Friday, July 19

Why we should avoid using ‘Wokespeak’*

About seven months ago, after a series of deeply unsettling conversations with an old friend, I became convinced that the changes to language and meaning that we have observed over the last decade are not the result of natural language shifts over time, but the emergence of something much more sinister.

I believe that ‘Wokespeak’* is an authoritarian linguistic code; one that interferes with normal critical thinking and disseminates an authoritarian mode of thought among the populace

It is a way of speaking that is deceptive by design; that relies on euphemisms and repetition and semantic trickery to hide the true meaning of the words being spoken. It dulls the wit and confuses the unwary, conceals crimes and justifies the suppression of dissent. 

Those who speak it are immediately obvious to those who do not. Even if they have not yet adopted the clothing and hairstyles of the most fluent speakers of this proto-fascist verbiage, touch on any hot-button issue in the world and the speakers of the code will reveal themselves with their tortured language. That is because it is not solely a code fixated on ‘gender’, but has seeped into every intellectual, political and personal arena. 

Alarmingly, speakers appear to believe that by using this new kind of speech, it marks them as ‘good’ people, and refusing to use it is seen as a sign of ignorance, at best. Challenging the concepts implied in the code is even worse; the non-speaker is assumed thereafter to be a suspicious and possibly radical type, who should at the very least, be encouraged to speak inside where no-one can hear them.

Most disturbing of all, it is being imposed upon us by the government, in legislation, policy and public statements – and those who dissent are being vilified and denounced. 

About three weeks ago, tired of wondering about all this, I wrote to Noam Chomsky**, asking him if it was possible to codify and measure an authoritarian linguistic code. I told him that if it was possible, I would like to give it a go. To my starstruck delight, he responded, and recommended that I read “The Language of the Third Reich: LTI — Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook”, by Victor Klemperer, 1957, as the seminal work on the subject.

Victor and Eva Klemperer, Photo from the Technical University of Dresden.

Victor Klemperer was a Romance languages professor, journalist, labourer and German Jewish intellectual who believed that the language of the Nazis had created the culture and mindset of the Third Reich; a kind of linguistic primordial soup out of which their malevolent ideology grew and spread and captured the minds of otherwise rational people. 

I found his foreword alone frighteningly relatable. Klemperer describes his first conversation with someone captured by the new language thus:

 “He came and stayed in our house, and from being a lodger he became almost a foster son, calling us, half-jokingly but also very much in earnest, Mother and Father; we also contributed to some extent to his education. He married young and the warm, close relationship between us remained unaffected. That it could be destroyed by differences of political opinion never entered the mind of any of the four of us. And then National Socialism penetrated Saxony. I noticed in T. the first signs of a change in attitude. I asked him how he could sympathize with these people. ‘They don’t want anything different from the Socialists,’ he said, ‘they are also a workers’ party after all.’ – ‘Can’t you see that they have set their sights on war?’ – ‘At most a war of liberation which would benefit the entire national community, thereby helping the workers and the ordinary people as well. . .’ I began to have serious doubts about the extent and strength of his common sense. I tried a different tack in my attempt to make him more sceptical. ‘You have lived in my house for a number of years, you know the way I think, and you have often said yourself that you have learned something from us and that your moral values accord with ours – how, in the light of all this, can you possibly support a party which, on account of my origin, denies me any right to be a German or even a human being?’ 

I could write this story, and only a few words would change. I too have had young people come and live with me and call me their second mother, just like that – and then, in the last couple of years, say and do things related to ‘gender’ and race that are so shocking and offensive that I can no longer tolerate their company or conversation. Like Klemperer, no appeal to shared history has had any effect on the strangely altered minds of my friends. 

I have argued with all the passion and eloquence I can muster against the ideas promulgated by this new speech; ideas about gender that would reduce me to a ‘menstruator, ‘breeder’, and ‘non-man’; ideas that would deny me the right to be called a mother or even a woman. I have begged people I loved to see reason; to acknowledge that putting men in women’s prisons is wrong; that treatment for sad and confused children should never involve making them sterile and cutting up their genitals, and that human beings cannot change sex. I have thumped the table in frustration, yelling that forcing academic and post-modernist notions about sex and gender into indigenous cultures is not ‘being an ally’ but yet more colonisation. I have shed tears over the children who have already lost a parent, who are being encouraged to use ‘gender-neutral’ terminology instead of talking about their missing mother or father, denying them the ability to name them as ancestors or family, and ultimately robbing these children of their own history and the language of grieving for a parent. In the new speech, there is no mother, no father, no brother, sister, auntie or uncle. There is only the self, and that is all that matters.

A Brave New World, indeed. Aldous Huxley must be spinning in his grave. All that is missing is the soma – and even that is debatable. 

If you are in doubt, and think that I exaggerate, look around. Examples of this speech and the attempts to force it upon us are everywhere. 

We may yet see another version of the ‘Hate Speech’ legislation (currently under review) which would criminalise words that may offend. 

