Policing Language is About Controlling Thought
Dismantling stable meaning from language is not politically "radical".
In 1996, an Australian academic at Monash University built a language model known as the “postmodern generator”, to generate text following the language styles of postmodern writers, i.e., the generator would produce sentences that were syntactically correct, but otherwise meaningless gibberish. Here is an example:
“If one examines posttextual deconstruction, one is faced with a choice: either accept the cultural paradigm of context or conclude that sexual identity, somewhat paradoxically, has intrinsic meaning.”
“Lyotard’s model of material neoconceptualist theory holds that language is capable of truth, but only if culture is interchangeable with consciousness.”
Although these were simulations, it was possible to generate such asinine prose because this is precisely the parlance of the social philosophy of postmodernism. Take this paragraph of sophistry from Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 book, Simulations:
“In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials - worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence, all binary oppositions, and all combinatory algebra.”
Or this example of the gibberish obfuscation and meandering narratives of postmodern language from Judith Butler, who was awarded a satirical prize in 1999 by the journal, Philosophy and Literature for the “ugliest, most stylistically awful” academic writing for the following [this is half of the full paragraph, to spare you]:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure...”
The embrace of such inane rhetoric was not an accident; a central tenet of postmodernism is the power of language. It holds that there is no objective reality, and therefore any perceived reality is that created by language, which gives language a hierarchical power imposed over society as a tool of “hegemony” (their favourite word, bar none). “Reality”, the existence of which is denied, is merely a construction of language; there is no reality that is non-linguistic. As a result, language - both in text and in our vernacular speech - becomes the target of investigation and interpretation of the social world, but this interrogation of language never has to correspond with reality. Language only relates to other language, so the process of language-based critique has no end, not even a subjectivist conclusion.
Thus, for example, if we were to consider layers of meaning in a Shakespeare play, we would recognise the presence of metaphor and allegory, and meaning beyond simply the literal words on the page. Yet the interpretation of that text would attempt to correspond our understanding of that text to reality, i.e., what do we know of the history of that period, or of the author’s personal views, etc. Accordingly there would be limits to what we would, or would not, read into the text. For the postmodernist, the interrogation of language would have no such constraints, and because language only relates to other language rather than any material reality, the words of the text could be “deconstructed” repeatedly to produce whatever language soup of relational interpretation the inquisitor sought.
This philosophy emerged primarily from French philosophers in the post-Second World War period who were politically socialist and disillusioned with modernity, and who produced social critiques of a largely abstract, deliberately nebulous variety. Postmodern philosophy then found its most accommodating home in American universities, where the counterculture generation retreated after their defeat by ‘The Man’ to console themselves by indulging in “deconstructing” society on paper, instead of in the real world. This served the disillusioned French socialists and their retired hippy American counterparts well; it allowed them to still feel like political “radicals” while enjoying the comforts of tenure in disciplines that no one paid much attention to, and which offered nothing of substance to advancing knowledge or society.
Leftist criticism has long seen through the hollow vacuity of postmodernism, and its most popular domain of ‘critical theory’. The most important substantive criticism from Leftists against the proliferation of postmodern social philosophies is that such language-based modes of critique are detrimental to the Left’s political aims. Theoretical pontificating and dense prose offer nothing of value for challenging the neoliberal capitalist economic order, and producing a more egalitarian democratic and economic social order; the true aims of the political Left. Clarity and precision are required for a rigorous examination of society and the political landscape, and for identifying the most effective remedies. As Alan Sokal lamented in 1996:
“I’m worried about trends on the American Left - particularly in academia - that at a minimum divert us from the task of formulating a progressive social critique, by leading smart and committed people into trendy but ultimately empty intellectual fashions, and that can in fact undermine the prospects for such a critique...'“
Leftist critics of postmodern language-based philosophies saw the real danger with such “empty intellectual fashions”; that obscurity and confusion play into the hands of the Right, and to the detriment of the very social groups that postmodernists purported to speak for. The lineage of such criticism extends far earlier than the 1990’s. In his 1972 book, ‘Social Science as Sorcery’, the late Polish sociologist Stanisław Andrzejewski took this issue to task, condemning the popularity of obscurantist language among American social science undergraduates in the late 1960’s. Andrzejewski realised that:
“...confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact on the world.”
