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“Politics and the English Language.” By George Orwell.
LITERATURE MATTERSBy Michael S. Rose | April 2020Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.
In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell poses a thoughtful question: Does language experience “natural growth” or is it shaped “for our own purposes”? In other words, does the English language organically evolve over time or is it purposefully manipulated in order to affect the social order? Anyone familiar with Orwell’s body of work can probably guess at the trajectory of his response. Although one could argue that this seminal essay on 20th-century linguistics was written merely to lament the “general collapse” of language as a reflection of the general collapse of civilization following the Second World War, Orwell’s ultimate purpose is to show that social activists can unduly manipulate language for their own ends by obscuring meaning, corrupting thought, and rendering language a minefield in the political landscape. Why? Orwell says: to effect changes in thought and affections and to shame those who somehow prove impervious to manipulation.
Orwell dramatizes this assertion in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published three years after “Politics and the English Language,” the iconic dystopic novel imagines a futuristic government that manipulates language so that its citizens conform in thought, word, and deed to a narrow political orthodoxy. Language, in fact, is the primary change agent, assisted by government-engineered fearmongering and savage punishments for language dissidents.
Just as language matters in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, it matters in our world too. Consider, for example, the basics of “inclusive language.” Back when Orwell was writing, and throughout much of the 20th century, the accepted universal singular pronouns were he, him, and his, a reality codified in every English grammar text published before 1999. These pronouns referred to any individual, whether male or female, as in “Every student should bring his book to class.” The meaning was clear, the convention was understood, and because it was an accepted grammatical convention, no one was denounced as sexist for applying its usage. Some years later, in an effort to be “inclusive,” language handlers in academia and the publishing industry pointed out that the convention itself was sexist and reinforced sexism in society. If they could change the convention, they reasoned, they could change society.
The language handlers first promoted the alternative “inclusive” usage of he or she, him or her, and his or hers — and soon thereafter demanded it. Those who continued using traditional grammatical constructions that included the universal pronouns he, him, and his (especially men) were often branded, on the basis of their grammar alone, as sexists. But mere social stigma later gave way to punitive actions. For example, in 2013, California State University, Chico, revised its definition of sexual harassment and sexual violence to include “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes.” Thus, Chico profs who say, “Every student should bring his book to class” are susceptible to disciplinary actions, up to and including dismissal. As you might imagine, Chico is not alone in this. Rather, this is the norm on most college campuses.
But now, in 2020, it is no longer acceptable to use he or she or him or her. What was once promoted and then demanded by language handlers as inclusive has now been deemed verboten by the same people! Who are these language handlers? In brief, they are the engineers of the English-language style manuals used by academia, the media, and the publishing industry, all easy prey to special-interest lobbyists who demand language changes to promote their sociopolitical agendas. Last year, for example, the American Psychological Association (APA) announced a change to its stylebook, advocating for the singular they because it is “inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.” The APA style guide makes it clear that using his or her is no longer inclusive and no longer acceptable. This could not have happened without the proponents of transgenderism pushing for the manipulation of language. In order for the APA’s statement to make any sense — “they…is inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender” — one is forced to accept the premises of transgenderism, including the theory of so-called nonbinary gender. If one is to accept the usage of the singular they, one must also accept the fantasy that an infinite number of genders exists and that language is tied to something called “gender expression” rather than to sex, which is binary (i.e., male and female).
In 2018 the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released a “Statement on Gender and Language,” promoting the use of the singular they as the only inclusive universal pronoun. In its position statement, the NCTE actually spells out the premises one must accept in order to make sense of the singular they. This is not about language clarity or precision; this is about advancing a sociopolitical agenda that requires everyone — yes, everyone — to accept the following terms:
Gender identity: an individual’s feeling about, relationship with, and understanding of gender as it pertains to their sense of self. An individual’s gender identity may or may not be related to the sex that individual was assigned at birth.
Gender expression: external presentation of one’s gender identity, often through behavior, clothing, haircut, or voice, which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
Cisgender: of or relating to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Transgender: of or relating to a person whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. This umbrella term may refer to someone whose gender identity is woman or man, or to someone whose gender identity is nonbinary (see below).
Nonbinary: of or relating to a person who does not identify, or identify solely, as either a woman or a man. More specific nonbinary identifiers include but are not limited to terms such as agender and gender fluid (see below).
Gender fluid: of or relating to individuals whose identity shifts among genders. This term overlaps with terms such as genderqueer and bigender, implying movement among gender identities and/or presentations.
Agender: of or relating to a person who does not identify with any gender, or who identifies as neutral or genderless.
