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The Meaninglessness of Our Political Discourse: A Lesson from Orwell

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The Meaninglessness of Our Political Discourse: A Lesson from Orwell


9 MAY 2016

Essential Questions (Smith and Weigant)

  • What aspects of political rhetoric spoken during the election (and especially by Trump) are concerning and why?

  • How are slogans a form of manipulation?

  • What are the slogans that have been coined during this election cycle ACTUALLY saying?

  • In what way has truth itself become expedient?

  • What trend concerns both writers as it pertains to politics?

If a slogan can mean anything to anyone, who could oppose it?

In his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” “When one watches some tired hack on the platform,” wrote Orwell,

“mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. . . . And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.”

“Bestial atrocities,” “iron heel,” and “bloodstained tyranny” were the hack phrases of Orwell’s day, not ours. We look back on them with the amusement hindsight offers. We are less likely to be aware of our own sins against the English language, precisely because we are so close to the words and phrases that have become an automatic part of our vocabulary that we no longer realize how meaningless they are.

What if, in writing or speaking about important public matters, we have a similar problem using words or phrases that are meaningless?

Taking Back America from “The Establishment”

One obvious example would be the slogan, “We need to take back America!” Take it back? From whom? Did Russia invade? No? Then from whom are we taking it back? If recent elections are any gauge of such matters, on many political issues Americans are 49 percent on one side and 50 percent on the other (with a 3 percent margin of error). So from whom would we be “taking back” the country? Basically from the other 50 percent of Americans. Both halves of the voting public are aggressively trying to “take back the country” from the other half, with the notion of “compromise” anathema to both.

The results are fairly predictable: 100 percent of the country is frustrated with the “gridlock in government” that is the natural result of their empty slogans and their failure to realize that the country hasn’t been invaded by Russia but is simply engaged in democratic debate between two opposing sides.

Some people wish to insist that we’re trying to “take back the country” from “the establishment.” Who exactly is “the establishment”? Anyone who works in Washington, DC? I know a guy who works as a school teacher in DC. Is he part of the establishment? How about anyone who works for the government in DC? I know a woman who works as a secretary for the FAA. Is she part of “the establishment”?

No, the problem isn’t just in Washington; it’s all those organizations that use their money to influence government! You mean like the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, Google, GM, Ford, the Koch brothers, George Soros . . . need I go on? Money used to influence the government the way I want is money to “take back the country.” Money my opponents use to further their agenda becomes part of the hated “establishment.”
One of the tragedies of being the Devil is that you can’t ever really taste innocence because you corrupt everything you touch. If, instead of turning everything to gold, like Midas, your touch turned everything to trash, then you could never taste beauty. Washington, DC, has, it seems, become the ultimate Devil’s touch. We send people there to “get the country back.” But once they step into office, they become part of the hated “establishment.” In this way, Ted Cruz, one of the most disruptive members of the Senate, has become part of the hated “establishment,” and Donald Trump, a man waist-deep in crony capitalist favoritism, is somehow anti-establishment. On the other side, both Clinton and Sanders run as “anti-establishment” candidates. Such claims are as meaningless as the word.

Making the System “More Fair”—But What’s Your Definition of “Fairness”?

Let’s take a nicer-sounding word, like “fairness.” Think of such promises as, “I’m going to make the system more fair.” This sounds very nice. But what does it mean? One of the biggest challenges facing current American political discourse is that there are two common meanings of “fair” that are mutually exclusive.

One meaning of “fair” in effect says, “You didn’t build that.” Expressed in its most sophisticated form in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, it involves an equal distribution of all of society’s goods. Rawls identifies two basic principles of “justice as fairness.” First, there should be “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties.” Second, social and economic inequalities should be permitted only if they result in “compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.” Rawls’s theory of “fairness” is so radical that he believes even the “natural assets” with which individuals are born—not only the status, wealth, or privileges of their family, but “even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense [that] is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances”—must be compensated for. Thus, “fairness” would entail high taxes on the rich and better schools for the poor than for the children of the wealthy.

The second common view of “fairness” in our society is based on merit. It says, in effect, “I worked hard for this, so I get to keep it.” Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia expresses a well-known defense of this view, but we can also trace its lineage back to John Locke’s “labor theory of property.” In Locke’s formulation, it is due to the fact that I have mixed my labor with the earth’s resources that it becomes my “private property.” Of course, the human tendency to feel that “those who shall not work should not eat” clearly goes back further than Locke. It is a very deep-seated tendency, and whether one could ever really eradicate it from the human spirit is deeply questionable.

What is “fair” for one group of Americans—“I get to keep what I earn”—is not only different from what the other group means, it can often be totally contrary to it: “No, because you didn’t build that.” If I get to keep what I earn, then we are not spreading out the benefits of society equally; this would be deemed “unfair” by those who accept any version of egalitarian fairness. And if we were to take what people have earned through their hard work and spread it out equally among the entire population, some of whom may not have worked hard, then this would be deemed “unfair” by those who accept a merit-based view of fairness.

Often enough, this confusing bifurcation about what is “fair” is not only between two opposing camps, but within one and the same person. In some moods, we favor the egalitarian tendencies of fairness, while in other moods, we insist on the merit-based approach. We want “the poor” to be “taken care of” and to “get a fair shake.” But when someone proposes to raise our taxes to bring about a more equal distribution, we’re suddenly less excited about the prospect. This is why we respond positively to appeals to “tax the rich,” as long as the meaning of the term “rich” remains vague enough that it doesn’t include us.

Making the system “fairer,” therefore, has become another one of those slogans that can mean anything to anyone. To one person, a “fair economy” means “tax the rich” and “spread the wealth”; to another, it means “I get to keep what I earn.” After the election, someone is going to feel betrayed. And if I’m one of those unfortunate people who wants to “tax the rich,” “spread the wealth,” and“keep what I earn,” then I will undoubtedly love the slogans, but I cannot help but feel betrayed, no matter what my elected officials do. If there are still poor people around who have less than the richest people, and my taxes have gone up, then I’m going to feel completely betrayed.
Making America Great

Consider one last such slogan: “Make America Great.” Here is a statement tailor-made for Socrates. One can just imagine the Platonic dialogue based on the question:

“And what, O Callicles, do you mean by ‘great’? Is greatness determined by power? By wealth? Or by virtue?”

“Clearly, Socrates, greatness is generally recognized to be asserted based on power and wealth. If ‘greatness’ were ascribed based on virtue, then we would never call tyrants such as Peisistratus and Hippias and others like them ‘great men,’ but we do.”

“Yes, dear Callicles, the common people do sometimes speak that way, but not generally when they have to live under such tyrants or are suffering from their cruel whims. So let us examine more closely to see whether what we sometimes call ‘great’ is in fact so, or whether, like what we call ‘the good,’ it is sometimes truly good and sometimes merely the illusory good.”

Or, for a more contemporary take, we might send out the following survey:

What makes America great? Choose one:

1. We’re the wealthiest country in the world.

2. We have the strongest army in the world.

3. We’re morally good.

4. We take care of the poor and disadvantaged in our society.

5. We treat other nations with justice.

6. We are faithful to the constitutional order established by the Founders and the political principles set forth in The Federalist Papers.

Would options 1 and 2 totally outstrip answers 3 through 6? How would the politicians using this slogan answer the question? Deciding on the proper ordering of goods is an essential task of any leader expected to strive for the common good of the body politic. If our politicians will give us no sensible answer to the question above, perhaps it is because they have become adept at harnessing its vagueness. After all, if a slogan can mean anything to anyone, who could oppose it?

“Progress.” “Growth.” “Fairness.” “Protecting America’s Interest.” “Looking Out for the Middle Class.” “Putting America First.” “The War Against Women.” All are meaningless slogans that are allowed to substitute for real discussion of the serious issues facing the nation. They tell us nothing more about the candidates than phrases like “You’re Worth It,” “Be More,” and “Be There!” tell us about L’Oréal’s shampoo, PBS’s educational value, or NBC’s programming. In fact, come to think of it, maybe I got them mixed up; maybe “You’re Worth It” was PBS and “Be More” was L’Oréal—not that it matters much either way.

