Nearly seventy years ago, George Orwell noted the intimate and undeniable connection between the decay in the use of the English language and the decay in the effectiveness of the pronouncements made in that language. Poor usage reflected poor thinking; poor thinking reflected poor usage. Each was both a cause and a symptom of the other, and each compounded the other almost indefinitely. And nowhere did this symbiotically-destructive relationship make itself more obvious than in politics. “The present political chaos,” Orwell wrote, “is connected with the decay of language.”
What Orwell didn’t know – indeed, could not have known at the time – was that in the not-too-distant future, the political chaos he observed would be intentionally and purposefully stoked for a variety of reasons and through the very mechanism he had identified, which is to say through the decay of the language. Orwell died in 1950, at just about the same moment in history as new intellectual and cultural forces were ascending that would seek deliberately to manipulate and degrade the language for the purpose of fostering political chaos. The intellectual underpinnings of these forces had, of course, existed for some time, but they were never mainstreamed while Orwell lived. The notion that the meaning of words could simply be altered, changed to suit the speaker’s purposes – and that society would come, as a matter of conditioning to accept this linguistic elasticity – apparently never occurred to Orwell. If it had, he might not have felt it necessary to create an entirely new language, i.e. “Newspeak,” to convey the notion that some words – and the thoughts they conveyed – were simply too dangerous, too inflammatory to be permitted by the cultural power structure.
For a variety of reasons mostly beyond the scope of this essay, the 1950s represented a proverbial sea change in the pursuits of the academic Left. During this decade, four young men, perhaps the most influential and caustic intellectuals of the late twentieth century, began their formal education in philosophy. Those four – Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Richard Rorty – had all been born over a seven-year span two decades earlier. Together they would dominate the epistemological debates and trends of the post-war era, turning reality on its head, almost literally, and doing what Orwell could only imagine, namely using language to rattle the very foundations of Western political culture.
By the 1950s, the academic Left had come to the conclusion that “reality,” such as it was, had become oppressive, which is to say that it did not conform to the intellectual and philosophical expectations of leftism. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the Left to change something, either their expectations or the reality that repudiated those expectations. Naturally, it chose the latter. And lo, the four intellectuals did just that. Their epistemological pursuits connected Rousseau to Schopenhauer to Nietzsche to Heidegger and to what Professor Stephen Hicks calls the “death of reason.” They formulated a world that was thoroughly antirealist and a political philosophy that was scrupulously “postmodern.” And they bequeathed both to Western Leftists who dominate education, politics and culture today.
Now, when I say that the contemporary Left is “postmodern,” what I mean is that it has adopted a postmodern epistemology; that is a postmodern interpretation of the nature of knowledge, and therefore of truth. “Postmodernism” is an anti-Enlightenment philosophical tradition. It explicitly rejects the foundations of the Enlightenment, and of modernism itself, which is to say that it rejects reason as the source of knowledge and rejects the individual as the repository of this knowledge. (Of course, we have our own criticisms of the Enlightenment, but they rest on its rejection of faith and its elevation of reason alone.)
As such, postmodernism rejects objective reality, preferring to define reality as nothing more than the amalgamation of language and power. It also broadly espouses a view of the individual as a derivative of the collective, the “group,” and of the collective’s social and linguistic attributes. Professor Stephen Hicks put it this way in his classic Explaining Postmodernism:
Metaphysically, postmodernism is antirealist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions.
Needless to say, all of this has, over the last half century, left an indelible mark on our politics and on our culture. Today, thanks to the outsized influence of postmodernism in academia and its equally outsized influence on the Western ruling classes, morality is thought to be a relative concept, devoid of any hint of permanence, stability or objectivity. Politics, which is to say the practical application of moral ideas buttressed by power, is a death struggle, in which language is the ultimate weapon and can and must be manipulated to achieve specific social and political goals which carry labels such as “justice,” equality,” “fairness,” and “uniformity” that also have no objective meaning.
Last week, in his dissent in King v. Burwell, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued (bemoaned?) that, “Words no longer have meaning if an Exchange that is not established by a State is ‘established by the State.’” Scalia is correct, but only up to a point. In the contemporary political milieu, words have no objective meaning. Instead, they have whatever meaning the ascendant political establishment says they have, which is precisely the way the postmodernists intended it. If the objective reality, as depicted by the objective meaning of the language used to describe that reality, does not conform to the desired political outcome, then that reality, the very objectivity of the notion of reality, must be denied. And the words “established by a state,” can be construed to mean whatever a majority of justices want it to mean.
In declaring publicly his distaste for the political manifestation of postmodern thought, Scalia gives active voice to what has long been the case: nearly all of the cultural/social battles of the last few decades have been waged using the postmodern idea of language as a means to achieve and maintain political power. From “choice,” to “gender;” from “race” to “marriage;” the political Left, in particular, has adapted and manipulated language in the attempt to meet its political ends, whether it be abortion on demand, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, transgender equality, or the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare)—which is proving to be anything but affordable.
What we are left with then, is a political culture in which “choice” means death; referring to a man who has been in the public spotlight for 40 years by his given name – or even referring to him by masculine pronouns, despite his ongoing possession of his male body parts – is a hate crime; students are no longer to be called “boys and girls” or “young ladies and gentlemen,” but are instead to be referred to as “purple penguins;” and in which clear statutory language may be re-interpreted by unelected and unaccountable judges to mean precisely the opposite of what it actually says.
In short, we are left with political chaos of a magnitude only previously imagined. The difference between the political chaos of today and that of George Orwell’s moment is that this chaos has been purposefully cultivated, designed specifically to cloud reality – or, indeed, to cloud the very notion of reality altogether. All of this, in turn, permits those of a particular intellectual or political bent to ignore or to deny the real-world effects of their ideology and to proceed as if everything they’ve ever done or advocated has been a boon to all mankind.
The Inner Party of Oceania would, I imagine, be insanely jealous that they didn’t think of it first.