The NCTE, like the APA, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press, not only advocates using the singular they, it also prohibits “using he as a universal pronoun” and “using binary alternatives such as he/she, he or she, or (s)he.” And, in case you don’t understand the prohibition, the NCTE provides an example of the forbidden “exclusionary (binary)” language: “Every cast member should know his or her lines by Friday” must be rephrased as “Every cast member should know their lines by Friday.” But the new convention presents an offense against the dignity of traditional grammar usage, as the plural pronoun, their, does not agree with its singular subject, cast member. (Really now, a simpler rewrite would render the sentence both grammatically correct and “inclusive”: All cast members should know their lines by Friday.) And, according to NCTE, in the case of a student named Alex, who declares that his preferred pronouns are they, them, and their, a teacher should say, “Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday.” Yes, seriously, this is the example given by the NCTE. (And whose lines, one may ask? Everyone’s lines? This phrasing is lacking in precision and clarity, and this from the organization that exerts enormous influence over our nation’s high-school English teachers!) To be sure, teachers and students will be forced to utter the ridiculous: Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday. Failing to do so could, in the near future, be construed as gender harassment and be cause for expulsion or sacking.
So, why does it matter what the APA or the Chicago Manual of Style or the NCTE has to say on the matter of nonbinary, gender-inclusive language and the singular they? Well, the APA sets the writing style and format conventions for academic essays for many college and high-school students, as well as for scholarly articles and books. The Chicago Manual of Style (published by the University of Chicago) sets the editorial standards and conventions that are widely used in the publishing industry. And the NCTE, as mentioned above, sets the tone for high-school English teachers across the nation, those who will teach our children to read, write, and speak.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell calls this “an invasion of one’s mind” — again, the purposeful manipulation of language in order to corrupt one’s thoughts and affections. Thus, the choice of academia, the media, and the publishing industry to adopt the singular they is not simply about word choice — as silly and illogical as it may be: Alex needs to learn their lines by Friday! — it is about forcing students and others to accept the language of transgenderism and the ideological corollaries behind the vocabulary. It is asking us all to accept something that is less than reality. Pronouns, we are told, are no longer related to the body (male and female) but to the mind, how one “identifies” or “expresses” the social construct of gender. Reality is denied, and the fluid world of one’s nonbinary fancy replaces it.
It is worth noting that last year the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education published a 30-page document, “Male and Female He Created Them,” on this very topic. Quoting Pope Francis, it explains that gender theory “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.” This ideology, Pope Francis explains, promotes “a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time.” Thus, in the case of the Catholic educator or the Catholic student, one must compromise one’s religious principles in order to conform to the industry standards of language.
This attempt to transplant pronouns from the body to the mind, Orwell might say, is an attempt to destroy our ability to communicate. According to this new norm, one can now choose from a multitude of “gender identities” — or simply make up a new one — none of which has any fixed link to a specific set of pronouns. (Some recently emerging gender pronouns include zir, ze, xe, hir, per, ve, ey, hen, and thon. And there are more! Facebook, for example, offers 50 options. Fifty!) In fact, following this reasoning, gender expressionists may, at any time and for any reason, decide to change their preferred personal pronouns but without changing their gender identity; they may also decide to change their gender identity without changing their preferred pronouns — or they may choose to change both.
This is the kind of linguistic pretension that, as Orwell warns, obscures meaning, corrupts thought, and renders language a minefield in the political landscape. Why a minefield? As Orwell illustrated in Nineteen Eighty-Four, language-engineering is an attempt to shame or punish those who disagree with the ascribed linguistic orthodoxy. And, again, to what end? As Chicago-based community activist Saul Alinsky famously wrote in his manifesto Rules for Radicals (1971), “He who controls the language controls the masses.” (Note his use of “sexist language” by way of the universal singular pronoun he.) Alinsky, an enthusiastic advocate of manipulating language for political purposes, agrees with Orwell: It’s all about thought control; it’s about superimposing a sociopolitical ideology on the masses; it’s about altering our understanding of the world; it’s about customizing the language to effect whimsical social change. It’s ultimately about altering reality so that, as Orwell dramatized in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we come to accept that “war is peace,” that “freedom is slavery,” and that two plus two equals five.
Orwell, as evidenced by “Politics and the English Language,” believes that language should reflect reality. If it doesn’t, what possible limits could be placed on misleading, manipulative language, whether in grade-school textbooks, government documents, or political campaign literature? If language is “always evolving,” as many commentators have reasoned in their recent support of so-called nonbinary, gender-inclusive language (including the singular they), what is stopping anyone from using this as an excuse to effect any change in any language for any reason at any time?
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