But it certainly does matter what “protecting America’s interests” means if we’re judging a potential president. Just as we’ll need to know a lot more about what “greatness” and “fairness” mean for the people using those words before we cast a vote this serious.

By the same token, you’ll know you’re dealing with pundits who have nothing serious to say and are merely “selling shampoo” if you start hearing terms like “competency gap,” “presidential gender equity,” or “most experienced politician of our time” taking center stage. God help us.

A Post-Truth Presidency


28 NOVEMBER 2016
We’re approaching the end of the year, so we can all expect to hear lots of “the year that was” items in the news. One of the earliest entries in this news genre came from across the pond:

Oxford Dictionaries has selected ‘post-truth’ as 2016’s international word of the year, after the contentious ‘Brexit’ referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket, according to the Oxford University Press.

Now, “post-truth” is just a new spin on an old concept. Stephen Colbert was feeling a bit peeved last week, since “post-truth” is just another way to express Colbert’s own famous neologism, “truthiness.” But other than coining a new term for it, the idea behind Colbert’s (or Oxford’s) snappy word certainly isn’t new. Back in World War II, it was known as “The Big Lie.” The basic idea is an easy one to grasp: believe the hype, not the facts. Repeat a falsehood enough times, and a whole bunch of people start to believe it. Once they do, proving it wrong using facts just doesn’t seem to work.

Donald Trump might be called “post-truthiness defined” (with apologies to both Oxford and Colbert). Whatever Donald Trump believes at any given moment is truth, to him. Furthermore, even with mountains of evidence to contradict him, whatever he believes at the moment is always what he believed. Any videotape showing this not to be true is dismissed as the “crooked media” misunderstanding or misrepresenting Trump’s true beliefs.

This was on full display this weekend, as Trump took to Twitter to (confusingly) argue both sides of an issue simultaneously. First, he called the recount effort in Wisconsin, launched by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, as a “scam.” Then, apparently still miffed that Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by over two million votes, Trump bizarrely tweeted (without a shred of actual proof) that, if the “millions who voted illegally” weren’t counted, then he, in fact, had won the popular vote. So in the space of hours, Trump is arguing that recounting votes is a scam, but also that millions voted illegally ― confirming all his bluster in the weeks leading up to the election that it would be “rigged.” Trump (and, to be honest, most of the media) doesn’t see any contradiction in those stances. He’s taking all sides of the issue, so he can later claim to have been right no matter what happens. Post-truthiness at its finest!

Believing the hype rather than the facts, once again, is nothing new in politics. The fact that a leader believes something that is not true also influences everyone around him. Anyone attempting to curry favor with such a leader will have to prove they too fervently believe the hype over the facts. This feedback loop only serves to reinforce the falsehood in the leader himself. This is so well-known we even have a myth available as an example, which is used to warn children about such people. Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” accurately predicts the consequences of a leader believing a lie and forcing all those around him to believe it as well. Trump’s not naked, he’s just got magic new clothes that nobody can see.

At his core, Donald Trump shows a dangerous instability that could have far-reaching consequences for millions. New York Times reporters who met with Trump last week in an on-the-record interview session revealed part of this instability when they said Trump does actually appear malleable on some core issues, and that whatever he says at the moment, he fully believes for that moment. Trump sitting down with a general who warned that waterboarding and other torture was ineffectual and counterproductive resulted in Trump drastically shifting his own position. Perhaps, though, if Trump sits down with proponents of torture, he’ll change his mind again.

The really scary part of this is how Trump expects everyone else to just accept his statements at face value and by doing so to totally ignore all his previous statements to the contrary. If Trump believes it now, then he always must have believed it. Hey, who you gonna believe, Trump or all those lyin’ video tapes?

Trump proved himself a master at these mental gymnastics on the campaign trail. Back then, it didn’t really matter whether Trump reversed himself on any particular issue, because his supporters would blandly tell you it was Trump’s style in speaking rather than what he was actually saying that they admired. They weren’t about to believe (or even read) what some pointy-headed media factchecker had to say about things, since the media was so crooked and so anti-Trump. But this will change as president. When Trump makes up his mind about something, then there are going to be real-world consequences. Whatever course of action Trump decides upon will influence a lot of lives. However, if Trump later on decides to abruptly reverse his position, reversing course in the real world will take longer than dashing off a tweet in the middle of the night. Trump loathes ever admitting he was wrong, but when such a reversal means reversing all the real-world consequences of his previous position, it’s going to be a lot harder to just pretend it all never happened.

This, too, has a literary reference worth noting: “We’ve never been at war with Eastasia ― we’ve always been at war with Eurasia.” No matter the changing policy from the top, the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would scrub the past of any proof that any other policy had ever previously been followed. This may be overstating the case, but the Trump administration will be in charge of all the bureaus and agencies which put out official statistics. Could Trump insist that the Labor Department go back and change all the unemployment numbers from the past eight years to show what Trump believed the rate to be? Could he likewise insist that the unemployment numbers under his reign be calculated in a creative new fashion to show the reality he believes his policies are creating? These would be unimaginable questions to ask of any other incoming president, it’s worth pointing out. And the unemployment rate is just one obvious example. Justice Department statistics on civil rights violations is another that easily springs to mind, with Jeff Sessions in control.

Normally, presidents wouldn’t be allowed to get away with such things, but these are anything but normal times. Normally, the White House press corps would hold a president accountable for radical shifts in policy direction. But I have to wonder if President Trump is even going to bother holding press conferences. Will he boldly stand before hostile reporters and attempt to brush away inconvenient questions? Or will he decide that just phoning in to Sean Hannity’s show every once in a while is sufficient? What happens if Trump just decides to stonewall any reporters (and any media outlets) that write critical stories about him? This could lead directly to more and more critical stories about Trump, which would just reinforce Trump’s decision that they’ll never give him a fair shake. Will White House press conferences become a thing of the past, swept away by Trump “changing Washington” to suit his needs? These are all ― sadly ― also valid questions to ask, at this point. Trump hasn’t held a press conference since the election (indeed, the last one he gave was in July), so maybe it’s time for media outlets to create rolling countdown (countup?) clocks showing how long it has been since Trump held a press conference.

If Trump surrounds himself with people who will never point out his contradictory stances (for fear of losing influence) and if Trump refuses to face the press (who might ask him about such contradictions to his face), then he will have created his own post-truth bubble. This will serve to insulate him from any news that his policy ideas either aren’t working or are actively making things worse. It will also insulate Trump from having to admit failure, because every new policy idea (even those diametrically opposed to his previous ones) will be treated as singular events unconnected to any inconvenient past failures of his own making.

To conclude, there’s a saying in many parts of the country about the weather. “If you don’t like the weather here, wait 15 minutes and it’ll change.” Will this be the operative way to deal with Trump’s presidency? If Trump makes a really bad decision, will we all just have to wait for a spell before Trump reverses himself and insists that he never believed otherwise? If he is indeed open to hearing reality from his advisors, this might be the best thing to hope for. Of course, this shows the instability of Trump’s core persona. But if Trump can navigate being post-truthy (so he can sleep at night, or whatever) in order to change his mind on things that aren’t working as advertised, perhaps it’s something most people will accept in a president. Perhaps a post-truth president might be better than a stone-cold ideologue who would never reverse course, even when things weren’t working out as planned. Perhaps we’ll all forgive a bit of post-truthiness in Donald Trump if it means it’ll be easier for him to scrap ideas which just don’t work. It’s an optimistic way to look at it, to be sure, but for now it seems the best thing to hope for in a Trump presidency: if you don’t like his policies, just wait a few months until they change.

The Effects of Text Messaging on Students’ Literacy



Essential Questions (Campbell and Silverblatt)

  • To what extent has technology affected literacy?

  • What are the consequences of text messaging in children and teens?

  • Based upon the results, should we be concerned?

  • In what ways does reduced literacy pose a threat to society?

  • How are we as a society, affecting our own freedoms?

I cannot seem to walk across my university’s campus without seeing at least one person glued to the phone screen typing away as fast as they can. Most people have probably texted on their phones at least once. The Centre of Science Education at Sheffield University found that about ninety percent of the youth have cell phones, and that ninety- six percent of this group uses them to text (Plester,Wood, Bell 137). Americans tend to use their mobile devices to text more than to make calls (Cingel and Sundar 305). Texting is reported as the most preferred communication style (Cingel and Sundar 306). The introduction of mobile phones and texting has greatly impacted the way in which people communicate (Kemp and Bushnell 18). People no longer have to make phone calls to keep in touch with friends and family, they can now type a short message stating whatever they need to say.

