Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for June 9th, 2007

Crossing out words to better see them

Posted by digglahhh on 9 June 2007

What a bunch of melodramatic, self-entitled, historically ignorant whiners white males the conservative punditry are. For example, Often you’ll hear them ask why there is no “White History Month.” The assumption of neutrality causes people to falsely conclude that now Black History Months outnumber White History Months 1 to 0, when in reality, White History Months dominate 11 to 1.

They refuse to recognize themselves as the all-time greatest beneficiaries of policies that have been and still are, essentially, affirmative action. Yet, they have no problem lambasting those who refuse to recognize white people as a “minority.” Yes, there are arenas in which white people happen to make up less than half of some specifically limited segment of the American population. That doesn’t make them members of an oppressed minority.

The specific acts of whining and semantic manipulation I have in mind are their uses of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity.” Even as they descry the limiting of terms like “oppression” or “victimization” to non-white minority groups, the conservative right is only willing to apply terms like “indoctrination” or “brainwashing” to the teaching or discussion of values that contradict their hegemonic counterparts.

Consider, for example, the way you frequently hear the right accusing professors of indoctrinating students into Marxism or other radical ideologies. Yet when you look at the circumstances of the accusation, almost always, anything beyond the barest of introductions to the subject is considered an indoctrination. We’re left to assume that teachers are obliged to uphold whatever norms happen to exist, as if a student’s social and educational experiences up until that point have been characterized by a non-indoctrinating objectivity. Such a notion is patently false, and either naïve, inane, or disingenuous, depending on the motives of the accuser. Conservative instructors are quick to remind their students that their assignments should give an objective summary based on the facts. The simple fact is, a college professor simply doesn’t have the contact time with a student to indoctrinate to anything but the smallest degree, in comparison to the synergistic messaging of a conumer based, mass media driven culture. I guess teaching people who that bereted silhouette that adorns hipsters’ T-shirts is, and explaining to how he might feel about his image being printed on sweatshop products and worn as an (unintentionally ironic) fashion trend classifies as indoctrination.

It is not the accusation of bias that is bothersome, as it is sometimes true. It is the false dichotomy implied between the subjectivity of university classes, specialized and clearly labeled, by comparison, and the objectivity of a high school class in American History –or Saturday morning cartoons for that matter– that is manipulative. Any perspective that doesn’t contradict, or even one that reinforces the dominant value structure or accepted histories of events are assumed to be objective. But, being subversive is not an essential criterion to the process of indoctrination and objectivity is not something that is relative to an interpretable status quo.

Not every disagreement marks an absence of objectivity. Many disagreements are defined by clashes of subjective interpretations that both hold historical merit.

The ultimate goal of a marketer is for his/her individual model or brand to becoming synonymous to the general product itself. All adhesive bandages are referred to as Band-Aids. Similarly, we have Kleenex, Gatorade, Rollerblade, and White-Out (list as many as you can on a long car trip, it’s fun). To most of our population, “history as written and interpreted by white Christian capitalist men” has simply become, “history.” .

Contrawise, a Marxist interpretation of history it is not any more subjective than the version consumed by the masses; it is just more explicitly labeled. It is always the “other” that is labeled. The non-otherness of the unlabeled is implied. Hence, the Negro Leagues, the colored fountain, working women, diet soda, etc.

Classification experts from Aristotle to Linnaeus to Orwell would tell you these are social and political choices, not scientific ones. A cup that contains nothing but coffee isn’t a cup of coffee, it’s “black coffee,” while one that has been adulterated with milk and sugar is a “regular coffee.” A cousin of mine has coined the term “retronym” for terms like caffinated coffee, unflavored ginger ale, triple-tax-free bonds, etc.

What we should be arguing for in terms of dissemination of ideologies and information through the media and educational system is simple and clear labeling and general transparency. As a member of a free society, I have no objections to the marketplace of ideas or to giving people several different interpretations of world events. But, disallowing false advertising is a precondition of a fair marketplace. When you turn on the nightly news you are getting, predominantly, a white, Christian, capitalist, and male interpretation of world events. That’s fine. What is not fine is that none of those biases are advertised.

Basically, the manipulative use of words like “indoctrination” and “objectivity” run the gamut of Orwellian sin. In his “Politics and the English Language,” he specifically cites “objective” as an example of pretentious diction, which , is “used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”

When discussing meaningless words, he said,

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

And about the modern political writing of his day, he wrote,

“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms…”

Jean Michel Basquiat, who I referenced in last week’s post, famously stated, “I cross out words so you will see them more; the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Perhaps he was on to something, as most of those who make the type of complaints I’ve been deconstructing read February as “Black History Month,” when in reality it is a lot closer to White History Month.

Posted in digglahhh, education, language, Orwell, politics | 3 Comments »