LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, speaks during TheCityUK International Conference on April 18, 2024 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Weaponising weasel words

Gender theory is built on shallow euphemisms


This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“That’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it?” says Bernard Woolley, principal private secretary of the hapless Jim Hacker in the classic television show Yes, Prime Minister. “I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.”

In everyday life it’s the most common verbs — Winston Churchill’s “short, old words” — that conjugate irregularly. To be, to have, to hold: these verbs break the rules because they predate them. In public life irregular verbs are a sign of political bias and motivated arguments. They’re used by those who want to deceive themselves about what drives them — and to write off their opponents as beneath consideration. 

The process starts with the “fundamental attribution error”, as psychologists call the tendency to regard other people’s failings as caused by bad character, even as you excuse your own as caused by circumstances. A colleague snaps at you and she’s a bitch; you snap at her and it’s because of an impending deadline. You’re under pressure; he’s a jerk. You slept badly; she’s lazy.

But the Woolleyan irregular verb has three variations, not just two. In the first person the action is justified; in the second it indicates bad character; in the third, it’s pure evil. I’m good; you’re a sinner; he’s damned. My political faction is pure of heart; allies are sometimes wrongheaded; opponents are motivated by malice — so there’s no point trying to understand them.

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This dehumanisation may be combined with “narcissistic reversal”, a tactic often referred to by the acronym darvo — Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s a manipulative attempt to wriggle out of responsibility by claiming that your victim is in fact the guilty party. 

Some commentators described Badenoch’s pledge as a “fringe issue”

Bidding farewell to former Scottish first minister Humza Yousaf, my colleague at The Critic Rob Hutton neatly captured the Scottish Nationalists’ fondness for darvo in a parody of Yousaf’s valedictory speech, in which he accused other politicians of indulging in tactics the Nats use all the time. “He is a populist; you are inciting hatred; I am simply pointing out that my opponents are personally guilty of genocide.”

Culture-war topics inspire such irregular verbs. A common strategy is to declare oneself above an unnecessary fray: your position is the only one possible and any claim to the contrary is bad faith. 

An academic study in 2021 found that a quarter of all media articles that mentioned “culture wars” claimed they were “overblown or manufactured”. But the so-called culture warriors are definitely complaining about something, whether it’s protestors pulling down statues of slave-owners or public health campaigns referring to women as “people with ovaries”. Claiming they are fighting shadows is a way for those who opened hostilities to evade responsibility. 

To formulate it as an irregular verb: I focus on the topics ordinary people care about; you exploit wedge issues to foment division; he weaponises hatred of marginalised groups.

Irregular verbs were all over the place after the promise by Kemi Badenoch, minister for women and equalities, that if re-elected the Conservative Party would clarify the meaning of “sex” in the Equality Act. To anyone who understands equality law the obvious question was why this hadn’t already been done; for commentators who loathe Badenoch the question was: why bother?

Some commentators described Badenoch’s pledge as a “fringe issue” — a revealing phrase, since it includes a tacit claim that something else is central. Badenoch should focus on trade instead of the “weaponisation of trans rights”, said former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell (Badenoch holds both the trade and equalities briefs). 

Podcast bro Ian Dunt said the pledge revealed her as “dismal”, “spiteful” and “toxic”. Labour frontbencher John Healey called the issue a “distraction”. That makes the meaning of sex in the Equality Act quite a paradox: unworthy of legislative time yet vital for trans rights; too trivial for a minister’s attention yet a potent weapon. 

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In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell coined the word “doublethink” to describe holding two contradictory ideas at the same time. He saw it as a product of political indoctrination. It’s also a feature of bigotry.

Homophobes think gay sex is both viscerally disgusting and dangerously seductive. Racists think certain ethnic groups are both lazy and stealing their jobs. Sexists think women’s rights are simultaneously trivial and dangerous: unnecessary for actual women but capable of destroying the lives of “transwomen” — that is, of men. 

If Badenoch is as obviously appalling as Ian Dunt claims, why would anyone fall for her? What he means is that plenty of people agree with her, and that makes them so bad he can dismiss them out of hand.

You would think this sort of linguistic trickery might be of interest to academics working in “critical theory”. This postmodernist field is concerned with revealing, critiquing and challenging power structures, often by means of close textual analysis. 

Practitioners insist there is no such thing as a neutral standpoint, only competing truths duking it out in a rigged competition. They are big believers in “microaggressions” — apparently harmless statements within which they discover subtle slights that reveal unacknowledged bias.

You might imagine, therefore, that the critical hordes might have something to say about who is centred when a manifesto pledge is described as “fringe”, and where you’re being told to direct your attention when it’s described as a “distraction”. 

Or that queer theorists, who apply critical methods to issues of sex and gender, might have something to say about a woman — a black woman, no less, which I mention only because critical theorists are obsessed with race — is called “spiteful” and “toxic” for seeking to clarify anti-discrimination law.

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Or perhaps not, since one of the core tenets of critical theory is that it’s impossible to be truly liberated from what their high priest, Michel Foucault, dubbed “power-knowledge” — a kind of glorified status quo. All you can do is tinker. 

You can wear drag to subvert masculinity, call yourself “queer” to smash heteronormativity or identify as non-binary to “trouble” the categories of male and female. You can’t actually liberate women, only make the category of “women” meaningless by detaching it from any corporeal criteria.

“it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”

If queer theorists were correct, women would never have won the right to vote, to own property or to study and work on the same terms as men within the rigged “power-knowledge” system known as patriarchy. But there is one group whose failings are nicely explained by queer theory — queer theorists themselves. They avert their critical gaze from culture-war topics because they don’t want to bite the research councils that feed them. 

It is difficult to get a professor of gender studies to understand the importance of a clear definition of “woman” to women’s legal rights when her grant to study pregnant men depends on her not understanding it. 

This self-interested quietism is why the gender theorists are so attached to euphemism. Their linguistic landscape is blissfully free of confused teenage girls getting their breasts chopped off, and middle-aged men whose cross-dressing fetish has expanded into an all-consuming desire for castration. Instead they celebrate “top surgery” and “gender affirmation”. If you point out what these gruesome operations involve, you are called obscene. 

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That word is as loaded as “fringe” or “distraction”, but again the queer theorists play deaf and dumb. I think it’s the surgeries that are obscene, not the words. Gender clinicians are promising their patients impossibilities, and concealing that fact with language that cries out for a critical analysis. 

That they get away with it reveals where the power really lies — and it’s not with the unenlightened masses being forced to pretend that a castrated man has somehow become a woman, or indeed with the man whose obsession has led to his mutilation at the clinicians’ hands.

In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll has Humpty Dumpty tell Alice that when he uses a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”.’ When she objects, he tells her that when two people want to define words differently, the only relevant question is “who is to be master — that’s all”.

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