Text messaging has grown in popularity ever since the very first text was sent in the year 1993 by a student who was working for the Nokia Corporation (Drouin and Davis 49). Teenagers have reported an average of receiving 46.03 and sending 45.11 messages in a day (Cingel and Sundar 310). In another study, ninety percent of students in seventh to twelfth grade reported sending eleven texts per week (Kemp and Bushnell 18). Texting is thought to have possibly negative and positive effects on students’ literacy. When asked their opinion, educators said that they believe that texting has a negative effect on students’ writing skills (Verheijen 595). This belief may be a result of teachers having mentioned receiving work that contained textisms (Powell and Dixon 58). The issue of texting having effects on literacy has received media attention over the years. While it is commonly assumed that textisms have negative effects on student literacy, some studies suggest that they may also have positive effects depending on the situation in which they are used.

Although much of the media attention that has been directed at the effects of texting has been negative, some studies argue that texting may actually have a positive effect on the literacy skills of students. In one study, results showed that the more abbreviated words that were used, the higher verbal reasoning scores tended to be, which points to a clear positive correlation between textism use and verbal reasoning (Plester, Wood, Bell 139-140). Another study that was conducted using British children suggests that more proficient literacy skills was associated to deciphering textisms, which supports the idea that using textisms are driving development of literacy skills (Kemp and Bushnell 20, 23). A textism or textese is “a largely sound- based or phonological, form of spelling that can reduce the time and cost of texting” (Kemp and Bushnell 18). Textisms are often associated with acronyms, emoticons, and the removal of excess parts of spelling and grammar (Drouin and Davis 50).

In an article written by Powell and Dixon, it was observed that exposure to textisms had a positive effect on spelling (62). During this study, participants were given two spelling tests. One was administered before the exposure to textisms and the other was given following a period of time of reading textisms (Powell and Dixon 60). It was observed that the scores for the second test were higher after participants were exposed to textisms (Powell and Dixon 61). A study that was mentioned in the article by Kemp and Busnell found that participants were not any quicker at composing messages than conventional English communications (18). During this study, participants were asked to take a literacy test and to take part in the textism portion as well. Participants read out loud two text messages and wrote out two as well. During the writing phase, the participants typed out two spoken messages (Kemp and Bushnell 21). The results from the literacy test showed that those who indicated that they did not text had slightly better performances than those that did text (Kemp and Bushnell 22). This suggests that using textisms does not necessarily have a negative effect on literacy skills; but rather those that use textisms, only use them for speed in communication.

Higher quality literacy skills were related to greater textese reading speed and accuracy (Kemp and Bushnell 18). Children who were writing and decoding text messages tend to have skills associated with greater literacy and vocabulary awareness (Verheijen 589). It was observed that different uses of abbreviation show an understanding of language phonemes (Verheijen 586). In a literacy assessment it appeared that the effects of seeing textisms seem to be just as effective to seeing correct spellings of words before taking a spelling test (Powell and Dixon 64). There is a possibility that textisms may help to improve student literacy (Powell and Dixon 58). This can be inferred from the idea that texting gives children more chances to practice language skills (Verheijen 586). Writing about the possible benefits of student texting, Lee, Bell, O’Conner and Helderman suggest that texting may be beneficial because it “gets children writing” ( Plester, Wood, Bell 138).

A relationship is suggested between literacy and texting because texting uses abbreviations, which depends on phonological awareness (Plester, Wood, Bell 138). Texting has been found to be heavily linked to phonological awareness in students (Powell and Dixon 59). Textisms make writing more efficient (Kemp and Bushnell 19). As time progresses, textisms may no longer be thought of as incorrect. This is attributed to the idea that our language is constantly changing (Verheijen 587). Those students that participated in a survey conducted by Lenhart said that they consider texting as an informal writing style, similar to phone calls and hallway salutations (Cingel and Sundar 307).

Even with some results that texting may indeed have a positive effect on the literacy skills of students, there is also evidence that points to there being negative effects for this action as well. On average, eighty two percent of twelve to fifteen year olds and forty nine percent of eight to eleven year olds have a cell (Plester, Wood, Bell 137). The adolescents mainly used their phones for texting. When talking to friends, they seem to ignore punctuation and capitalization concepts while texting (Cingel and Sundar 306). A study was set up in which participants were placed in a normal classroom setting so that the experimenters could gather data on the effects of cell phone use on the classroom experience. In a survey taken before the study, participants expected to lose thirty percent on an assessment if they were texting, and surprisingly enough they did perform very closely to what they had predicted. Students agreed on the survey using phones are distracting, but that they continue to use cell phones in class (Chacon et. al 323). Students also predicted that they would score better if they were not texting (Chacon et. al 326).

In the study, the participants were given a passage to read. Reading the passage took much longer for those that engaged in texting while trying to read (Chacon et. al 324). There were instances of documented distraction from phones ringing, texting, or instant messaging (Chacon 323). Participants were given an assessment on the material that they were supposed to have read. Students that texted scored lower than the control group students who did not text (Chacon et. al 325). There was a twenty seven percent decline when participants texted as opposed to the non-texting group (Chacon 328). It was determined that there the time spent texting was negatively correlated to quiz scores (Chacon et. al 328). Results support the idea of negative effects of texting in a classroom setting (Chacon et. al 328). This information seems to suggest that the presence of texting in the classroom is not conducive to learning the material that is presented to students. The results from this experiment also suggests that texting in itself may not be the reason for lower scores on literacy test. It may be that the time and place that a person chooses to text message may be part of the problem. The ringing of phone during the study may have distracted the other students and in turn, made them perform poorer on the test as well as those who were texting during the study. Results from this particular study suggest that there should be more studies done on the distraction of students due to texting as opposed to the current studies that only focus on the nature of texting itself. Perhaps after more studies like this are conducted, methods can be developed that may possibly lower the amount of distractions in the classroom.

Texting continues to have an impact in the education department and the literacy skills of students. There has been an increasing amount of instances where students have turned in work with texteses included (Verheijen 587). It has been observed that using phonetic language has negative effects on literacy (Plester, Wood, Bell 137). In a study, participants were asked to transcribe back and forth between Standard English and texisms. Mistakes made in transcription to English encompassed missed words, punctuation, untranslated textisms, and misspellings (Plester et al. 139). It was also observed that those who texted more often, tend to have worse results in non-verbal measures (Plester, Wood, Bell 140). Some students do not seem to be able to alternate between textspeak and normal English in a classroom setting. Adaptations, abbreviations, letter omissions, and homophones tend to negatively predict grammar scores (Cingel and Sundar 316). This may be a reason why educators have a negative outlook on student testing habits.

Those that reported sending more than three texts a day tended to score lower on literacy tests than those that did not (Plester, Wood, Bell 143). It was also observed that high texters scored lower on verbal and non-verbal reasoning than non-texters and low texters (Plester, Wood, Bell 140). Results from studies suggested an overall negative effect on texting on literacy test results (Verheijen 595). It has been suggested that students are not distinguishing between informal and formal contexts, and are using textese at the wrong times (Verheijen 587). The general message that the media sends about the effects of texting tend to be rather negative overall. Thurlow is quoted saying that texting “signals the slow death of language” and is “a threat to social progress” (qtd. in Verheijen 586). It was discovered during a study that participants took longer and made more errors when they had to read textese messages as opposed to reading Standard English (Kemp and Bushnell 18).

