Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization.
Originally published by Defining Ideas.
Long before 1984 gave us the adjective “Orwellian” to describe the political corruption of language and thought, Thucydides observed how factional struggles for power make words their first victims. Describing the horrors of civil war on the island of Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” Orwell explains the reason for such degradation of language in his essay “Politics and the English Language”: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
Tyrannical power and its abuses comprise the “indefensible” that must be verbally disguised. The gulags, engineered famines, show trials, and mass murder of the Soviet Union required that it be a “regime of lies,” as the disillusioned admirer of Soviet communism Pierre Pascal put it in 1927.
Our own political and social discourse must torture language in order to disguise the failures and abuses of policies designed to advance the power and interests of the “soft despotism,” as Tocqueville called it, of the modern Leviathan state and its political caretakers. Meanwhile, in foreign policy the transformation of meaning serves misguided policies that endanger our security and interests.
One example from domestic policy recently cropped up in Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s dissent in the Schuette decision, which upheld the Michigan referendum banning racial preferences. In her dissent, Sotomayor called for replacing the term “affirmative action” with “race-sensitive admissions.” But “affirmative action” was itself a euphemism for the racial quotas in use in college admissions until they were struck down in the 1978 Bakke decision. To salvage racial discrimination, which any process that gives race an advantage necessarily requires, Bakke legitimized yet another euphemism, “diversity,” as a compelling state interest that justified taking race into account in university admissions.
Thus the most important form of “diversity” for the university became the easily quantifiable one of race. Not even socio-economic status can trump it, as the counsel for the University of Texas admitted during oral arguments in Fisher vs. University of Texas last year, when he implied that a minority applicant from a privileged background would add more diversity to the university than a less privileged white applicant. All these verbal evasions are necessary for camouflaging the fact that any process that discriminates on the basis of race violates the Civil Rights Act ban on such discrimination. Promoting an identity politics predicated on historical victimization and the equality of result is more important than the principle of equality before the law, and this illiberal ideology must be hidden behind distortions of language and vague phrases like “race-sensitive” and “diversity.”
Another example can be found in the recently released report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The report is the basis for the government’s numerous policy and procedural suggestions to universities and colleges in order to help them “live up to their obligation to protect students from sexual violence.” Genuine sexual violence, of course, needs to be investigated, adjudicated, and punished to the full extent of the law by the police and the judicial system. But the “sexual assault” and “sexual violence” the Obama administration is talking about is something different.
At the heart of the White House report is the oft-repeated 2007 statistic that 20 percent of female college students have been victims of “sexual assault,” which most people will understand to mean rape or sexual battery. Yet as many critics of the study have pointed out, that preposterous number––crime-ridden Detroit’s rape rate is 0.05 percent––was achieved by redefining “sexual assault” to include even consensual sexual contact when the woman was drunk, and behaviors like “forced kissing” and “rubbing up against [the woman] in a sexual way, even if it is over [her] clothes.”
The vagueness and subjectivity of such a definition is an invitation to women to abandon personal responsibility and agency by redefining clumsy or boorish behavior as “sexual assault,” a phrase suggesting physical violence against the unwilling. As one analyst of the flawed study has reported, “three-quarters of the female students who were classified as victims of sexual assault by incapacitation did not believe they had been raped; even when only incidents involving penetration were counted, nearly two-thirds did not call it rape.” As many have pointed out, if genuine sexual assault were happening, colleges would be calling in the police, not trying the accused in campus tribunals made up of legal amateurs and lacking constitutional protections such as the right to confront and cross-examine one’s accuser.
What matters more than protecting college women against a phantom epidemic of rape, then, is the need to expand government power into the social lives of college students, empowering the federal bureaucrats, university administrators, and ideological programs like women’s studies that all stand to benefit by this sort of coercive intrusion. This enshrining of racial and sexual ideology into law through the abuse of language has had damaging consequences, whether for the minority college students mismatched with the universities to which they are admitted, thus often ensuring their failure and disillusion; or for the young women encouraged to abandon their autonomy and surrender it to government and education bureaucrats who know better than they how to make sense of their experiences and decisions.