The Midwifery Council ‘Scope of Practice’ 2022 removed all of the words for women and babies, stole the word ‘whanau’ and used it to replace all the missing words in both English and Te Reo. Comparing the Council ‘Scope of Practice’ 2010 with the 2022 version is very instructive; the latter document is one of  the most offensive things I have ever read. I gladly signed the objection letter written from Mana Wāhine Kōrero to the Council

Te Pukenga (the New Zealand Institute of Technology and Trade Skills)  is discouraging the use of the words ‘students’, ‘staff’ and ‘husband and wife’, among others. They prefer ‘partner’, and ‘Te Pukenga people’.

The Ministry of Education tells us to be kind and respectful, as we call women and girls menstruators. 

The Ministry of Education is advising us to say that ‘people of all genders can have periods’ and that if while trying to use ‘gender-neutral’ language we get it wrong, to correct ourselves and ‘do better next time’. 

The Free Speech Union’s report on academic freedom in New Zealand indicates that less than half of our academics feel free to say something unpopular or controversial. 

Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ was recently republished after being re-worded in parts by ‘sensitivity checkers’, who deemed that the word ‘female’ was offensive, while the word ‘woman’ was not. 

Our speech is being compelled and censored, and our legacy media giants are complicit, parroting the party line on every major news and opinion network.

But all of the people cannot be made to say what the state wants, all of the time. Those who believe they can control what others say by edict alone, are mistaken. No group can silence another if they wish to keep speaking without the use of force, and even then, there will still be those who will continue to speak until the government must execute or ‘disappear’ them to ensure they do not talk again.  

Victor Klemperer wrote that the first term he specifically considered to be Nazi, was ‘Strafexpedition’, a word meaning ‘punitive expedition’. His friend, the one he referenced in the passage above, proudly told him in their final conversation that he himself had taken part in one such expedition, against some ‘shameless Communists’. 

“We made them run the gauntlet of rubber truncheons, a mild dose of castor oil, no bloodshed, but very effective all the same, a proper Strafexpedition in fact”. 

Klemperer hung up, and never spoke to his friend again. 

Two months ago, a ‘Strafexpedition’ was organised by the Rainbow Greens, Shaneel Lal, Max Tweedie and all the Rainbow supporters, against the women who wished to speak about many of these issues, especially our language. There was bloodshed at our event, and when we wrote about the way women were treated as they tried to leave, we used the phrase ‘run the gauntlet’. 

To be clear, the Nazis are gone. The vile and pathetic incels who attach themselves to Neo-Nazi groups today would be eaten alive by the evil of the real thing. It is a different ideology that is being spread in our time, and it was tomato soup and spit that women were doused in, not castor oil, while the rubber truncheons were fists and metal bars – but the principle is the same. 

Authoritarians and ideologues believe that they alone are moral and good, and that any violent action towards those who do not agree is justified in pursuit of their ideology – even desirable. If I am right, and ‘Wokespeak’ is a similar kind of linguistic code, we are in trouble. I do not know where we are on that trajectory, or what horrors may still come of it if we do not arrest the suppression of our speech. When Klemperer ultimately hung up on his friend the Nazi party had just come to power, and it would be another six years before war. No two moments in history are the same. But we would be fools to ignore the warning signs. 

The problem and the solution are both contained within our language. Language belongs to all of us, individually and collectively. One person may invent hundreds of new words, or a society may coin a single phrase. We can resist, and we must.

Language is so integral to our thoughts, so much a part of who and what we are, that speaking in a deceptive code has the potential power to make us think and do things that in saner times would be impossible to contemplate. It is as though it hijacks the mind, creating cognitive dissonance that can only be resolved by either fully adopting the ideology and the language, or by rejecting it outright. The reverse appears also to be true – refusing to speak that code can help to maintain our critical thinking skills, wash away the dissonance dust in our minds, give us back the words to refute the circular arguments of the authoritarians among us, and re-engage in rational discourse. 

If you are uncertain about your position on social issues like gender, critical race theory, or equity because you are unsure about what you think anyway – it’s all so confusing – and you think maybe your thoughts might mean you’re a bad person and your friends won’t like you anymore – give it up as a bad job. Stop trying to say the ‘right’ thing. Talk as you have always done, and avoid using the new speech. You are still allowed in New Zealand law to use your language to the fullest extent that you are capable of to express your thoughts, no matter who may be offended by them. You are entitled, by virtue of your birth into the human species, to speak and think in words of your choosing. You are not a mouthpiece for anyone, least of all the government. Trying to contort your speech to fit the popular narrative will do nothing but make you even more confused and uncertain, and more likely to turn a blind eye to terrible cruelty. You may even claim you had no idea that such awful things as child sterilisation, state-sanctioned violence towards women, the blatant appropriation of indigenous culture and the mutilation of young gays and lesbians were happening at all. 

 Don’t let that be you. 

*Wokespeak is an imperfect term, used here as a descriptor of a new pattern of speech. 

** I did not ask Mr Chomsky for his views on gender, race, or any other political or social issue, nor did he volunteer an opinion. He did very kindly recommend Victor Klemperer’s book, which I now also recommend.