Playing the Indian Card

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Warning to Peoplekind

At the time, I noted that I thought it was silly for everyone to pile on Justin Trudeau for his “peoplekind” comment. It was obviously a joke. Everyone present laughed. The proof of this is that Trudeau said “peoplekind,” instead of the well-established alternative “humankind.” If he’d said the latter, it would not have sounded foolish enough to be funny.

But it turns out that my friend Xerxes not only though it was no joke, but endorses the idea. We should always say “peoplekind.”

“Mankind” simply means the human race, regardless of sex, and it always has. I know you hate dictionaries, but they are the authority on the language. Both Merriam-Webster and Oxford give this as the first definition. Both also list “men as distinct from women” as a second definition, but Oxford even labels this obsolete. The Etymological Dictionary notes that this sex-neutral meaning of mankind is also older that the usage that limits it to males.

So an objection to “mankind” is simply wrong. You are objecting only to the phoneme “man.” On those grounds, you also have to object to “woMAN” (shortened over time from the original “womb-man”) or huMAN, or perSON, or feMALE. And on and on. We’ll have to go back and change the national anthem again: it still says “In all of us comMANd.” We are getting close to having to recreate the language from the ground up.

At the same time, that this usage could be considered a problem needing fixing is compelling evidence that woman are not discriminated against in our society—and do not need to be patronized in this way. There is accordingly no good reason to do it. If they were oppressed, they would have neither the time, nor the energy, nor the power, to devote to such Princess-and-the-Pea incidentals. And would certainly never presume the power to demand that everyone else conform to satisfy them—especially considering how much change seems necessary by the logic of this one.

Even if women were discriminated against, however, changing words will do nothing to help. Slavery ended in the US long before anyone thought of switching from “negro” or “nigger” to “black” as a descriptive term for “African-Americans.” And please, do not use that word, “black.” It is now offensive. You can still, I think, use “African-American,” but it too is being replaced, it seems, by “people of colour.”

Which demonstrates first, that a change in language is irrelevant to changing social policy: social policy changed without any linguistic change; and second, that changing the language accomplishes nothing in terms of changing attitudes. Unless you change people’s thinking, the new term just comes to have all the same associations as the old one. “Idiot” began as a polite term. Then “retarded” replaced it as a more polite term. Now “retarded” sounds like an insult. And on it goes, forever. “Nigger” began and lived for centuries as a purely descriptive term.

Therefore, this tinkering with words demonstrably does not benefit the group supposedly being harmed by them.

So whom does it benefit?

The only benefit to anyone of proposing or using such new “politically correct” terms, and the only reason they are used, is to mark class distinctions and allow class discrimination: those who know the latest terms are those who have gone to a proper college to learn them, and/or who associate with the “right” people. Those who do not are revealed by this as social inferiors, and are to be treated accordingly—with disdain. They are the “other.”

As a secondary benefit, politically correct speech is a satisfying opportunity to bully the less powerful, showing your authority.

It is fortunate that these attempts to police language actually accomplish nothing. Because what they actually intend to accomplish is mind control. This is just what George Orwell warned of as “newspeak” in 1984; the attempt to limit what people could actually think by limiting the words they could use. “Politically correct” language is an overt attempt to control what people are permitted to think and say. We are just terribly lucky that it does not work.

It is still not harmless, however. Aside from promoting class discrimination, such arbitrary redefinitions of words and neologisms falsify the past. They make it more difficult to understand the best thoughts of the best minds who have lived: Shakespeare, say, or Locke, or Donne, or Newton. This is like loosing a wrecking ball on civilization.

For example, if Trudeau’s new definition of “mankind” were to be generally accepted, people could easily misunderstand that, when Neil Armstrong said “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” he was excluding women. Or that when Alexander Pope wrote “The proper study of mankind is man,” he was excluding women. Which perfectly suppresses the point they were actually making.

One of Yeats’ finest poems is “Lapus Lazuli.” The last line is the kicker, summing up the whole point of existence, and it is “Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.” I read it to a colleague not long ago, and, inevitably, the line now evokes a titter. The poem has not been effectively destroyed. And the vital point it was making effectively lost.

Why would anyone want to do this? Sadly, erasing our knowledge of the past is valuable for people in power. Past authority limits present freedom of action. This was why Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth was to send inconvenient facts down “the memory hole.” Under the slogan, “He who controls the past controls the future. And he who controls the present controls the past.”

And, it might be added, he who controls the past controls the present. Break the tablets of the law, and might makes right. If you have the might, you get to do as you like.

Accordingly, groups reaching for absolute power have often, in the past, promoted some form of iconoclasm, of wiping out knowledge of the past. This was Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or what Pol Pot was trying to do in Cambodia. The original Chin Emperor, to ensure and complete his rule, tried to burn every book that had ever been written.

Confucius made plain the depth of the danger. When asked what he would do if ever given political power, his answer was, “The first task is the rectification of names.” The most important thing for good, honest, moral government is to ensure that nobody is playing around with words, that all words retain their proper meanings.

If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

That is how serious the battle is, in which we are now engaged.

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