The war over words

The issue of language is becoming more and more acrimonious and controversial. Politicians are attacked not so much for their views and policies as for the words they use. And this new policing of language is not confined to politically motivated censors. Even the actual police have become involved in the unfolding cultural conflict over language.


There is little doubt that the language used in public and political life has become debased. Political rhetoric often lacks substance these days. It can be bombastic and evasive. It is rarely about encouraging engagement. Indeed, politicians now use words in such a way that they self-consciously avoid communicating a clear outlook. So, yes, it is legitimate to be concerned about the quality of the language used by politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, the key motivation behind today’s controversies over political language is not a concern with the quality of the language – it is a desire to limit what may be said in public debate. Recent controversies in the UK illustrate this well. Attacks on the ‘toxic’ or ‘vitriolic’ language used by politicians are often accompanied by a censorious demand that certain words should not be used, and certain ideas should not be expressed.



Last month, former prime minister John Major laid into pro-Brexit members of parliament and current prime minister Boris Johnson for using the language of ‘hate’. Major was very precise in his outline of what words should not be used in public debate. He said that words like ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, ‘enemy’, ‘surrender’ and betrayal’, had ‘no place’ in the Conservative Party, in ‘our politics’, or in ‘our society’.


Numerous opponents of Brexit share Major’s view that certain words should be expunged from the political vocabulary. In particular, they take exception to the term ‘surrender’, which politicians in the Leave camp have used to describe the behaviour and policies of the pro-EU lobby. Remainer MPs claim that using the word ‘surrender’ could incite violence on the streets of the UK.


Throughout September, the campaign against the supposed toxic language of Brexiteers was widely covered in the media. Typically, the denunciation of Brexiteers’ language would be followed by a demand for linguistic policing. Even the police got involved. Senior police officers warned about the effect of using highly charged language to discuss Brexit. Charlie Hall, the chief constable of Hertfordshire Police, who heads Brexit operations planning for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, linked the tone of the political debate with an alleged rise in hate crime. ‘In the past few weeks… we did see a couple of spikes that seemed to coincide with some of the debates that have taken place’, he said.


It is a sign of the times that the intervention of the police in the debate about political language was not viewed as unusual by media commentators. Thankfully, Britain is not a police state, so it is still rare for the police to lecture parliamentarians about the language they use and the ideas they express. And yet no one asked the question, ‘When did the police assume responsibility for telling politicians what they should and should not say?’. Nor was the supposed link between the tone of political debate and hate crime seriously interrogated. Indeed, many in the media treated this new, literal policing of political language as a welcome development.

Also, very few questions have been asked about the one-sided character of this campaign against ‘toxic’ speech. So, the tendency to hurl loaded words like xenophobe, fascist and racist at supporters of Brexit is rarely questioned by the crusaders against hateful language. The casual manner in which anti-Brexiteers use words like fascist to describe their opponents suggests they are not really interested in linguistic moderation.


But leaving aside Remainers’ clear double standards, the real issue here is not people’s rhetorical tone but rather the insidious growth of linguistic policing. For if Brexiteers really must avoid using the word ‘surrender’, then how are they meant to draw attention to what they perceive as the willingness of some politicians to kowtow to the EU? They could use the word ‘capitulate’ or ‘yield’, I suppose – but it is likely that these terms would be denounced as toxic, too.


The principal objective of the new policing of words is not to moderate political language but to control what can be said. Because if words like traitor, surrender or betrayal cannot be used in political discourse, then it actually becomes very difficult to express a particular idea — that certain forms of behaviour seem, to some people, to contradict Britain’s national and democratic interests. The elimination of these words would diminish the ideas that could be expressed in public life, especially in relation to Brexit. The call to modify public language is motivated by a desire to achieve a political aim.


This is what Orwell meant when he said that those who control language are able to determine what is considered to be true, what we are allowed to think.


One of the key features of the language wars is to make a link between certain words and the rise of hate crimes. This is done through labelling certain words and ideas as forms of ‘hate speech’. Once a word is rebranded as an act of hate, it can be discredited on the basis that it encourages violence.


It isn’t only anti-Brexit ideologues who use the label ‘hate speech’ to delegitimise certain forms of expression and certain views. Anyone who questions the views promoted by trans activists risks being accused of ‘transphobia’ and denounced as a hate-speaker.

