century became perverted through a rhetoric of liberty, mistaken by the people to mean justice, but signifying in reality “the all-encompassing, and consequently tyrannical domination of everyone by the initiated: the exclusive triumph of a system formulated a priori aside from historical and traditional systems.” The same role is played today by social justice.
The demagogue has no objective, and no ethos beyond their own empowerment
In a world in which social media has generated millions of mini-demagogues, communicating an alien and jargonistic language which can be invoked at any time, many thinkers have now attempted to define the principles of a new contemporary ideology, amounting to kind a dictionary of doctrines to which demagogues are believed to subscribe. But this effort is misguided. A demagogue is not ideological as such, but rather only marked by an essentially ideological relationship to language and by extension to reality. There is no “successor ideology” only an ideological employment of words as forms of power, rather than instruments of truth.
In the end, the demagogue has no objective, and no ethos beyond their own empowerment, and everything which they declare is intended for this purpose. Nevertheless, every use of language, even at its most debased, ultimately depends on the idea of truth, and on an assumption of good faith. The entire power of the demagogue, who lacks good faith, depends on the good faith of the people, and their power is annihilated at the moment that this good faith is withdrawn. According to Cortes, “the people do not know how to read the dictionary of the demagogues, but the demagogues know how to read the dictionary of the people.” Yet, in truth the dictionary of the demagogues contains only a single word: obey.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe