During the past week the animal rights group PETA shared a chart on their Twitter feed which urged the adjustment of English idiom to express greater sensitivity towards other mammals, and to exclude anything barbaric in our turn of phrase. Under their guidance we should supplant ‘bring home the bacon’ with ‘bring home the bagels’, ‘kill two birds with one stone’ with ‘feed two birds with one scone’, ‘beat a dead horse’ with ‘feed a fed horse’ and so on. The approach was so didactic, and the alternative phrases so preposterous, that it was difficult to decide whether this was parody, clever postmodern irony, or a momentary slip of the mask which craves the decommissioning of language in order to re-weaponise words in favour of a political cause. On reflection, and regrettably, it appears to be the latter. Twitter came alive with side-glancing sarcasm, becoming a lean mean meme machine pumping out ironic alternatives to the phrases offered. Those posting encouraged us to laugh together at such folly and political correctness.
The danger, however, is that we might be sharing GIFs and snorting loudly at the same time as we walk straight into cultural and moral oblivion. The redefinition of language, the thirst to recalibrate how we articulate ourselves, is a profoundly serious act, a violation not just of our freedom of expression but of our thoughts and conceptual frameworks. Posts like the misguidedly candid PETA advertisement flag up a hunger to control, an activism which demands intellectual uniformity, and cultural hegemony. We might sneer at such rhetoric, but we should also fear and resist it, whatever our opinion on the rights of animals or any other group.
George Orwell’s work as a novelist and essayist seem to deepen in their relevance with every stroke of cultural revisionism’s pen, showing that his were not merely dystopian thought experiments but remarkably clear eyed depictions of what happens when freedom of thought and expression are lost. Away from the obvious parallels of our contemporary society with 1984 is his wider thought on how words work, and why words must be given rights as well. For Orwell the language of a society is symptomatic of its overall condition, ‘[the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’ (Politics and the English Language, pg.1).This is a remarkable and worrying thought, that not only does language reflect the moral state of society but that it also deeply affects the ethos of how that society conceives of, and conducts, itself. Words articulate who we are, but they also can dictate who we are and how we think, and this is nowhere more evident than when parties and people intentionally seek to control the use and meaning of words. Orwell noted that ‘orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style’ (P&EL, pg.13), and when this is married to political aims we can be sure that such language ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’ (P&EL, pg.20).
If we transpose such concepts into our own context, then we ought to be suspicious of imposed linguistic orthodoxies for all of society, we should resist prescriptive forms which demand allegiance or which threaten ostracisation for those who desist. Never before has our language been more tightly controlled or more strictly monitored. While people protested loudly at the proliferation of CCTV cameras in towns and cities, society at large quietly bought into the idea of recording our thoughts, pooling our words, itemising our reading material, and surrendering our individuality via social media. Under such circumstances dissent is almost impossible, is never acceptable, and conformity is becoming increasingly enforceable. We should be as concerned that heads of major tech firms and social media companies have elected themselves to the position of linguistic and intellectual arbiters as we would be if our local asthma clinics were being run by Marlboro. Parties with interests, declared and otherwise, are quietly asserting how we should use words, where we can share them, and what kinds of thoughts should lie behind them.
As a Christian whose Baptist heritage is radically rooted in the concept of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state, these early measures of social and intellectual control are deeply uncomfortable to me. I want to step away from any insidious (or blatant) attempt at controlling my conscience, my intellect, or my voice, and I want to use every channel open to me register my dissent against the increasingly powerful groupthink and Newspeak which are becoming acceptable and comfortable for society at large. This doesn’t mean a retreat from social media, but it does mean that I need to feed my heart and mind away from these channels, I need to read independently (not according to mere zeitgeist), and I need to pray for courage to think and speak in transgressive ways in a world which increasingly seeks to tether the tongue.