The problem was that, secure in the ivory tower of academia, these ideas were indulged indefinitely, and produced a distinctly postmodern phenomenon in the form of ‘critical theory’. More contemporary ‘theorists’ realised that to propagate their ideologies required slightly less dense prose, but equally obscure concepts, which found expression in various “cultural studies” that emphasised questions of race, colonisation, sexuality, and gender. This expansion of postmodernism as a social philosophy to ‘theorising’ on matters of identity cleverly disguised these pseudo-academic pursuits in the emotive rhetoric of “social justice”. Realistic, clear, and sober analysis of these important issues was replaced with incoherent, deliberately evasive, confusing syntax. The goal was, and is, the proliferation of the moral ideology, not the pursuit of truth.
These pseudo-academic disciplines have been able to propagate bad theories and thinking like no other field, because the academic apparatus - including the journals publishing these concepts - have only ever been concerned with whether new materials conform to the ideology and prevailing narratives in the field. This is the antithesis to legitimate academic inquiry. Tellingly, criticism of the ideas propagated by postmodernism and ‘critical theory’ has never been met with any extensive defence, dispute, or rebuttable to the criticism, only an attack on the identity and integrity of the source of the criticism. This is a distinctly postmodern strategy of targeting the “positionality” of an individual criticising these ideas, rather than dealing with the substance of the criticism. And this is also antithesis to legitimate academic inquiry, let alone debating ideas in a rational society.
This deliberate strategy is tactically brilliant, but profoundly dishonest; it creates a presumption against any criticism of the theories and ideas emanating from these philosophies, where to criticise the ideas is to confirm your bigotry and “fascism”. This deliberate conflation of criticism of theories and concepts with criticism of the social cause to which they relate characterises the epistemic arrogance, intellectual dishonesty, and plausible deniability which has served as a ring-fence around these ‘theories’. This has been crucial to their survival. And it allowed these ‘theories’ to spill out of academia in the minds of a generation of boujie middle-class self-described “progressives” fed a steady diet of postmodernism during their degrees.
The academic arrogance and intellectual dishonesty of these schools of thought is evident by reference to epistemology. Real science, and legitimate academic fields in the humanities like history, set out with a hypothesis that is assumed to be ‘null’ or unsupported until proven to be supported by the weight of evidence. Postmodern social philosophies and ‘critical theories’ do not set out to prove any hypothesis; they proceed from unfalsifiable faith-based premises about the nature of reality that are held as self-evident truths. Thus, for example, ‘critical race theory’, proceeds from the unfalsifiable self-evident truth that racism is omnipresent in every situation and context. The job of the ‘theorist’ is not to prove this as a hypothesis a priori before further inquiry of a specific situation or context, but to “unmask” it through any means of relativist, subjectivist interpretations of whatever social dynamic, institution, or media, is under inquiry. The entire endeavour is predicated on revealing something that the ‘theorists’ already “know” is present, and believe to be true. This is what distinguishes the disciplines as pseudo-academic and pseudo-scientific.
The most public, and pernicious, manifestation of this spillover of postmodern language-based social philosophies from irrelevant corners of academia to the public sphere has been the assault on language. With the controversy in recent years over free speech, “soft speech codes” on university campuses, or even the recent absurd example of the charity Oxfam listed words like “mother” in its list of “offensive” terms, it is easy to think of this as merely a recent battle in the wider contemporary culture war. That is a mistake. Like all issues stemming from the metastasis of this intellectual cancer, the lineage of examples extends farther back than one may think, to at least the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Consider that Jonathan Rauch's seminal book, ‘Kindly Inquisitors’, was published in 1993; there was already sufficient evidence that self-styled “progressives” were seeking to regulate speech and thought in institutions and society. This commitment to antagonism was based on little more than moral righteousness, without regard for legitimacy or rationality.