Even with all the possibly negative effects that texting can possibly have on their literacy, children still continue to text. There are a variety of reasons for why people choose to use textisms in their messages and correspondences. Textisms are used as shortcuts to make messages shorter since there is usually a cap on the amount of characters that a phone is programed to allow in a text message (Verheijen 583). Since textese is mostly sound based, or phonological, they are often used as a way to save time and money (Kemp and Bushnell 19). By using textisms, the person may feel like they are considered “cool” by their peers (Verheijen 583). They are more likely to use this form of writing in times where speed is needed (Cingel and Sundar 309). This is an example of how children are more likely to use methods that they see as helpful (Cingel and Sundar 308). The youth are likely to use textspeak when interacting with friends (Cingel and Sundar 307). Many students have confessed to using mobile phones for social networking as well, which may also be an instance where testisms are being used (Chacon 323). As the years have gone by, the amount of seven to ten year olds that own a cell phone has doubled (Plester, Wood, Bell 137). By using textisms, poor spellers may use textisms as a way to hide their weakness (Kemp and Bushnell 19). This can help them to hide a weakness that they may have so they may better blend in with their desired social crowd.

Almost every scholarly source that I have come across during the course of my research has mentioned in the discussion section that there is a need for further research on this topic. Drouin and Davis mention in their discussion section that long term studies should be conducted on the same group of individuals for at least a few years (64). They argued that it would be more beneficial to conduct a long term study over several years to get a better idea of the effects of texting on literacy in the long run. By conducting a study in this manner, it may be easier to observe if texting over the years has any effect on whether participants are able to remember how to spell certain words that they may not use on an everyday basis (Drouin and Davis 64). A study that spans several years would have the potential to present more concrete evidence that could either support or negate that notion that texting has negative effects on literacy.

I believed before actually beginning my research that texting may have had a negative effect on my personal literacy skills since I have been exposed to texting more often over the recent years. I had also believed that my personal involvement in texting my friends who use textisms may have played a negative role as well. With all of the information that has been gathered from all of the studies and presented in this essay, it seems like there are some conflicting results. Some studies suggest that participating in text messaging has a negative effect on ones literacy skills, while others suggest that texting does not have any effect. After reviewing the information, I am under the impression that the act of texting in itself may not affect literacy skills; but rather when and where a person chooses to text may be the reason. The study that was conducted in a classroom setting with documented distractions from texting and phone ringing influenced my opinions the most. After reviewing this information, I agree with the idea that a person may not have to actually be texting for it to have an effect on their literacy and comprehension. Instead, the person only has to be distracted long enough to not pay attention to the information that is being presented. The distraction itself has the potential to keep a student from learning in a classroom setting. I have been in similar situations where I was either distracted in a class by someone texting or by a phone ringing during instructional time. After reviewing the information presented in the studies that I reviewed, it seems that there are not enough concrete findings that are able to suggest without any doubt that texting does have a negative effect on texting. I believe that with more long term studies that it can be more possible to come to a more concrete conclusion on whether texting in itself is having a negative effect on literacy skills.

Texting has become any every day task that many teenagers engage in on a day to day basis. Many of those text messages that are sent often contain textisms. The use of textisms is starting to become more accepted among the younger generation. There have been suggestions from both media sources and educators that texting may have a negative effect on the literacy skills of students. Perhaps that biggest problem is that students do not distinguish between times when they need to write formally without using textisms, and when they are writing informally and the use of textisms is acceptable. With more long term studies on the same group of individuals, it may be possible for researchers to determine if the use of textisms does indeed have negative effects on literacy. With long term studies, it may be possible to see if individuals carry the textisms that they use in their personal correspondences into their formal writing in a workplace environment. Until the time that concrete results are acquired to suggest that texting has deleterious effects, it may be wise to encourage students to lessen their use of textisms, and to instead use proper grammar and spelling while they are using texting as a form of communication.

Parallels between Twitter and Orwell’s Newspeak

It can be argued that Twitter has emerged as a legitimate form of communication that could influence how children will spell — and think — in the future. Both Fox News and CNN have adopted the form and syntax of Twitter for their closed captions, so that Twitter is no longer merely a computer shorthand but has become an integral facet of our mainstream media.
To illustrate: On Sept. 11, 2001, Fox News carried a story about President Bush’s immediate response to the terrorists’ attacks that adopted Twitter as the style for their closed-caption account (he “did rht thin”).

This year, a new keyboard was introduced called “Tweetboard.” The traditional keyboard has been reconfigured, so that Twitter symbols assume prominent positions on the top row: @ (reply), # (hashtags), RT (retweet), and via @. Another key is for shortening URLs.

One way to understand the impact of Twitter is to consider another language that is predicated on the elimination and abbreviation of words — the language of Newspeak, found in George Orwell’s futuristic novel,1984. In the Appendix of 1984, Orwell observes that “Newspeak differed from most all other languages, in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year.”
Reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum . . . The Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised.

Like Newspeak, the syntax of Twitter is based on economy. Only 140 characters are allowed in a single tweet. Thus, in an online article, entitled “7 Tips to Improve Your Twitter Tweets,” the first tip involves ways to cut the copy: Abbreviate. If you can say it with less letters, do so! . . . There are only 140 characters allowed in a single tweet, so shortening a word or using a bit of slang is completely acceptable. Instead of “are,” say “r.” the same goes for “you” and “u.”

Orwell’s comments about the impact of Newspeak on thought may also be applicable to Twitter, in the following respects:

■ Ideas are reduced to literal meaning.

In these reductive languages, the meaning of words is reduced to a literal level; there is no space to examine the implications of meaning. Orwell explains: “The A vocabulary consisted of the words needed for the business of everyday life — for such things as eating, drinking, working, putting on one’s clothes. . . . Their meanings were far more rigidly defined. All ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them.”

To illustrate: Danny Ayalon, the Assistant Foreign Minister of Israel, issues daily Tweets to the public. The problem, of course, is reducing the complexity of a 2,500-year religious, cultural, and political conflict to 140 characters. On September 9, Ayalon tweeted, “Dilemma is placed on international community by Iran. Need to turn the tables and place dilemma back on Iran. Only with strong sanctions.”

This missive provides only surface information, leaving numerous questions unaddressed. What is the “dilemma”? Why has this dilemma been placed on the international community by Iran? What is meant by “strong sanctions”? How do strong sanctions “place the dilemma” back on Iran? What other options (in addition to sanctions) exist, and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses?

■ No context to information is provided.

Both Twitter and Newspeak operate in an eternal present; there is no room to discuss ideas within a historical or cultural context. Orwell declares, “When Oldspeak had been once and for all superseded, the last link with the past would have been severed.” Thus, Ayalon’s tweet leaves unanswered essential background information, such as: When was this “dilemma” placed on the international community by Iran? Have sanctions been tried before? When, and with what results? What was the role of other countries in this activity — Israel, United States and Western Allies, other Arab nations.

■ Language assumes a neutral tenor.

The use of abbreviations eliminates the emotional connotation of content. Orwell explains: “Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, . . . the tendency to use abbreviations was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations. Examples were such words as Nazi, Gestapo, Comintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. In the beginning the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.”

One major difference between Newspeak and Twitter, of course, involves function. Newspeak’s purpose was ideological; the government of Big Brother instituted this language as a way of controlling the masses. In contrast, the form and format of Twitter is technologically driven; Twitter has been designed to reach targeted groups of people throughout the virtual world instantaneously. But regardless of intention, Twitter is anti-democratic. It helps create a young generation that not only cannot spell but is also incapable of examining the implications of ideas, challenging information, and thinking independently. ■

She? Ze? They? What’s in a Gender Pronoun


JAN. 30, 2016
WASHINGTON – What happens when 334 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians and etymologists gather in a stuffy lecture hall on a Friday night to debate the lexical trends fof the year?

They become the unlikely heroes of the new gender revolution.

That’s what happened here earlier this month anyway, at a downtown Marriott, where members of the 127-year-old American Dialect Society anointed “they,” the singular, gender-neutral pronoun, the 2015 Word of the Year. As in: “They and I went to the store,” where they is used for a person who does not identify as male or female, or they is a filler pronoun in a situation where a person’s gender identity is unknown.

The singular, gender-neutral pronoun, the 2015 Word of the Year. As in: “They and I went to the store,” where they is used for a person who does not identify as male or female, or they is a filler pronoun in a situation where a person’s gender identity is unknown.

“Function words don’t get enough love,” a man argued from the floor. (Function words, I would later learn, are words that have little lexical meaning but serve to connect other words — or “the basic building blocks in language,” according to Ben Zimmer, the event’s M.C.)

“We need to accept ‘they,’ and we need to do it now,” shouted another linguist, hidden behind the crowds.

