by Monica Bushling
What, you may ask, has a dystopian novel to do with the American university system? A lot, apparently.
Recently, the news outlet Campus Reform broke the story of a “Bias-Free Language Guide” that was published on the University of New Hampshire’s website. The whole point of the guide was to address certain “problematic” words and offer an alternative vocabulary in their place. And what are some of these problem children of the English language? Words like “American,” “rich,” “old people,” “overweight” and “obese,” “illegal immigrant,” “healthy,” even “mothering” and “fathering”—the list goes on. And on. Instead, we should be using words like “U.S. citizen,” “person of material wealth,” “person of age,” “person of size,” “person seeking asylum,” and, my personal favorite, “non-disabled person.”
Whether he was simply unaware of these goings-on or else caved into the negative press, Mark Huddleston, the President of UNH, has since repudiated the Guide. The old link now redirects you to a page offering a Statement of Diversity amid calls to fight microaggressions and an advertisement for the 23rd annual LGBTQA+ Pancake Breakfast. So it seems that free speech is tolerated at UNH, after all.
The point I really want to make is not that the Guide is absurd, which “people of reason” (is that term safe?) are forced to acknowledge; nor that it is a blatant affront to free speech, although this is also true. I can’t add any new facts to what has already been said. But I will say this. Doesn’t this whole scenario seem oddly familiar? Maybe I’m delusional—or just a crazy lit major—but the very thought that went into the Bias-Free Language Guide sounds a heck of a lot like George Orwell’s 1984. Newspeak, anyone?
I don’t believe the connection is accidental. Neither is it conspiratorial. While it is entertaining to imagine that the designers of the UNH guide read the fictional language of Orwell, were tickled by the idea of thoughtcrime, and ingeniously employed Newspeak as a blueprint for their own scheming, I personally don’t give them that much credit. Rather, I think Orwell was smart enough to trace out the thread of progressive thought to its logical conclusion. The result, as he saw it, was a world in which ideas are controlled by a highly regulated, minimalist vocabulary, leaving virtually no room for dissension. The inhabitants of Oceania simply lack the language to express certain frowned-upon concepts. Ideas, as we know, have consequences; and whoever controls language controls mind.
It may have taken a little longer than Orwell predicted, but let’s face it: He told us we would get there eventually, and we have. In fact, we’ve done supremely well at fulfilling his prophecy—maybe even better than he could have envisioned. We have fallen headfirst into the language trap. Certain words are now branded as “intolerant” or “biased,” not because they are inherently so, but because they give expression to “unwanted” ideas.
Take the example of the “non-disabled person.” The first problem with such a term is that it completely violates the principle of non-negativity, which states that a concept cannot be defined in terms of its opposite. That should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t to the people at UNH. According to the Bias-Free Language Guide, in order to know what a person without any disabilities is, we first need to understand what a person with disabilities is. But that begs the question: How can we know what it means to be disabled if we don’t first know what it means to be an abled person? How can we grasp the idea of an “unpainted” wall if we have no concept of paint? Does anyone see the sophistry here?
In Newspeak, there is an almost identical pattern of thought. The word “bad” has been replaced by the word “ungood,” and with it, the very notion that human beings are capable of wrongdoing. No one is able to identify “bad” with any real precision; one is merely able to recognize that things labeled “ungood” must not be thought about. Shut your eyes and stop up your ears—something “ungood” is on the premises!
Even worse, by calling a healthy person “non-disabled,” the people at UNH have not added one iota to the dignity of disabled people. They are merely trying to trick us into perceiving a “new normal.” What is not normal thus becomes the standard (the norm) for gauging everything else—including what is “normal”! Ultimately, though—and here’s where the situation backfires—disabled people suffer, because we “tolerantly” refuse to acknowledge the existence of their disabilities (“what disabilities?”) and may even refuse them necessary assistance.
The liberals have spun us around so many times that our perception of reality is now distorted beyond comprehension; reality essentially has no meaning. It is for the same reason that I can identify as whatever type of being I want and, voila! I am that being. Try to tell me otherwise and you’re not a realist; you’re simply a bigot.
The destruction of language is really necessary to justify arguments of this sort. If we try to affirm that there is a correspondence between reality and thought, we might be tempted to describe things as we believe them to be—not as the liberal progressives would have us perceive them. Ultimately, truth is an inconvenience for these people, and the only way around truth is to warp, bulldoze, or relativize it. If it can’t be thought, it can’t be true—it’s as simple as that. Orwell saw this danger when he wrote that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”1
We can be grateful that such an outrage has been quarantined before it was allowed to infect any more minds than it already has. But it will be back: that is for certain. In the meantime, it would do the nation a whole lot of good if we were all to brush up on our Orwell.
1. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, April 1946, online version.
Cover photo by Jennifer Moo.
Internal photo of slogan from 1984 by Jason Ilagan.