If you were unaware of this in day to day life, you probably couldn’t help but notice the explosion of language-based critique, of language as a weapon, after June 2020. Spelling America as ‘AmeriKKKa’ (get it?), or the hopscotch over ‘BAME’, ‘BIPOC’, ‘POC’, or the imposition of the term ‘Latinx’ (which 65% of Hispanic and Latin Americans didn't think should be used). Or the zero-sum tautologies of “racism/anti-racism”, a laughable concept given that ‘critical theory’ apparently “rejects binaries”. Or how “unhoused person” became the insisted CorrectSpeak for homelessness, while the actual issue - homelessness - descends into a fiasco in Democrat-run cities. Other examples abound, such as the meaningless term “cisgendered”, or the biological impossibility of being “assigned a sex at birth”, which are derived from a ‘critical theory’ lexicon that seeks to supplant the immutable reality of sex with a theoretical concept of gender. This is a politics characterised by language; by using CorrectSpeak, the speaker can demonstrate their moral purity and emphasise their higher social status.
All of this reflects the distinctly postmodern project in all of its cultural imperialism: controlling language is fundamentally about controlling thought. The postmodern assault on language is an assault on thinking, and seeks nothing more than to regulate inquiry and ideas, and enforce ideological conformity. The message we are constantly reinforced with from a vocal minority is this: speak our language, say the “right” things, as ordained from the halls of pretentious postmodern academic arrogance. You’ll hear rhetoric about “making space” for “conversations”, but there is only one conversation, and there is no space for different ideas. Offer the same opinion and they will call it “dialogue”.
And because language is itself the source of power, adherents to this faith are then able, in yet another dishonest ace up their sleeves, to portray questions of the ideas underpinning the language as a denial of the issue to which it relates. For example, question the rhetoric of “assigned sex at birth” and watch the response descend into feverish rhetoric about “erasing trans people” or “questioning their right to exist”. This is why a failure to speak the language is met with such hysteria; if language is at the core of creating the social world, language also becomes a weapon. As Stephen Hicks wrote in ‘Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault’:
“The regular deployments of ad hominem, the setting up of straw men, and the regular attempts to silence opposing voices are all logical consequences of the postmodern epistemology of language...With such rhetoric, truth or falsity is not the issue: what matters primarily is the language’s effectiveness.”
The erosion of stable meaning from language does not currently exist in isolation; it is derived from the faulty epistemic framework that underpins these schools of thought. Eroding stable meaning from language has no end beyond language; it is useless for the social and political realities with which we must grapple. Deeming “mother” as “offensive” does nothing politically for the social and economic realities of, for example, a single mother on minimum wage. For a movement obsessed with “erasure” and “lived experience”, such language-policing in fact does erase that very material reality of this mother’s life.
Without shared language with which to make sense of complex issues facing us, and to resolve conflicts of evidence and fact. In such a climate, the conversation shifts from evidence and facts to irrelevant criteria, like “positionally-derived” subjectivity or “other ways of knowing”. Emotional narratives are impervious to evidence. Yet objectivity, truth, and evidence, matter because they form the basis of a shared epistemology that is the glue that holds together our sense-making faculties, and provides us with the means to resolve potential discord.
There may be different interpretations of what a set of information or evidence means, but not different interpretations of the construction of evidence in the first place. Postmodern and ‘critical theory’ language-based critiques deliberately conflate what is knowledge and what is true, with claims to knowledge and assertions of truth. A commonly deployed example of this conflation is where postmodern ‘critical theorists’ point to the eugenics movement in science in the 19th Century as an example of how “Western science” tried to prove an inherent superiority to White Anglo-Saxon peoples and culture. Yet this entirely ignores that it was science itself that falsified these theories, because that is how the scientific method works; disproving theories in a process of accumulating knowledge and taking us closer to an approximate truth. It doesn’t matter if some 19th Century scientists thought it was “true” that, for example, Black men had smaller brains compared to Anglo-Saxons, because as a matter of fact it isn’t true, and that fact has been established through an empirical commitment to truth, reason, and objectivity. There is a canyon of difference between something that was once thought to be true vs. something that is objectively untrue.