“As a gender neutral pronoun, ‘they’ has been useful for a long time,” said Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan. (“They” can be found in the works of literary greats like Chaucer and Jane Austen.) “But I think we’ve seen a lot of attention this year to people who are identifying out of the gender binary.”

Gender binary: That’s the idea that there are two distinct genders, one male and one female, with nothing in between. But to Ms. Curzan’s point: Indeed. If we’ve learned anything over the last year, from vocal transgender spokespeople like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox; from on-screen depictions like “Transparent,” the Emmy-winning Amazon series about a family patriarch who comes out as transgender; or even from Miley Cyrus — who has said she identifies as “pansexual,” or sexually fluid — it’s that both sexuality (whom you go to bed with) and gender (who you go to bed as) are much more … flexible.

“I think we, and particularly young people, increasingly view gender not as a given, but as a choice, not as a distinction between male and female, but as a spectrum, regardless of what’s ‘down there,’” said Julie Mencher, a psychotherapist in Northampton, Mass., who conducts school workshops on how to support transgender students. “Many claim that gender doesn’t even exist.”

It does exist when it comes to language, though. He, she, hers, his, male, female — there’s not much in between. And so has emerged a new vocabulary: an attempt to solve the challenge of talking about someone who identifies as neither male nor female (and, inevitably, the linguistic confusion that comes along with it).

These days, on college campuses, stating a gender pronoun has become practically as routine as listing a major. “So it’s like: ‘Hi, I’m Evie. My pronouns are she/her/hers. My major is X,’” said Evie Zavidow, a junior at Barnard.

“Ze” is a pronoun of choice for the student newspaper at Wesleyan, while “E” is one of the categories offered to new students registering at Harvard.

At American University, there is ”ey,” one of a number of pronoun options published in a guide for students (along with information about how to ask which one to use).

There’s also “hir,” “xe” and “hen,” which has been adopted by Sweden (a joining of the masculine han and the feminine hon); “ve,” and “ne,” and “per,” for person, “thon,” (a blend of “that” and “one”); and the honorific “Mx.” (pronounced “mix”) — an alternative to Ms. and Mr. that was recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The “x” in Mx. is meant to represent an unknown, similar to the use of x in algebraic equations.)

Those are just the pronouns, of course.

To use them, you need to have at least some knowledge of the identities to which they correspond — beginning with an understanding of the word “identity,” along with its sister verb, “identify” (as in: “I identify as female” or “I identify as mixed-race”).

“Identity” was honored last month in another “word of the year” contest, this one by — a choice, said Jane Solomon, a senior editor, to reflect the public’s “increasing awareness” of new gender expressions (as well as an increase in lookups for their definitions).

Among the additional words and terms the dictionary was updating for the year ahead: “code-switching,” or modifying of one’s behavior to adapt to different sociocultural norms; “sapiosexual,” for a person who finds intelligence the most sexually attractive feature; and “gender expression,” or an expression of one’s gender identity.

“It’s like the hyper-individuation of identity,” said Micah Fitzerman-Blue, a writer and producer on “Transparent,” who calls himself cisgender (“cis” for short), meaning he identifies with the sex (male) he was assigned at birth (or A.A.B.). “Is there such a thing as too many pronouns? Possibly. But who am I to pick and choose? Language has a way of sorting this stuff out.”

Does it, though?

In the second-to-last episode of last season’s “Transparent,” there was a blip of a scene that perhaps crystallized this moment in time: Ali, played by Gaby Hoffmann, stood in front of a bulletin board in the gender studies department of a university campus, waiting to speak with a professor. Tacked to the wall was a flier illustrated with a pair of boxing gloves. “Gender Pronoun Showdown!” it declared.

It was prescient.

Facebook now offers 50 different gender identity options for new users, including gender fluid (with a gender identity that is shifting), bigender (a person who identifies as having two distinct genders) and agender (a person without an identifying gender). There are day cares that proudly tout their gender-neutral pronoun policies — so kids don’t feel boxed in — and college professors who are skewered on the Internet for messing them up.

In New York City, new clarifications to the city’s human rights guidelines make clear that the intentional misidentification of a person’s preferred name, pronoun or title is violation of the city’s anti-discrimination law.

Misgendering “isn’t just a style error,” Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post wrote to describe a Twitter account she created following Ms. Jenner’s coming out, to “politely” correct for pronoun misuse. “It’s a stubborn, longtime hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.” (The Post, Ms. Dewey’s employer, recently announced the term “they” would be included in its stylebook.)

And yet the learning curve remains.

I discovered recently that “trans*,” with an asterisk, is now used as an umbrella term for non-cisgender identities — simpler than listing them all (but still considered respectful). On a recent radio segment, I found out that a newer term for “cisgender” is “chromosomal,” as in “chromosomal female,” which denotes a person who identifies with the sex (female) she was assigned at birth. (Another way of saying that a person was “assigned female at birth” — which does not necessarily make her a “chromosomal female” — is A.F.A.B.).

As for the pronouns: “They” may or may not correspond with these identities — which is why it’s in anybody’s best interest to simply ask. But when you do, don’t make the common mistake of calling it a preferred pronoun — as it is not considered to be “preferred.”

“The language is evolving daily — even gender reassignment, people are now calling it gender confirmation!” Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” said in a recent profile in The New Yorker, making the case for “they.”

“It’s not intuitive at all,” her girlfriend, the lesbian poet Eileen Myles, said in the article.

That doesn’t even begin to delve into the debate about the evolving use of “woman” and “vagina” — or, as some prefer to call it, “internal genitalia” — which is perhaps a linguistic (and political) world unto its own. Mills College recently changed its school chant from “Strong women! Proud women! All women! Mills women!” to “Strong, proud, all, Mills!”

Meanwhile, Mount Holyoke prompted a response from the iconic feminist playwright Eve Ensler after canceling a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” last year (because of its narrow view of gender). (At Columbia, that play has been replaced by a production called “Beyond Cis-terhood.”) Even the venerable NPR host Terry Gross has struggled with the language, repeatedly using the incorrect pronoun when interviewing Ms. Soloway last season about her transgender father, upon whom the show is based.

“I think there are a lot of people who want to do the right thing but are struggling to play catch-up with this new gender revolution,” said Ms. Mencher, a former transgender specialist at Smith College, which is one of a handful of historically women’s colleges to begin accepting transgender students.

“I begin all my trainings with an invitation for participants to stumble over language, to risk being politically incorrect, to bungle their pronouns — in the service of learning,” Ms. Mencher said.

As for they: Lexicological change won’t happen overnight. (Just look at the adoption of Ms.) But it does have a linguistic advantage, in that it’s already part of the language.

“Whether it’s the feminist movement of the 1970s or expressions of non-binary gender identities today,” said Mr. Zimmer of the American Dialect Society, “social changes can help power these changes.”

The Emergence of Orwellian Newspeak and the Death of Free Speech


29 JUNE 2015

Essential Questions (Whitehead and Penny)

  • What are the potential concerns that come with political correctness?

  • To what extent has political correctness been a positive force in our society?

  • Does limiting the things that we say equate to limiting our range of thought?

  • To what extent does the censorship of certain words and ideas a political strategy?

  • How does word choice grant power over thought?

  • In what way are “trigger warnings” and “safe zones” indicative of a larger problem?

“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it…. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.” ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
How do you change the way people think? You start by changing the words they use.

In totalitarian regimes—a.k.a. police states—where conformity and compliance are enforced at the end of a loaded gun, the government dictates what words can and cannot be used. In countries where the police state hides behind a benevolent mask and disguises itself as tolerance, the citizens censor themselves, policing their words and thoughts to conform to the dictates of the mass mind.

Even when the motives behind this rigidly calibrated reorientation of societal language appear well-intentioned—discouraging racism, condemning violence, denouncing discrimination and hatred—inevitably, the end result is the same: intolerance, indoctrination and infantilism.

It’s political correctness disguised as tolerance, civility and love, but what it really amounts to is the chilling of free speech and the demonizing of viewpoints that run counter to the cultural elite.

