From Science Matters
By Ron Clutz
Thomas Sowell expounds on the contemporary pervasive use of newspeak to confuse public discourse by changing the meaning of words to advance a political agenda. Below is an excerpt from his Thomas Sowell Reader.
The Left’s Vocabulary
A recent angry e-mail from a reader said that certain issues should not be determined by “the dictates of the market.” With a mere turn of a phrase, he had turned reality upside down. Decisions by people free to make their mutual accommodations with other free people were called “dictates” while having third parties tell all of them what they could and couldn’t do was not.
Verbal coups have long been a specialty of the left. Totalitarian countries on the left have called themselves “people’s democracies” and used the egalitarian greeting “comrade”—even though some comrades had the arbitrary power of life and death over other comrades.
In democratic countries, where public opinion matters, the left has used its verbal talents to change the whole meaning of words and to substitute new words, so that issues would be debated in terms of their redefined vocabulary, instead of the real substance of the issues. Words which have acquired connotations from the actual experiences of millions of human beings over generations, or even centuries, have been replaced by new words that wipe out those connotations and substitute more fashionable notions of the left.
The word “swamp,” for example, has been all but erased from the language. Swamps were messy, sometimes smelly, places where mosquitoes bred and sometimes snakes lurked. The left has replaced the word “swamp” with “wetlands,” a word spoken in pious tones usually reserved for sacred things. The point of this verbal sleight-of-hand is to impose the left’s notions of how other people can use their own land. Restrictive laws about “wetlands” have imposed huge costs on farmers and other owners of land that happened to have a certain amount of water on it.
Another word that the left has virtually banished from the language is “bum.” Centuries of experience with idlers who refused to work and who hung around on the streets making a nuisance—and sometimes a menace—of themselves were erased from our memories as the left verbally transformed those same people into a sacred icon, “the homeless.”
As with swamps, what was once messy and smelly was now
turned into something we had a duty to protect.
It was now our duty to support people who refused to support themselves. Crimes committed by bums are covered up by the media, by verbally transforming “the homeless” into “transients” or “drifters” whenever they commit crimes. Thus “the homeless” are the only group you never hear of committing any crimes.
More to the point, third parties’ notions are imposed by the power of the government to raise our taxes to support people who are raising hell on our streets and in parks where it has often become too dangerous for our children to play. The left has a whole vocabulary devoted to depicting people who do not meet standards as people who have been denied “access.” Whether it is academic standards, job qualifications or credit requirements, those who do not measure up are said to have been deprived of “opportunity,” “rights” or “social justice.”
The word games of the left—from the mantra of “diversity”
to the pieties of “compassion”—are not just games.
They are ways of imposing power by evading issues of substance through the use of seductive rhetoric. “Rights,” for example, have become an all-purpose term used for evading both facts and logic by saying that people have a “right” to whatever the left wants to give them by taking from others.
For centuries, rights were exemptions from government power, as in the Bill of Rights. Now the left has redefined rights as things that can be demanded from the taxpayers, or from private employers or others, on behalf of people who accept no mutual obligations, even for common decency.
At one time, educators tried to teach students to carefully define words and systematically analyze arguments. They said, “We are here to teach you how to think, not what to think.” Today, they are teaching students what to think—political correctness. Instead of knowledge, students are given “self-esteem,” so that they can vent their ignorance with confidence.
Footnote on Equivocation
A related wordplay frequently appears concerning the Global Warming/Climate Change issue. Equivocation is a logic violation when in the course of an argument (making a case), one or more words change their meanings, rendering a nonsensical conclusion. For example, the switching back and forth between weather and climate:
Then the media refers to climate model outputs as dire predictions of the future. But buried in the fine print are legal disclaimers talking about scenarios and projections of possibilities. Of course there is the labelling of carbon dioxide as a “pollutant”, when in fact it is the stuff of life for the biosphere.
Even the term “climate” was always used to describe distinctive local and regional patterns (Climates), but now refers only to a singular global abstraction. And so on.
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