From etiquette to coercion: language police threaten harsh punishments


An accurate and timely message: Many of the government abuses that George Orwell so accurately described turn out to have been accurate predictions as well.

An accurate and timely message: Many of the government abuses that George Orwell so accurately described turn out to have been accurate predictions as well.


Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell

It has finally happened.  The language police have gone from etiquette to coercion, from “try to use the pronouns I prefer” to “there will be harsh punishment if you don’t.”  A line has been crossed.  Now there are real-world consequences, which would make me very anxious, if I cared (or were forced to care) about this nonsense.

Pointless and unworkable undertaking

Never mind, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that the whole multi-pronoun undertaking is woefully incomplete and intellectually groundless.

At least, up to now it has been (to my knowledge) confined to lunatic, doctrinaire control freaks inventing new ways to be offended — at best, a set of voluntary speech-habits and personal labels, which each person adopts and everybody else has to keep straight, thus unduly increasing the cognitive burden of getting things said.

It’s incomplete because they haven’t even considered first- or second-person pronouns. But hey, if your virtue is pointed in the right direction, you’re good.

Now the language police have crossed a line.

They’ve gone from language etiquette to real-world consequences.  Now it’s not enough to respect others’ preferences. At least one institution has made it a matter of policy:

Till now, etiquette.  Now, coercion

Soon, no doubt, there will be others.  One institution cannot allow another to outdo it in woke-piety.

These people are serious; from the website link above:

“Discipline may include, but is not limited to: reprimand/warning, change of the Respondent’s job duties, disciplinary probation, revocation of honors and awards, restricted access to University facilities or activities, a ‘no-contact’ order, relocation of a Respondent’s University-provided residence, relocation of Respondent’s workplace/station, demotion, administrative leave with or without pay, suspension with or without pay, unpaid leave, and dismissal or restriction from University employment. The University may also require training or educational intervention…”

Words matter

The university’s diktat also sanctimoniously proclaims that “words matter.”  Do not be fooled.  This is the go-to argument of someone who really means “MY words matter.”

Words definitely do matter, but in many more dimensions than gender-signaling. For every word that has alternatives and synonyms, there’s a choice: why did the person choose that word, in what context, to what end?  What was intended, and what was perceived?

Illegal speech

Very few speech-acts are not protected by the First Amendment, because, presumably, very few have real-world consequences (threats, incitement to violence, blackmail, obscenity; I disagree with the last one).  Now a whole raft of speech acts has serious real-world consequences.

You can lose your job for using the wrong pronouns?  For “mis-gendering”?

No, no, NO.

It’s not going to happen.  What will happen is that a lot of people will be offended by others’ unintentional errors caused by (in)attention to a matter no one till now has had think about and  differentiate: pronouns.

Now the list of words and expressions that will “trigger” others gets longer, and it involves choices we make with practically every utterance: pronouns. This is not as simple as replacing fireman with fire-fighter.  This is about pronouns!

Pronouns as dramatis personae

In conversation, we can hardly avoid using them, because pronouns are the dramatis personae of our speech acts.  They personalize the origin of action (I, we, they, you, he/she/it), tell or what is acted upon (him, her, it, them), or address one or many individuals other than the speaker (you).  In the case of two pronouns, — he gave me them — there are rules for interpretation.

And pronouns are sprinkled throughout our speech as we use them to refer to items or people previously mentioned.  You’re going to add a dozen genders and keep them straight in all those situations?

Don’t we have enough to fight about?

Do we have to use the correct pronouns in writing too?  What if we don’t know the preferred gender of the person we’re writing to or about?  It’s a linguistic minefield.

All of a sudden we have to pay attention to aspects of other people that really have no relevance to the conversation.  As if we didn’t have enough to fight about.  (But isn’t that what Marxists do – divide people against each other and encourage everyone’s dependence on the state?)

A mecca for woke-ism.

If this keeps up, “Ivy League” will become, if it isn’t already, either a stigma of or — more likely — a mecca for woke-ism, where everybody repeats the same buzzwords in unison, whether they believe them or not.

In either case, I resent my alma mater’s devaluing the degree I worked so hard for by caving in to white guilt and black opportunists and taking its eye off its educational mission.  I won’t say which college.

The public face of the linguistics profession

As luck would have it, Columbia University is the home of John McWhorter, a very high-profile linguist who, as George Carlin once said, ridiculing liberals, “happens to be Black.”

He is perhaps the most publicly visible linguist of all, except Chomsky, who doesn’t count.  His book Woke Racism, though its message needs to be heard, is kind of a mild challenge and not all that ground-breaking, since we knew from the outset that affirmative action would harm Blacks.  It’s been well documented, by Thomas Sowell and others, that Blacks’ standard of living was rising by every measure, before the government decided they were “victims.”

Danger in every sentence

But still…he did challenge the woke catechism.  And he’s done it in the NY Times and perhaps in other venues I’m not aware of.  Kudos to this articulate man, who manages to go on the offensive without being offensive.

One wonders how McWhorter, low-key and realistic as he is, will be punished.  Perhaps he already has been called an Uncle Tom, a white supremacist, a racist, or worse.

I am eager to see if he (or any linguist) will speak out on this latest advance of tyranny: from encouraged speech to coerced speech.   You can lose your job for using the wrong pronoun!  Danger lurks in every sentence.

I would like to see professor McWhorter come forward and deplore this latest development.

Retribution and blacklisting

I know: retribution can be vicious: they revoke tenure, fire you, ostracize you, drop your classes, gradually exclude you… sooner or later, probably sooner, your career’s over, even if you’re John McWhorter.  So you keep quiet.  I would too.