As a society, we’ve become fearfully polite, careful to avoid offense, and largely unwilling to be labeled intolerant, hateful, closed-minded or any of the other toxic labels that carry a badge of shame today. The result is a nation where no one says what they really think anymore, at least if it runs counter to the prevailing views. Intolerance is the new scarlet letter of our day, a badge to be worn in shame and humiliation, deserving of society’s fear, loathing and utter banishment from society.

For those “haters” who dare to voice a different opinion, retribution is swift: they will be shamed, shouted down, silenced, censored, fired, cast out and generally relegated to the dust heap of ignorant, mean-spirited bullies who are guilty of various “word crimes.”

We have entered a new age where, as commentator Mark Steyn notes, “we have to tiptoe around on ever thinner eggshells” and “the forces of ‘tolerance’ are intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.”

In such a climate of intolerance, there can be no freedom speech, expression or thought.

Yet what the forces of political correctness fail to realize is that they owe a debt to the so-called “haters” who have kept the First Amendment robust. From swastika-wearing Neo-Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois, and underage cross burners to “God hates fags” protesters assembled near military funerals, those who have inadvertently done the most to preserve the right to freedom of speech for all have espoused views that were downright unpopular, if not hateful.

Until recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has reiterated that the First Amendment prevents the government from proscribing speech, or even expressive conduct, because it disapproves of the ideas expressed. However, that long-vaunted, Court-enforced tolerance for “intolerant” speech has now given way to a paradigm in which the government can discriminate freely against First Amendment activity that takes place within a government forum. Justifying such discrimination as “government speech,” the Court ruled that the Texas Dept. of Motor Vehicles could refuse to issue specialty license plate designs featuring a Confederate battle flag. Why? Because it was deemed offensive.

The Court’s ruling came on the heels of a shooting in which a 21-year-old white gunman killed nine African-Americans during a Wednesday night Bible study at a church in Charleston, N.C. The two events, coupled with the fact that gunman Dylann Roof was reportedly pictured on several social media sites with a Confederate flag, have resulted in an emotionally charged stampede to sanitize the nation’s public places of anything that smacks of racism, starting with the Confederate flag and ballooning into a list that includes the removal of various Civil War monuments.
These tactics are nothing new. This nation, birthed from puritanical roots, has always struggled to balance its love of liberty with its moralistic need to censor books, music, art, language, symbols etc. As author Ray Bradbury notes, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”

Indeed, thanks to the rise of political correctness, the population of book burners, censors, and judges has greatly expanded over the years so that they run the gamut from left-leaning to right-leaning and everything in between. By eliminating words, phrases and symbols from public discourse, the powers-that-be are sowing hate, distrust and paranoia. In this way, by bottling up dissent, they are creating a pressure cooker of stifled misery that will eventually blow.

For instance, the word “Christmas” is now taboo in the public schools, as is the word “gun.” Even childish drawings of soldiers result in detention or suspension under rigid zero tolerance policies. On college campuses, trigger warnings are being used to alert students to any material they might read, see or hear that might upset them, while free speech zones restrict anyone wishing to communicate a particular viewpoint to a specially designated area on campus. Things have gotten so bad that comedians such as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld refuse to perform stand-up routines to college crowds anymore.

Clearly, the country is undergoing a nervous breakdown, and the news media is helping to push us to the brink of insanity by bombarding us with wall-to-wall news coverage and news cycles that change every few days.

In this way, it’s difficult to think or debate, let alone stay focused on one thing—namely, holding the government accountable to abiding by the rule of law—and the powers-that-be understand this.

As I document in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, regularly scheduled trivia and/or distractions keep the citizenry tuned into the various breaking news headlines and entertainment spectacles and tuned out to the government’s steady encroachments on our freedoms. These sleight-of-hand distractions and diversions are how you control a population, either inadvertently or intentionally, advancing a political agenda agenda without much opposition from the citizenry.

Professor Jacques Ellul studied this phenomenon of overwhelming news, short memories and the use of propaganda to advance hidden agendas. “One thought drives away another; old facts are chased by new ones,” wrote Ellul.

Under these conditions there can be no thought. And, in fact, modern man does not think about current problems; he feels them. He reacts, but he does not understand them any more than he takes responsibility for them. He is even less capable of spotting any inconsistency between successive facts; man’s capacity to forget is unlimited. This is one of the most important and useful points for the propagandists, who can always be sure that a particular propaganda theme, statement, or event will be forgotten within a few weeks.

Already, the outrage over the Charleston shooting and racism are fading from the news headlines, yet the determination to censor the Confederate symbol remains. Before long, we will censor it from our thoughts, sanitize it from our history books, and eradicate it from our monuments without even recalling why. The question, of course, is what’s next on the list to be banned?

It was for the sake of preserving individuality and independence that James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, fought for a First Amendment that protected the “minority” against the majority, ensuring that even in the face of overwhelming pressure, a minority of one—even one who espouses distasteful viewpoints—would still have the right to speak freely, pray freely, assemble freely, challenge the government freely, and broadcast his views in the press freely.

This freedom for those in the unpopular minority constitutes the ultimate tolerance in a free society. Conversely, when we fail to abide by Madison’s dictates about greater tolerance for all viewpoints, no matter how distasteful, the end result is always the same: an indoctrinated, infantilized citizenry that marches in lockstep with the governmental regime.

Some of this past century’s greatest dystopian literature shows what happens when the populace is transformed into mindless automatons. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, reading is banned and books are burned in order to suppress dissenting ideas, while televised entertainment is used to anesthetize the populace and render them easily pacified, distracted and controlled.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, serious literature, scientific thinking and experimentation are banned as subversive, while critical thinking is discouraged through the use of conditioning, social taboos and inferior education. Likewise, expressions of individuality, independence and morality are viewed as vulgar and abnormal.

And in George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother does away with all undesirable and unnecessary words and meanings, even going so far as to routinely rewrite history and punish “thoughtcrimes.” In this dystopian vision of the future, the Thought Police serve as the eyes and ears of Big Brother, while the Ministry of Peace deals with war and defense, the Ministry of Plenty deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation), the Ministry of Love deals with law and order (torture and brainwashing), and the Ministry of Truth deals with news, entertainment, education and art (propaganda). The mottos of Oceania: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

All three—Bradbury, Huxley and Orwell—had an uncanny knack for realizing the future, yet it is Orwell who best understood the power of language to manipulate the masses. Orwell’s Big Brother relied on Newspeak to eliminate undesirable words, strip such words as remained of unorthodox meanings and make independent, non-government-approved thought altogether unnecessary. To give a single example, as psychologist Erich Fromm illustrates in his afterword to 1984: “The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as "This dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free," since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed as concepts....”
Where we stand now is at the juncture of OldSpeak (where words have meanings, and ideas can be dangerous) and Newspeak (where only that which is “safe” and “accepted” by the majority is permitted). The power elite has made their intentions clear: they will pursue and prosecute any and all words, thoughts and expressions that challenge their authority.

This is the final link in the police state chain. Having been reduced to a cowering citizenry—mute in the face of elected officials who refuse to represent us, helpless in the face of police brutality, powerless in the face of militarized tactics and technology that treat us like enemy combatants on a battlefield, and naked in the face of government surveillance that sees and hears all—we have nowhere left to go. Our backs are to the walls. From this point on, we have only two options: go down fighting, or capitulate and betray our loved ones…

What's wrong with political correctness?


 1 JUNE 2015

It’s easy to criticize call-out culture. It’s harder to look into your own heart and ask if you can do better.

The year is 1994 and the place is a small suburban kitchen in Sussex. I’m nine years old and I’m sitting at the table, slopping Frosties into my mouth and reading Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Some friends of my parents bought it for me as a joke. The joke is that I’m an angry, sensitive child whose favorite phrase is “That’s not fair!” and I should lighten up and play with Barbies like a normal kid. I fail to get the joke. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is my favorite book. You can tell from the milk stains.

In these stories, no princess has to wait to be saved. Cinderella organizes against low-paid labor. Snow White is an activist for the rights of people of restricted growth. And the wolves are gentle, misunderstood carnivores who sometimes get to win. As I’m nine, I’ve never heard of political correctness before but it sounds good to me.