Postmodern critiques of empiricist epistemology are based entirely on this conflation between actual knowledge and truth and claims of knowledge and truth. And while we express knowledge in language, this knowledge of what is true from what is merely an assertion of truth is derived not from “deconstructing” language, but knowledge from repeated testing and validation. In this context, a core principle of empiricist epistemology is that knowledge and truth is real independent of the speaker; E=MC2 irrespective of the concentration of melanin in your skin or sex organ between your legs. For postmodern epistemology, where objective reality is denied and truth is always relative, knowledge is entirely dependent on the speaker. This is an untenable epistemology, which is why all that this social philosophy has produced is a division of society into hierarchies of oppression that preclude our ability to come to any shared understanding of life in a meaningful way.
Instead, these ‘theories’ only distill highly complex multifactorial socio-cultural-economic issues through a reducing valve until we’re left with all fingers pointing at opaque concepts of “power”, “hegemony”, or “whiteness”. These concepts provide nothing of substance to challenging the status quo, but they do allow middle class university-educated “progressives” to feel smug and self-righteous while posting their copy of ‘White Fragility’ to Instagram. There are better ways to subvert a status quo of knowledge inquiry, which is to demonstrate through process and open scrutiny that you have a superior method of knowledge acquisition. Postmodernism and ‘critical theory’ give us nothing of the sort, and have no method other than torturing language and suppressing criticism. Perhaps most importantly, these social philosophies are detrimental in the long-term to the very identities these ‘theories’ propose to speak for. This criticism is again nothing; in his 1992 essay, Oxford’s Alan Ryan wrote:
“It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth...that that was what had to be done. Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you’ve had it... But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.”
And this brings us back to how these philosophies and ‘theories’ grasped such a stronghold in American academic life; it allowed these academics in pseudo-intellectual fields to feel “radical” and “subversive” not through political action, but through “queering Shakespeare” and “subverting binaries”. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this postmodern project of torturing language is that the exact reservations of Leftist thinkers, from Chomsky and Andrzejewski a half-century ago, to Alan Ryan and Alan Sokal in the 1990’s, has come to pass; these “empty intellectual fashions” have decimated any substance from Left politics in the U.S. and in the UK. Most importantly, this culture of “language-as-politics” reflects the ideas of a largely White intellectual liberal academic caste, a bourgeois cultural movement that uses obscurantist ‘theories’ and flummoxing language as a demonstration of social standing.
More than anything, the academics and their disciples who insist on this new vernacular are demonstrating their classism, their disdain for the working class. As the psychologist Rob Henderson wrote:
“When I was growing up in foster homes, or making minimum wage as a dishwasher, or serving in the military, I never heard words like “cultural appropriation” or “gendered” or “heteronormative.” Working class people could not tell you what these terms mean. But if you visit an elite university, you’ll find plenty of affluent people who will eagerly explain them to you. When people express unusual beliefs that are at odds with conventional opinion, like defunding the police or downplaying hard work, or using peculiar vocabulary, often what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top university” or “I have the means and time to acquire these esoteric ideas.” Only the affluent can learn these things because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.”
Little wonder working class voters have haemorrhaged out of the parties that once represented their interests, both the Democrats in the U.S. and Labour in the UK. Assaulting language is what happens when a political project has no discernible aims, purpose, or direction. It is the manifestation of a politics with no solidity, and it ignores the historical reality that irrationality and hyper-relativism have always worked in favour of oppressors. And let’s preempt the only strategy the progressive Left appears to have to defend this noxious culture; the “tu quoque” fallacy, i.e., appeal to hypocrisy. Yes, the conservative Right has now started to rear its head and exercise censorship and its own war on free speech.