Back in the 1950s, the cancel culture of the day ruined the careers of many who’d been tainted by accusations of communism, Marxism, and/or loyalty to the USSR.  Writers secretly had their work published by others who hadn’t been blacklisted.

Now it’s being done by people who want to construct an American version of the Soviet Union: the content is different, but not the format:  There’s one narrative and one truth (accompanied by one correct way to say things), as defined by the Party.

McWhorter and Maher

His Times piece was an unflinching critique of woke-o-doxy.  But I watched his interview with Bill Maher, and he was vague (“I’m really just a failed lawyer”), affable and uncontroversial.  What an opportunity – and nothing about linguistics!

  • Maher’s interview was notable for what it did not ask.  Any one of the following would have made for a spirited discussion, a matter on which a real linguist needs to be heard:

Questions for Prof. MacWhorter (or any other linguist)

  • (1) As an academically-trained linguist, what do you think of the left’s constant efforts to regulate speech, create new pronouns, and otherwise mess with language, and do you agree that it all creates a perpetual atmosphere of antagonism and fear of  saying the wrong thing?

(2) What do you think of politicians’ arbitrary renaming of things to suit their purposes (infrastructure means ‘anything necessary for anything else,’ i.e.,’ everything’; recession is what we say it is) and, just as the government did in 1984, combining contradictions to create truth (Biden’s all-female communications team is an example of “diversity;” “inclusive” means ‘exclusion of white males’)?

(3) What do you think of the left’s insistence on smearing as “racist,” “domestic terrorist,” or “white supremacist” any opinion it doesn’t agree with?  Why do they use scare-words like “terrorist”?  Are they arbitrarily changing the meanings of words in order to target certain dissenters?  Are they afraid or unable to argue the issues?

(4) Does critical race theory ignore the difference between narrative (“Whites are oppressors; Blacks are victims”), which you can just make up as you go along and requires no proof (which Maher has accused religious believers of)…and truth, which must be discovered through inquiry, experiment, documentation, and experience?

(5) Some apologists for critical race theory say it’s not being taught to kids, or that it’s being misinterpreted, or that it doesn’t exist at all.  What do you think?

(6) Aren’t all these new pronouns making life unnecessarily more complicated?  Isn’t life already hard enough?  (A question Maher asked, in his documentary Religulous, about religious rituals.)  And is the program even workable?

Staying innocuous

I get it.  McWhorter is the public face of the linguistics profession, and he has to stay innocuous.  The academic left will allow there to be a Black conservative linguist (to show how liberal they are, I guess), as long as he stays away from the linguistic “third rail”  – i.e., the left’s ongoing efforts at language and thought control.

No linguist that I know of dares to openly question the prevailing racial/gender orthodoxy, even when they know it’s rooted in the corrupt, evasive, and even contemptuous use of language, a subject on which they are qualified to speak publicly.

Controlling language, thought, and behavior

Don’t you folks understand that the pronoun multipliers and gender replacers want to control language as a means of controlling thought and behavior?

Already it’s dangerous to say and write the wrong things.  That’s what the left-wing establishment, the aspiring perpetual government, wants: a population fine-tuned to offense and ignoring their common humanity.

Checked boxes and individual humanity

Thus citizens are ever more easily manipulated, especially when valuable school time that could be used for reading, writing, math, science, and critical thinking is devoted to making children talk about their race, gender, and “privilege.”

Result: they know precisely which cis- or trans-gender they are, but they don’t know what the Bill of Rights is or — even more important — when politicians are shoveling meaningless BS at them.    But let’s face it: it is in the interests of the ruling class that citizens be semi-educated, frightened, and docile.

Language and dehumanization

Language plays a key role in this dehumanization process. Repetition of the right words – and elimination of the wrong ones — encourages groupthink and prevents thought-crime.  It’s all double-plus good!!

Repetition fosters acceptance, in a cognitive feedback loop.   If you can be made to think about yourself and others, over and over, as a series of checked boxed (Latinx, female, Asian, trans-gender), an individual “you” disappears, and the rest can be played like piano keys by government attention to the various grievance groups to which you belong (people of color, protected classes, trans, etc., etc.) and to whose needs (power, money, security) government must respond.

Another technology inflection point

George Orwell was a seer par excellence.  He made his observations — even more relevant today  —  at an inflection point in the development of communications technology.  He saw how it enabled governments to construct narratives, enforce conformity, divide people, and create animosity with a power and reach never before attainable.

Radio and TV vastly multiplied the power of politicians to shape what they want you to accept as “the truth.”  Whoever controls language and thought controls the world – or, at least, a portion of it.

Another exponential jump

We are now swept up in another information-multiplying tsunami.  What would Orwell think of today’s internet, where “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories abound, where Big Tech has achieved a level of surveillance, data-gathering, and control that Big Brother only dreamed about, and where truth is as elusive as the electrons that comprise it?

We are at an inflection point similar to Orwell’s time: today’s technologies are being used, at an exponentially increasing rate, to control what we know and think.

Language police have crossed a line:

Actual language coercion, as now practiced by Columbia University, has begun.  Orwell saw it coming in his time.  Today, a new wave of thought-crime and groupthink is upon us.

Will linguists never speak out?

  1. PS. My preferred pronouns are wo, ni, ta (Mandarin for ‘I’, ‘you,’ he/she it’). If our educational system continues on its current path, we would all do well to learn Chinese.