Fast-forward 20 years. In a freezing-cold flat in Berlin, I’m standing under the shower with the water turned up as high and hot as it will go. I’m trying to boil away the shame of having said something stupid on the internet. The shower is the one place it’s still impossible to check Twitter. This is a mercy. For as long as the hot water lasts I won’t be able to read the new accusations of bigotry, racism and unchecked privilege. I didn’t mean it. I don’t understand what I did wrong but I’m trying to understand. I want to be a good person. It turns out that however hard you try to be politically correct, you can still mess up. I am so, so sorry.

What has come to be called “political correctness” used to be known as “good manners” and was considered part of being a decent human being. The term is now employed to write off any speech that is uncomfortably socially conscious, culturally sensitive or just plain left-wing. The term is employed, too often, to shut down free speech in the name of protecting speech.

Recently, prominent writers from Jon Ronson to Jonathan Chait and Dan ­Hodges have been doubling down on the supposed culture of “political correctness” and “public shaming”. It is no coincidence that most of the loudest voices condemning the “Twitter mafia” are white, male, cisgender, privileged and unused to having to share any sort of public forum with large numbers of people who rarely have to worry about which pair of dad jeans will best conceal a pudding-colored paunch. I’m really sorry if that image offended anyone, because some of my best friends truly are straight white men. Sometimes we do straight white men things together, like eating undercooked barbecue meat, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and threatening women on Twitter with moderate sexual violence. (Not really. Sorry, Chris and Henry.)

On one level, the pushback against “public shaming” can be read as a reaction from the old guard against the empowerment of previously unheard voices. There is nothing particularly novel about well-paid posh chaps writing off feminists, black activists and trans organizers as “toxic” and demanding that they behave with more decorum if they want to be taken seriously. I think, however, that it’s about more than that. I think it’s about shame and about fear.

On a very profound level, people who occupy positions of social power – and I include myself in that demographic – are worried not just that the unheard masses are coming for them but that they might be right to do so.

Most of us like to think we are good people. I do, although once, in a moment of extreme stress, I did tell a Telegraph journalist to go and die in a fire. When you are faced with a barrage of strangers whose opinions you actually care about yelling at you that you’re hateful and hurtful, that you’re an idiot and a bigot, when all you’ve done is make a mistake – well, the easy option, the option that feels safest and most comfortable, is to wall yourself off, decry your critics as prigs and bullies and make a great many ominous references to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Which is silly, because internet feminists are really not a lot like totalitarian dictators; but if we are I want to know when I’m getting the drone army and the snazzy Hugo Boss outfit.

It’s easy to criticize call-out culture, especially if the people calling you out are mean and less than merciful. It’s far harder to look into your own heart and ask if you can and should do better. Like almost every other human being, I don’t like it when people shout at me, unless I’m at a punk show and have paid good money to have people shout at me. I’m quite a sensitive bunny. I am mortified by the thought of hurting other people, even by accident. I’ve spent very dark days, following social media pile-ons, convinced that I was a horrible person who didn’t deserve to draw breath. I am not afraid of the sexist trolls who send me boring porn gifs on Twitter. I am afraid – frequently legitimately afraid – of letting people down. Of letting my community down. Of making a mistake I can’t move on from. I think everyone with a social conscience and a Facebook profile worries about this.

There is an enormous difference between being brought to task in public for making mistakes and the ritualized shaming of women, queer people and ethnic minorities online. There is a difference, a difference that critics such as Ronson and Chait are keen to smudge over, between marginalized people clamoring against instances of oppression, and everyday cyberbullying and harassment – what Monica Lewinsky, in her phenomenal Ted talk, calls “public shaming as a blood sport”. The difference is all about power: who has it and who doesn’t.

I know this because I’ve experienced both. I’ve been called out for saying thoughtless things online, and I have also been the target of vicious hate campaigns from people who wanted me dead just for who and what I am. Much of the pushback I experience comes from sexists and bigots who simply hate the idea that any young woman, anywhere, has a writing career. Their violence can be very frightening, especially when they send bomb threats to my house. It does not, however, throw me into existential panic. The last time I got a graphic rape threat, I felt awful but the last time I got a furious tweet from a trans woman telling me off for accidentally using appropriative language, I felt worse. I felt shame. Especially because she had a point.

It is terribly difficult to stay in the room – physically, emotionally, politically – with the untempered anger of other people whose opinions you care about. It is harder still to cope with the possibility that the world is changing and you may need to change, too. That good intentions are not enough to stop you hurting others through ignorance or obliviousness. In that poky, unventilated bathroom in Berlin, I laid my head against the tiles and breathed in lungfuls of steam and decided to try to move beyond my own panic and understand that although this wasn’t, ultimately, about me, it was still my responsibility to try not to be a tosspot if I could help it. This is as good a baseline for human decency as any, even when the public parameters of what does and does not constitute tosspottery are shifting faster than a potter can toss.

Moving through guilt to catharsis is a tall order for a Tuesday night. It’s uncomfortable to realize that you’ve messed up in a way that requires apology. But I think moving through that discomfort, in this weird and unsettled age, is part of being an adult. Whoever we are, we have to learn to deal with the discomfort that comes with making mistakes, if we don’t want this moment of social change to produce more fragmentation, more misunderstanding, more dismissal of the concerns of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in ­society – people for whom discomfort is way down the list of daily concerns, somewhere behind homelessness and being shot in the back by police for a parking violation.

The problem is not “outrage”. The problem is rage, pure and simple. This is an anxious time, an age of great and worsening inequality, of structural racism and oppression, and when resistance fails to produce relief, that rage finds outlets wherever it can. Sometimes that rage turns ugly. I’m not going to argue there aren’t people on what I still think of as “my side” who sometimes behave shamefully, targeting individuals with the sort of bullying tactics they claim to oppose. “Some forms of activist rage,” says the sociologist and trans feminist Katherine Cross, “are flat out morally wrong and do real harm. But the problem at the root of it is the dispossession of marginalized people, which makes that rage the only avenue of self-actualization available to them.”

There is so much to be angry about and precious little relief for that anger within what passes for democracy in most western nations. For those of us who do not happen to own a senator or two, social media is one of the few spaces where we can sometimes, sometimes, see justice being done. The racist comedian forced to apologize for his jokes at the expense of Asian people. The margarine company pressured into withdrawing its homophobic ads. The newspaper that begins, at long last, to treat transsexual people more like human beings.

The world is waking up to new parameters of social decency and it is cranky and confused. The changes are coming too fast for anyone to cope with them without making a few mistakes, and when we do, we have to move beyond our shame and discomfort and try to act with compassion – for ourselves and others. I find putting the internet down and taking a hot shower is good for this. Your mileage, as they say on Twitter, may vary.

Because the truth – the real, unspeakable, awful truth – is that we are all vulnerable, and afraid, and more ignorant than we’d like to be. We are all fumbling to find a place for ourselves in this weird, anxious period of human history, stumbling between the savagery of late capitalism and the rage of the dispossessed. I still believe in new stories, with new heroes, where the wolves sometimes get to win. I still believe that decency, tolerance and free speech are worth fighting for. You might call that political correctness. I call it compassion and I think it’s how we build a better world.

Willing Loss of Control: Why Unfiltered Opinions Matter


17 JANUARY 2016
Essential Questions:

  • What is the relationship between the manipulation of words and the manipulation of thought?

  • In what ways do governments use language as a tool to control its populace?

  • In what ways has society and the media gained power through filtration of language?

  • How does political correctness threaten the formulation of free thought?

  • How are we as a society, affecting our own freedoms?

When Orwell wrote 1984, he wrote under the assumption that his readers would ensure that nothing of the magnitude that he envisioned would ever occur. The fact that he is still read today despite the absence of totalitarian rule in our country shows the salience of his message.

Part of Orwell’s warning involves the manipulation of language and its ability to convince a populace to give up some of its ability to think freely. What’s more, in 1984, the populace does so of its own free will as a result of the Party’s use of doublethink.

The last part is important when it comes to talking about the impact of Orwell’s warning to our country. We as Americans pride ourselves in the freedoms that we freely exercise and like to believe that we would stand up for those same freedoms if they were put under jeopardy. To say that we are far from Orwell’s dystopian society Oceania is an understatement. Our society enjoys more freedom than perhaps any society ever has at any point in history. However, the purpose of warning is not to predict the future, but to ensure that that future never occurs. In Orwell’s case, the far-reaching implication of his writings lies in its capacity to notify and instruct a populace on how to protect its freedoms by showing how they can be taken away.