But this ignores the chain of causation; this current state of affairs reflects a pattern whereby the progressive Left unleash ideas and ‘theories’ they think will work in their favour (e.g., policing speech in universities), only to watch the Right use political power to take these very ideas to a political, often legislative or judicial, conclusion. This is the difference between cultural power and political power; the contemporary Left doesn’t know the difference. Which is why, while they’re busy ensuring the offices of their corporate employers have enough Pride flags hanging and call it “radical politics”, the Right are exercising political power against the rights and liberties of individuals. And these self-styled “radical activists” are too drunk on their own sense of self-righteousness, and the power they are able to exert in institutions and society, to even realise this reality.
At some point, Leftist politics will need to cast off the pretentious pontificating and develop a politics grounded in the material social and economic realities of the working class, not the language-based absurdities and anti-intellectualism of middle class liberal postmodern pseudo-scholarship.
I appreciate you reading 3am Thoughts! If you enjoyed this essay, please consider recommending a friend to join along :)
I found this interesting, challenging and engaging. I largely agree about the "intellectual masturbation" of much of the self-prescribed progressives - a label that I myself am attached to. There is seemingly no cohesive leftist movement that challenges the Neoliberal landscape and I think that's a huge issue. Which ironically has allowed the Right to continue winning the legislative battle. If we give up, they just run up the score.
One thing I would like to challenge is that it seems (correct me if I'm wrong) that you don't see any value in any of this critical theory or gender theory concepts. Is it that, or is your main critique that since these ideas seem to dominate the leftist landscape and lead to no real change? This I do agree with. I don't think it can lead Leftist policy goals, but I do think it should be included. Understanding the legacy of racism and sexism is very important in my opinion and before these ideas became more mainstream, the narrative seemed to be one of us living in a world where racism/sexism was defeated.
Gender theory exists whether some snooty liberal is lecturing it at you or not. I was informally taught gender theory as a young boy by being conditioned on how to be a "man". This usually was quite sexist. Objectifying women was celebrated. Being emotionless, or "stoic" as the term emotionally unavailable men like to hide their fear of vulnerability behind (I know actual stoicism is real), was also celebrated. Being genuinely loving, sweet, and openly emotional was socially sanctioned by peers and even adults. This usually ended up with being labelled some sort of homophobic slur. These were lessons that women even reinforced. Is this not all a form of gender theory? Just with a different curriculum and from taught different teachers? The legacy of patriarchy has its own gender theory we've been taught, no? Because when I learned what people call "gender theory" now, I was honestly liberated from these lessons that were engrained in me after my initial resistance wore off. I'm also aware of how smug plenty of these uni-folks are too, so yeah it's a mixed bag. And I do agree that too often, the language policing tactic has been used. But I think understanding the concept and history of gender is very useful. Otherwise, I would have probably just repeated the same behaviours my Father did because "that's what being a man was."
I also see a huge issue in these folks selling out because that's just how powerful the magnetic pull of capital is in our system. BLM is a great example. Started grassroots and then was co-opted and consumed by American corporations to eventually become hollow and perform liberal placation (to mostly middle-class white folks). Feminism is similar. It was quite anti-capitalist from its origins, but now mainstream "Girl-Boss Feminism" is when there's a Woman CEO? And it's fine when she union busts? That's not feminism. That's just capitalism co-opting feminism for its own goals.
Both of these movements should, at their core be pushing for the organizing of labour and toward a much more leftwing political landscape and I think that's the largest failure here. I think understanding history through the lens of minorities, women and queer folks is really important. I just also think the foundational policy pursuits should still be affordable/accessible housing for all, universal healthcare, equal access to education etc. etc. Because yes, although I do use the term unhoused 😂, that literally does nothing for those folks unless our housing policies meaningfully change and housing isn't solely a private commodity for people to build wealth. And using more progressive terminology does too often result in the only thing a self-proclaimed "progressive" does, while they still call themselves "radical."
All in all, I'm wondering your thoughts on this and how to navigate addressing real issues of the legacy and persistence of racism, sexism, queerphobia etc. while still having Leftist material goals still be the foundation of political pursuits.
Always appreciate your thoughts and the effort you put into sharing them here. 🍻
This is a terrific piece of writing. Thanks so much. Glad I clicked on the link from Rob Henderson.