In foreign policy, however, the abuse of language is positively dangerous. Since 9/11, our failure to identity the true nature of the Islamist threat and its grounding in traditional Islamic theology has led to misguided aims and tactics. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, for example, the traditional Islamic doctrine of jihad––which means to fight against the enemies of Islam, which predominantly means infidels––has been redefined to serve the dubious tactic of flattering Islam in order to prevent Muslim terrorism.
Thus in 2008 the National Terrorism Center instructed its employees, “Never use the term jihadist ormujahideen in conversation to describe terrorists,” since “In Arabic, jihad means ‘striving in the path of God’ and is used in many contexts beyond warfare.” Similarly, CIA chief John Brennan has asserted that jihad “is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community,” despite the fourteen centuries of evidence from the Koran, hadiths, and bloody history that jihad is in fact predominantly an obligatory armed struggle against the enemies of Islam. The reluctance to put Muslim violence in its religious context reflects not historical truth, but a public relations tactic serving the delusional strategy of appeasing Muslims into liking us.
That’s why, to this day, the 2009 murders of 13 military personnel at Fort Hood by Muslim Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan are still classified as “workplace violence” rather than an act of terror. This despite the fact that Hasan––whose business cards had the initials “SoA,” “Soldier of Allah,” on them––shouted the traditional Islamic battle cry “Allahu Akbar” during his rampage. Or that in a presentation at Walter Reed Hospital, Hasan had put up a slide with the great commission to practice jihad that Mohammed delivered in his farewell address: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’” This command to wage jihad was echoed in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini, revered as a “Grand Sign of God” for his theological acumen, and by Osama bin Laden in 2001. Those ignoring this venerable jihadist tradition must use verbal evasions like “workplace violence” and “striving in the path of God” to hide the indefensible––and failed––tactic of appeasement that prevents us from accurately understanding the religious motives of Muslim terrorists, and the extent of the Muslim world’s support for them.
No foreign policy crisis, however, is more illustrative of the “regime of lies” and abuse of language to serve “indefensible” aims than the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. The Arabs’ aim, of course, is to destroy Israel as a nation, a policy they have consistently pursued since 1948. Since military attacks have failed ignominiously, an international public relations campaign coupled to terrorist violence has been employed to weaken Israel’s morale and separate Israel from her Western allies. An Orwellian assault on language has been key to this tactic.
Examples are legion, but one is particularly insidious, here seen in a New York Times headline from 2011: “Obama Sees ’67 Borders as Starting Point for Peace Deal.” The common reference to “borders” in regard to what is in fact the armistice line from the 1948 Arab war against Israel is ubiquitous. Yet there has never been recognized in international law a formal “border” between Israel and what the world, in another Orwellian phrase, calls the “West Bank,” because that territory has never been part of a modern nation. Its only international legal status was as part of the British Mandate for Palestine, which was confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922, and which was intended as the national homeland for the Jewish people. The Arabs’ rejection of the U.N. partition plan and their invasion of Israel in 1948 put the territory’s status in limbo once Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria, which the international community with a few exceptions refused to recognize. In 1967 Israel took it back in another defensive war against Arab aggression. Since then, its final disposition has awaited a peace treaty that will determine the international border.
This may sound like quibbling over careless language, but the dishonest use of “border” reinforces and encodes in peoples’ minds the big lie of the conflict––that a Palestinian “nation” is being deprived of its “homeland” by Israel, a canard that didn’t become current among Arabs and the rest of the world until after the 1967 Six Day War. And this lie in turns validates the common use of “occupation”––which implies an illegal invasion into and control of another nation, as the Germans did to France in 1940––to describe Israel’s defensive possession of territories that have long served as launch pads for aggression against Israel. Until a peace treaty, the territory known as the “West Bank”––more accurately Judea and Samaria, the heartland of historical Israel for centuries––is disputed, not “occupied.”
To paraphrase Thucydides, words like “borders” and “occupation” have had their ordinary meanings changed, and been forced to take meanings that serve tyranny and aggression. And we who accept those new meanings are complicit in the resulting injustice that follows.
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