Orwell primarily conveys this lesson through educating his readers about language and its power to manipulate thought to convince a populace of whatever the government wants. In 1984 this is done through carefully attaching words to charged ideas such as the idea that “War is Peace” or that “Big Brother is Watching You.” Both of these slogans are sleight of hand that utilize the manipulation of words as a means to distract the listener from the actual underlying motive: In the case of “War is Peace” that war is an essential element needed to maintain patriotism and blind obedience to the Party, and in the case of “Big Brother is Watching” that constant surveillance is a good thing because it ensures safety.

One need only look to the Patriot Act passed by George W. Bush in 2001 during the “War on Terror” to see how this concept works. The act itself is a 10-word acronym (U.S.A.P.A.T.R.I.O.T) "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" that was passed on the heels of the September 11th terror attacks and basically grants the government enhanced ability to combat terror through additional surveillance, border control, removal of obstacles to investigating terrorism, increased domestic security, etc.. On the surface, the act sounds like a good thing. Obviously security is of the utmost importance when the threat of attack is imminent. But applying an Orwellian lens to the act suggests a different motive. Essentially the act calls for citizens to give up some of their personal freedoms temporarily so that the country can better protect them in a time of need. In this sense the choice of acronym is significant. For those not familiar with the details of the act itself, the term “Patriot” even makes the act sound like a pro-American thing (when in reality the voluntary release of freedom is just about the least American thing I can think of). But the act itself is somewhat difficult to defend. Especially considering the fact that the temporary nature of the act was made considerably less temporary when Obama signed an extension to the Patriot Act in 2011 which not only extended the act for four years, but also added additional provisions for surveillance of those not linked to terror groups.

Even the term “War on Terror” is somewhat reminiscent of the Party’s “Newspeak” in its manipulation of a connotatively-charged term to elicit a response. Wartime powers only make sense during war. Yet due to issues with the United Nations and the pesky problem of declaring war on another nation, our administration found a cleverer way of addressing the problem. Declare war on an idea in the same way that politicians had successfully thrown that term around for the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs.” The benefits are obvious. A nation at war is a united nation. A nation more willing to eschew freedoms for the added blanket of security and patriotism. One need only look at the propaganda posters during World War II to see how the concept works. When lives are at stake, a populace is more willing to sacrifice small freedoms so that they can claim to be “doing their part.” In other words, the manipulation of the language via “War on Terror” creates a culture where a populace is more willing to docilely give up their rights of their own free will. This is the sobering part of Orwell’s message when it comes to all aspects of our country today.

Which leads to the second (and arguably scarier) part of Orwell’s message: that loss of freedom and independence will not come via some government seizure of rights in one fell swoop, but as a systematized assault on our definition of the word until a populace becomes willing to give up freedoms.

In 1984, the Party accomplishes this through doublethink in which it teaches its citizens that “Freedom is Slavery.” The underlying principle is that freedom to think and speak is a burden rather than a privilege and in the long run might actually prove more enslaving than the opposite.

Today, the incorporation of political correctness touches upon this concept. We are at this moment in our history more cautious of what we say than we ever have been in our history. This in itself is not an incriminating statement. In fact, in many ways it shows the evolution of our society towards one that is humane and caring. But it also reflects a naiveté when it comes to language and its power over the thoughts that go through our mind.

The difference, of course, lies in the fact that political correctness is not controlled by our current government, but rather the media which influences how certain words take on added meanings. The connection to Orwell however, remains rooted in the idea that loss of freedom results from a populace that has accepted limited freedom as the norm.

Take social media (Twitter) for instance. Whether it be the self-imposed limitation of 140 characters in twitter or the temptation to use a “politically correct” term and avoid having to explain oneself and one’s true intentions, the idea remains the same. Much of the way that we use words to communicate is under fire and many embrace this change as part of the evolution of how we communicate in the 21st Century.

To illustrate this concept: log onto a social media platform Twitter or Facebook and try to write a post in which you voice your opposition to the passing of Gay Marriage and see how many accusations of homophobia and bigotry you receive. For example:

“I am opposed to the idea of gay couples being married.”

Regardless of whether that is your personal belief or not, the point is that it takes a bit of courage to make a statement like that without filtering the original thought onto the page. And because of the perceived mountain of pressure that comes with the sharing culture online, it is much harder nowadays to have an actual opinion than in the past. Which is actually distressing considering that having an opinion (no matter how much others perceive that opinion to be wrong) should not be a crime or a reason to be ashamed. It has reached such a point that it’s much easier to just avoid stating one’s opinion entirely or to backtrack to the point of selling out. Rather than writing the message above, one might be tempted to use the “safe” phrase:

“I support traditional marriage”

and hope that your opponents take that as meaning that you are NOT opposed to gay marriage (when that is really what you are saying). Or better yet, it may be even trendier to make a statement that ignores the issue altogether:

“Idk why people be tripping about this whole marriage thing. Love is love. #Lovewins.”

Statements like the above will most definitely generate more positive reinforcement in the form of “likes” or “retweets” and are much less likely to elicit negative reinforcement via inflammatory replies, but the meaning is the not the same as the original. In fact, in many ways, the statement above actually is the opposite of the original statement because by refusing to address the issue it actually caters to the opposite view. In other words, you have just been a victim of doublethink without actually knowing it.

The applications are endless. Take a similar thought and apply it to race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, opinion on legalizing drugs, abortion, legalizing prostitution, minimum wage, graduated income tax, etc., and immediately the temptation to amend thought for the sake of political correctness rears its head.

The connection to Orwell lies in the acceptance of the status quo. As a populace, Orwell’s Oceania had bought into the concept of monitoring their words (and therefore monitoring their thoughts). This granted the Party absolute power because the populace was on board with any changes made to the language because the idea that their thoughts were being manipulated never occurred to them (and if it did they would just be vaporized anyway).

Flash forward to our society today where increasingly political correctness is being used to shame anyone who does not share one’s opinion and the message is sobering. Currently, the status quo prioritizes being careful rather than being right. Just take a look at any criticisms to the statement: “Race is not an issue in America today” and you’ll quickly see why. Rather than logical arguments that disprove the statement, you will most likely receive accusations of being racist or worse yet, that you are not entitled to an opinion because of your own race. Which is to say directly: Because I am not a racial minority I do not have a right to an opinion. Such an argument is a powerful one because of its ability to change your opinion. In response to this statement it’s easy to come to the conclusion that no, I haven’t experienced what racial minorities did so I shouldn’t have an opinion and then immediately change your opinion to avoid further conflict.

The danger in this practice lies not in the ideas themselves—human rights and equality are nothing to scoff at—but in the distressing practice of using a moral high ground to dispossess others of their right to opinion. No opinion should be retracted simply because of vociferous backlash and accusations of racism, but because an informed decision practice determined that the opinion was indeed wrong or invalid. Such is the imperative (and burden) of a government system that relies upon its citizens to make informed and difficult decisions.

Of course this is not to say that race isn’t an issue in our country or that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. The point is that reasoned intellectual discussion is being replaced by paranoia and name-calling and rather than fight the trend, we as a society, are becoming okay with it. The consequence of this culture of sensitivity is that the important conversations which help to create an informed voting populace are increasingly being shaped by those who control what it means to be politically correct. Or in other words, the media drives opinions now more than ever because of an unwillingness to formulate uncomfortable opinions and defend

Obviously neither of these issues (government or media) is cause for immediate panic at this time. We are nowhere near Orwell’s dystopian world. In some ways we have Orwell to thank for that. As all dystopias, 1984 conveys its message by educating us about potential consequences. An informed populace is a populace that holds fast to freedom and cannot be manipulated by their government. What’s concerning to me is how increasingly our issues are becoming impossible to talk about or are prepackaged in such a way that only one or two opinions are viable. The conversations that need to happen are becoming harder to have or are too neutered by filtered wording to be of any real worth. In this way, I am less concerned about our government and more concerned with the way that we are depriving ourselves of the freedom to think freely which might in the course of time lead to an actually oppressive government.

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