Recently, Zayna Ratty, the chair of Oxford Pride, said that stickers dotted around Oxford city centre were ‘inducing hate crime’. The stickers merely expressed the dictionary definition of the word woman. They said: ‘Woman: noun. Adult human female.’ Other stickers said, ‘Women don’t have penises’. The Thames Valley Police joined the fray and warned that those responsible for putting the stickers on lampposts could be charged with public-order offences. In this instance, the police and groups of trans activists merged together to eliminate the right of people to say something that would have been considered completely uncontroversial for thousands of years. The attempt to criminalise the view that women do not have penises logically leads to the next step in this cultural conflict – the attempt to alter the way people think about issues of sex and biology, and about what is a man and what is a woman.


The growing efforts to eliminate certain words and ideas from public life represent a form of verbal purification. Through turning words like ‘surrender’ or even ‘woman’ into taboo words, this verbal purification creates a climate in which certain ideas come to be marginalised. This demonstrates that the war on words is fundamentally an attempt to re-engineer thought itself and transform how individuals look at the world.


Outside of totalitarian settings – such as Stalinist Russia – the goal of verbal purification was first introduced in Anglo-American societies, especially in higher education, in the 1980s. Over the past three decades, the practice of ‘watching your words’ has been internalised by many academics and students on campuses across the US and the UK.


One of the consequences of verbal purification is to change the meaning of words. Consider the word ‘controversial’ itself. In recent years, campus culture warriors have turned this into a negative word. Why? Because genuine controversy provokes serious debates, and the outcome of a serious debate cannot be controlled in advance by censorious moral entrepreneurs. Rather than welcoming controversy, the new linguistic police think it is best avoided. Numerous universities have introduced rules to vet so-called controversial speakers. The transformation of the word ‘controversial’ into a negative euphemism highlights the ability of verbal purifiers to influence people’s thoughts.

Fundamentally, the goal of verbal purification is to develop conventions about what can and what cannot be said and thought. Right now, this desire to overhaul language is most systematically expressed by the advocates of trans culture. Almost overnight, they won the support of officialdom for the introduction of laws and rules to govern the language around sex and gender. The elimination of binary language in relation to sex, and the introduction of an ever-growing range of pronouns, is a testimony to the influence of language purification.

In their book, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, Keith Allan and Kate Burridge argued that, unlike normal censoring activities, which are aimed at the maintenance of the status quo, the culture of political correctness sought to promote actual political and social change. In other words, changing the way people speak became an instrument for achieving a political objective. In the case of PC, the attempt to change language was motivated by the aim of altering how people behave and how they identify themselves. It was also about changing the process of socialisation itself in relation to young people.


For example, in 1995 the day-care centre at La Trobe University in Australia banned the use of around 20 words, including the gender-related terms of girl and boy (1). It did this in order to promote its social-engineering mission of altering traditional sex roles. Anyone who violated this code was ‘made to pay a fine into a kind of swear box for using a dirty word’. And that was in 1995! Today, far more than 20 words have been banned. The practice of gender-neutral socialising and parenting has become increasingly entrenched in certain sections of society and the establishment.


The language wars have acquired their most insidious form in nurseries. In principle, politicians can kick back when they are accused of using toxic words. Such an option is not open to children who have become the targets of today’s social-engineering zeal. In Sweden, in 2012, the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ was introduced. This word and others have been widely adopted throughout Swedish society. Children are explicitly indoctrinated into a worldview in which girls and boys, and men and women, are seen as the same thing. The aim of this pedagogy of gender-neutrality is to challenge ‘traditional gender roles and gender patterns’. In their place, they want to introduce a new non-traditional ideology – one in which all boys and girls, and men and women, think of themselves as ‘hen’.


The campaign to police language has undoubtedly had a significant impact on attitudes and behaviour in Western societies. As Allan and Burridge observed, it has ‘been extremely successful in getting people to change their linguistic behaviour’. Society has become increasingly sensitive and hesitant about which words are appropriate, and which are not.

One of the consequences of the language wars is that many people who do not share the social-engineering outlook often struggle to give voice to their views. It is increasingly common to encounter people who say, ‘I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this’… In the current climate, where there is little cultural support for the robust exchange of competing views, many people self-censor and allow the language police to intimidate them. That is a dangerous development; people who self-censor may soon forget the beliefs and sentiments that they held in the first place.


The stakes are high in the culture war over words. Those who take their freedom seriously must refuse to yield to the policing of language. History shows that the attempt to control citizens’ language inevitably leads to a diminishing of democracy itself.


Published by spiked

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