by Jonny Atkinson
What Does That Mean?
I am making an assumption of my audience, but—whether you know it or not—you are probably cisgender and heteronormative, you may also be a cissupremacist. Many of us found out recently that J.K. Rowling is a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, in case you forgot).1 You also may have encountered a woman who told you she was in fact non-binary and that her preferred pronoun was ze after you referred to her as “she.”2
The proliferation of new words being used in mainstream media, academic institutions, and trickling down into the schools seems unending. Alongside these new words exists a cancel-culture eliminating certain words and speech.
What is going on?
1984 in 1949
In 1949 George Orwell wrote a book entitled 1984. It is a dystopian novel about the life of Winston Smith who lives in London in the socialist nation of Oceania. The ruling communist government—known as Big Brother—tyrannically watches the moves of every citizen. Individuality, pleasure, and diverse expression are not allowed. But complete civil and moral conformity to the dictated standards is required and enforced by the government.
The government’s methods for enforcing and regulating its standards include rewriting history, controlling the media, and changing the spoken language. By creating a new language called “Newspeak,” Big Brother seeks to control the way people think. For the words that are available in large part determine what can, and cannot, be thought or said.
In Oceania there are things illegal to utter, things you must not even think. And one of the most heinous crimes in Oceania is, in fact, a thoughtcrime, which are monitored by the Thought Police.
You Can’t Say That! No, Literally, You Can’t
At the end of Orwell’s book 1984 there is an illuminating and satirical appendix that explains this language which he called Newspeak. He begins, “Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.” Here, Orwell clearly states that ideologies need a supporting language to express the ideology. This is not inherently wrong, but something to note. Even we Christians have a unique vocabulary to express our beliefs.
Orwell explains that the goal of this new language “was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.” Here again, Orwell helpfully points out the ability of language to express differing viewpoints about important issues. However, the language of Newspeak was created precisely to eliminate the ability to articulate any differing opinions—an extreme form of cancel-culture. As a result, Newspeak could only be used to express the “right” opinion about a previously disputed issue. That there ever was a different opinion would now be difficult to even articulate, and thus soon forgotten. In other words, the “right” way of thinking was being enforced by fiat through language by those in control. As Orwell wrote, “Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms.”
Get on the “Right” Side of History!
Regarding the creation of new words, Orwell explains that Newspeak “consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.” Here, Orwell points out that political agendas often utilize new words to express their ideology. But he goes further and shows that these new words are imbued with a desired and expected emotional response.
Wow. Is the same thing not true today? Most people know the emotional response that society expects them to have toward the seemingly neutral descriptive terms “white” or “male,” or how we are expected to uncritically support anything that anyone labels on social media an issue of “justice.”
Emotional responses to certain words are normal. “Sunlight” will make most people feel happy, and “abuse” ought to make all people feel negative. But it needs to be recognized that our worldview/ideology controls how we feel about certain words. And, the dominant cultural worldview today is trying to control how everybody feels about certain words.
1984 in 2020
Does all this not sound somewhat similar to today? There are things you’re not allowed to say, even think? New words being created? Policing of speech (hate-speech/crimes resulting in public shaming and job loss)? The demand for conformity and allegiance to the dominant ideology of our day by shaming you if you do not share the same emotional (read: moral) response to certain words or issues?
This concept of the Thought Police for the book actually arose from Orwell’s own experience in Britain as he was opposed by the dominant ideology of the government of his day simply because he was willing to face and expose “unpleasant facts” that didn’t accord with the ideology that was being promoted.3 Cancel-culture is not new. We’re often told today that facts don’t matter. As György Lukács said “If theory conflicts with the facts, so much the worse for the facts.”4 Many leaders in society have got their ideology, they’ve created words to support it, it’s no longer open to debate, so put your facts away and get in-line or face the consequences.
My point is not to fear-monger, foster conspiracy theories (like some who cite Orwell), or even lament the current state of society. There’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)—clearly since Orwell wrote in the 40s! My point is that I don’t want Christians to misunderstand what is happening with the creation of new words and the public prescription of aligning with the “right” emotional/moral response to certain words. Of course not everyone using these words entirely supports or even understands the worldview behind the terms. However, it’s foolish to ignore the fact that those creating and mainstreaming new words have agendas backed by ideologies that are contrary to Scripture. Christians more than ever need to be those who understand the times (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Speech is no longer free but very costly. But words matter a lot. Words have power, power to inform and shape worldviews. And Christians are people with a message, a message that can turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). They are those who believe that the spoken truth has the power to set people free (John 8:32) and grant eternal life (John 6:68) ultimately because their words come from the Word himself (John 1:1) in whom is life (John 1:4).
Christian, and especially pastors, keep speaking the truth boldly that many may be set free.
2My point here is mainly to highlight the creation of new words. I understand that, for a number of reasons, some people today really struggle with what has been called their gender-identity. However, for those really struggling, I do not believe new words backed by a false worldview will ultimately help them. Only the truth will set them free.