Nearly three years ago I wrote an article titled The Tyranny of Fundamentalist Language, about how fringe religious groups are able to psychologically enslave adherents by creating a vocabulary that reinforces “us vs them” narratives. At the time I had recently left the evangelical church of my upbringing, and I had wanted to summarize— as best I could— the reason why “breaking through” to individuals who are a part of these ultra-conservative religious groups was such a challenge.
I was delighted to find that the article was well-received. Numerous people had responded with stories of loved ones currently and formerly trapped in crowds that either were cults or, at the very least, exhibited cult-like behavior. I even had a family member of one of the Branch Davidians who died during the Waco siege email me and express their gratitude for putting into words what they had been feeling for over two decades.
I somewhat naively began to believe that once out of conservative evangelicalism I would no longer have to worry about groups that use language as a tool of control. But over the course of the three years since I wrote The Tyranny of Fundamentalist Language, I’ve come to discover that— unfortunately— language-as-a-tool-of-control isn’t strictly a trait that belongs to religious fundamentalists. Depressingly it’s becoming ever more a feature of secular, so-called “liberal” circles too.
At the University of Tennessee, for instance, administrators are pushing to replace the pronouns “him” and “her” with “neutral” pronouns like “xe”, “xym”, and “xyr”. Students at Columbia University want trigger warnings for classic works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses (but a feminist blog protested that suggestion, because the phrase “trigger warning” itself needs a warning because “trigger” might cause people to think of guns).
At UC Berkeley, students are protesting the teaching of Plato and Aristotle because they were “economically privileged white males”. The annual production of The Vagina Monologues was canceled at Mount Holyoke because “Gender is a wide and varied experience that simply cannot be reduced to biological and anatomical distinctions, and therefore the show is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”
A piece that ran in the Harvard Crimson argues, “It is tempting to decry frustrating restrictions on academic research as violations of academic freedom. Yet I would encourage student and worker organizers to instead use a framework of justice. After all, if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just”, and the article goes on to make the chilling statement “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”
A recent Pew Poll has found that 40% of millennials support making laws against “insensitive speech” (to put into perspective how scary-high that percentage is, consider the fact that 40% of Americans are creationists). But, like religious fundamentalism, this isn’t just about censoring language. It’s about creating new language.
You see, the thing about sectarian groups is that they don’t engage in the marketplace of ideas. Why? Because marketplaces are open places, and in the open marketplace of ideas, anybody and everybody can call you out if you’re spouting bullshit. So sectarian groups “wall off” so to speak. They develop their own communities, their own bubble, their own “closed marketplace”, where beliefs are endlessly propagated and never challenged. During this process normal rules of logic and reasoning don’t apply (they can’t), and so what becomes necessitated are new rules. New language. This doesn’t mean sectarian groups don’t engage with the world, but it’s a one-sided engagement— they’re not wanting debate, they want conversions.
So what are some linguistic instances of how the Social Justice crowd has acted in this way? What are some words and phrases they use as attempts to control the actions and behaviors of others? Here are a few examples:
- “White passing”: When a person who is part of a minority group voices an opinion that runs counter to the victim narrative peddled by the Social Justice crowd about said minority group; hence, a minority person who challenges such a narrative is “white passing” because they are “passing as being white”. Other variants of “white passing” are “Uncle Tom” (if the dissenter is black) or simply “traitor” (if they are any other race).
- “Internalized misogyny”: When a woman voices an opinion that is at odds with the consensus of feminist groups, she’s accused of internalizing and regurgitating “societal attitudes of oppression toward women that have been propagated by the patriarchy”. This is actually really condescending toward women— which one wouldn’t expect to be a problem in a feminist environment— because it’s basically saying that unless a woman toes the third wave line, she cannot possibly have her own intellectual autonomy, but must be brainwashed to the point where she’s “unaware of her own oppression”.
- “____splain”: Any counterargument that is made by a person who falls into a demographic that’s targeted by Social Justice devotees— no matter how eloquently presented— is quickly dismissed by attaching “splain” at the end of a chosen adjective (e.g. “cisplain”, “whitesplain”, “mansplain”). This one-word deflection is meant to shut down debate, because again, remember, they don’t want to debate. Debating is scary and involves the risk of losing.
- “Wrong side of history”: The notion that human events over time are on a trajectory toward an ultimate utopian “right”, and that the person making the accusation knows exactly what that “right” is. Of course in reality there is no “right” and “wrong” side to history. History just is, and the future is a blank slate. Ironically, those who often make the statements “right/wrong side of history” are normally folks who believe in moral relativism and are also big into postmodern philosophy (which argues that there is no objective truth or morality).
There are many other Social Justice words and phrases I could point out, but my reason for giving you the ones above is to show you how this movement uses language to erase voices of dissent and intimidate followers.
In a lot of ways believers in Social Justice act like fundamentalist Christians. “Privilege” is the secular version of Original Sin, and to carry it is to carry a Total Depravity for which you must atone. To be guilty of “hate speech” (voicing any opinion that strays from Official Victim Narrative) is the equivalent of being a blasphemer. In addition, adherents of Social Justice-groupthink are obsessed with sex— particularly in making themselves the puritanesque arbiters of what sexual behavior is acceptable and not acceptable. Like any fundamentalist group, Social Justice has its reinforcers of thought for those who stray from the narrow path (mandatory “diversity training” after a perceived infraction is the most notable Orwellian example of how one can attain absolution). And finally, as is the case with people in fundamentalist groups, the devout “Social Justice Warrior” (as they are often called) never gets to be completely assured of their salvation because there are traps set within the doctrines that make it impossible to follow one without failing at another — for example, if you prefer your own ethnicity when it comes to sexual partners, you’re a “sexual racist”, but if you prefer other ethnicities over your own when it comes to sexual partners, you’re a “fetishist”; if you don’t believe that gender is a social construct, you’re accused of being “heteronormative”, but if you refuse to believe that transgenderism is a biological reality, you’re “transphobic”.
You can’t win, and you’re not supposed to. Because Social Justice— like all strict, unforgiving hardline religious groups— is designed to be a perpetual effort where one is never good enough.
But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Social Justice Warriors are not liberals. While they have indeed done their best to hijack the liberal movement, at heart they are little more than cultural authoritarians— and they must be stopped. There is no quick way to do this, no easy fix. But it also isn’t a problem without clear solutions.
For one, the Left can take a strong stand against any call to censor an idea— no matter how moralistic the rationale (and by “the Left” I primarily mean the Democratic Party, but also to an extent the liberal blogosphere and leftwing academics). This could include adding to the Democratic Party’s platform a statement of unequivocal support for freedom of speech and expression (remarkably there currently isn’t one), but could also include College Democrat groups on university campuses protesting against “leftist” attempts at banning conservative lecturers. No matter how it’s done, the Left needs to be very clear about its support for freedom of speech (including even the most vile kind).
Second, we need to openly name and ridicule not only individual people who misrepresent the ideas of others and seek to declare certain opinions as being off limits, but also publications that do the same (I’m looking at you Salon). Fortunately I think this is already starting to happen. Liberals such as Sam Harris, Nick Cohen, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are calling out “regressive leftists” who would rather pander than make meaningful change.
I’m sure there are many other ways we could confront this sub-group of Leftism whose toxic attitudes are spreading throughout modern liberalism like cancer. But until then, I would urge those caught up in this secularized form of fundamentalism to do what I did only a few years ago: leave your destructive ideology, unlearn the false narratives, and embrace true liberalism that values the Enlightenment principles of social liberty and freedom of expression.