A Prophet For Our Time

Today’s Jewish World Review features an insightful article by Rabbi Yonason Goldson on the corruption of language in contemporary political and ideological discourse. The following excerpt, which discusses George Orwell’s profound insights into the relationship between language and thought, is particularly instructive:

In his essay “The Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to his classic novel, 1984 (published 60 years ago this month), George Orwell describes how the leaders of his totalitarian future have contrived to assure their hold on power by replacing English with Newspeak, a language containing no vocabulary for concepts contrary to the platform of the state-run Party. By controlling language, the Party controls its people’s very thoughts.

Intuition suggests that language is a product of thought: if we think clearly, automatically we will speak clearly. Orwell demonstrates the opposite, that thought is a product of language. Because we formulate our thoughts in words and sentences, incompetent use of language guarantees muddled thinking. If there are no words for rebellion, uprising, or discontent people will find it difficult to formulate and articulate the concept of overthrowing even the most corrupt and oppressive government.

Students of Orwell will shudder when applying this simple axiom to the corruption of modern language. Advertisers and politicians have known for years that the best way to manipulate public perception is by arranging words in unconventional combinations. Car dealers know that potential customers will feel better buying cars that are “pre-owned” rather than “used.” A certain former president knew that the American people would not respond to the gravity of his presidential peccadilloes if distracted by pondering what the meaning of “is” is.

But linguistic confusion became institutionalized with the rise of political correctness. By dodging frantically out of the rain of potentially offensive terms, we soak ourselves in a torrent of euphemisms for simple words the thought-police deem pejorative. When illegal aliens become “undocumented workers,” we lose all sense of the danger posed by the porous condition of our borders. When terrorists become “insurgents,” we more readily accommodate the moral equivalence that blurs the line between aggressors and defenders. When abortion becomes “reproductive freedom,” the horror over the indiscriminate murder of innocents vanishes altogether.

Similarly, when marriage is bereft by judicial fiat of the definition that has served for thousands of years, the foundations of the family structure erode like sand castles before the approaching tide. And as it becomes taboo to make any direct reference to race, class, ability or performance without fear of hurting one group’s collective feelings or another group’s collective self-esteem, the words that form our thoughts and understanding end up so fully shorn of their dictionary definitions that they cease to mean much of anything at all. In short, nothing makes sense.

Read the entire piece here.

A common example of semantic deception in the media lexicon is their selective use of the word “hypocrisy.” Just last week, when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin took her 14-year-old daughter Willow to a Yankee game last week, David Letterman made the following tasteless jokes in his Top 10 Lists:

”During the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.” and

“The toughest part of her visit was keeping Eliot Spitzer away from her daughter.”

Somehow in the dustup over the first comment, Letterman received a free pass on the second and far more reprehensible comment insinuating that Palin’s daughter was a prostitute. In any event, a simple apology would have resolved the matter. Instead, two days later Letterman issued a defiant phony “apology,” claiming that he thought he was making a joke about Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, Bristol. As if that justified the remark.

For some people, apparently it did.

The next day on The View, co-hosts Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Joy Behar got into a heated argument about Letterman’s faux apology and the glaring media double-standard regarding children of politicians. Behar not only defended Letterman’s remarks, she went on to say that Bristol Palin deserved such treatment because she was going around promoting abstinence. Since Bristol had gotten herself pregnant by her high school boyfriend, according to Behar, this made her a hypocrite.

No, it doesn’t. While Behar did not explain what she means by “hypocrisy,” her use of the term to describe Bristol Palin’s promoting abstinence indicates that Behar does not know the meaning of the term. Her imprecise terminology reflects her muddled thinking and consequent lack of judgment.

The word “hypocrisy” is derived from the Greek word hupokrisis, which means to pretend. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing when he really believes another, not someone who fails to live up to her professed beliefs. The latter is not hupokrisis but hamartia, which literally translates as missing the mark. It is one of the Greek words in the New Testament translated as “sin.”

Bristol’s pregnancy does not refute the sincerity of her belief that abstinence is the ideal when it comes to teenage sexuality. If anything, Bristol’s pregnancy has given her greater insight because she understands both the temptations and consequences of pre-marital sexual behavior. Her promotion of abstinence given her personal circumstances is no different from Magic Johnson taking up the cause of AIDS awareness after he was diagnosed as HIV positive or of incarcerated prisoners taking part in “Scared Straight” programs for at-risk teenagers. There is nothing hypocritical in what these individuals are trying to accomplish. If anything, such efforts are praiseworthy, and do not cease to be such because the messengers sometimes fall short of the mark. However, because liberals sneer at abstinence programs and loathe conservatives, Bristol Palin is falsely labeled a “hypocrite,” and Magic Johnson is not.

We see this erroneous view of “hypocrisy” overly bandied about in progressive circles by people who otherwise reject the Judeo-Christian concept of sin and have muddied the two terms. The result is a false dichotomy in which the imperfections of some are labeled “hypocrisy,” while even greater failings of others are excused under an equally distorted concept of “tolerance.” Harsh judgments are passed by “non-judgmental” and “tolerant” liberals, based not on the behavior in question, but on the identity of the person engaging in the behavior. If a conservative talk show host made similar comments about one of Obama’s daughters, it is doubtful that Hasselbeck would have defended such comments, but one suspects Behar’s reaction would have been very different.

We profess equal protection under the law, but as Orwell observed in another masterwork, some pigs are more equal than others.

I was discussing this subject with a liberal colleague at work. He suggested that I was making esoteric distinctions that don’t matter very much on a practical level: “What difference does it make if we call something ‘hypocrisy’ rather than ‘sin’”?

Students of Orwell such as Rabbi Goldson understand that the ubiquity of linguistic confusion and empty slogans in contemporary political discourse represent something more sinister than muddled thinking. Left unchecked, the corruption of language invariably leads to the debasement of ideas and ideals. In extreme cases, verbal deception can result in an invidious form of self-delusion tantamount to brainwashing and the blurring of distinctions between truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil.

Writing from prison, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer witnessed first-hand the enormity of evil that can take root in such noxious soil:

Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. . . The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels in fact, when talking to him, that one is dealing, not with the man himself, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation that can do irreparable damage to human beings.
— Letters and Papers from Prison

I look forward to reading more from Rabbi Goldson on his blog Torah Ideals.


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