Freedom and Language
Corruption of Political Language Is the Greatest Threat to Freedom
SEPTEMBER 01, 1996 by AEON SKOBLE
Fifty years ago, the world emerged from a military conflict with substantial intellectual ramifications. Nazism and fascism were ideologies that needed to be defeated along with the military powers that wielded them. During the ensuing “cold” war, communism and socialism emerged as ideologies that called for intellectual confrontation. Of course, the United States also fought its first war over ideology—the war for independence, based on the principles of government by consent and individual freedom, and the idea that the rights of the individual trump the divine right of kings. But from the ’30s to the ’50s, the ideal of individual freedom came under attack anew. The fascists and the communists represented new challenges to the philosophies of classical liberalism.
By the ’90s, it may seem that fascism and communism have disappeared as intellectual opponents to liberty and individualism. But things aren’t always as they seem. In one sense, there are no fascists, and there are no socialists. Of course, what that statement means is that no one will identify himself as a fascist, and hardly anyone, except in universities, will identify himself as a socialist. But therein lies a potential problem. With the words “fascist” and “socialist” off the table, the wicked and the incautious may find it easier to promote policies that are harmful to freedom, but at the same time use the rhetoric of freedom.
George Orwell made the observation long ago that political language has deteriorated to the point where political labels with once-specific meanings now only signify the emotive attitude of the speaker. In his 1948 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell observed that “democracy” has come to refer to any system considered good by the speaker. Since everyone in politics benefits from the decadence of language, attempts at precision are resisted by all.
In the 1930s, one could say “I don’t like liberal democracy; I think fascism is a more appropriate system for organizing society.” To say that today would be unthinkable, but nevertheless one may actively promote the same policies that distinguish fascism from liberalism, as long as one calls them “democratic” instead of “fascist.” Government “partnerships” with industry, protective tariffs, price supports—these are all key components of a fascist (or national socialist) economic program, and antithetical to laissez-faire capitalist thought. But as long as they are presented as democratic programs, they have a good chance of succeeding.
Similarly, the sort of government intrusion into citizens’ personal lives favored by national socialists and communists may be promoted in modern-day America, but only if described as “democratic.” For any collectivist ideology, the individual is subordinate (ontologically as well as politically) to the State, where the State is conceived as an organic entity greater than the sum of its parts. So if it serves a State interest that no individual have access to subversive literature, that is sufficient justification for censorship.
Contemporary communitarian thinkers, such as Amitai Etzioni and Alasdair MacIntyre, often argue this way, but in mainstream politics, censorship is always rationalized in the language of liberal democracy, as when the local school board decides that Mark Twain is too offensive to “prevailing community standards.” That description makes censorship sound like democracy in action. Of course, unchecked democracy is not consistent with individual liberty to begin with. But a constitutional democracy is designed to protect individual freedom from majoritarian abuse.
Ignoring the Past
Many trends against freedom stem from a failure to learn from the past. For instance, in any discussion of the merits of drug legalization, one party is likely to say “drug prohibition is just like liquor prohibition in the ’20s,” which in many respects it is. Most of the problems that arise from drug prohibition are completely predictable based on past experience with prohibition: a black market, the participation of organized crime, dangerous chemical impurities compounding the intrinsic harms, and corruption in the law-enforcement community.
The justification for various forms of prohibition is the same—the substance is bad for you, and it’s the government’s job to protect you from yourself. Few realize the extent of the dangers to individual freedom that arise on that slippery slope. But unlike the rhetoric of the ’20s, the arguments supporting today’s prohibition are not explicitly presented on the grounds of State paternalism, but on the grounds that “our community doesn’t want the harmful effects of this trade,” which sounds like a much more democratic rationale.
The most up-to-date example of this is the controversy about Internet censorship. Like a Hollywood remake of an old TV show, the basic story is the same, but the special effects are better. The main concern is that the rapid communication and widespread availability of anything on the ‘Net pose a danger to the safety of the republic, because terrorists can use it, and to the safety of children, because of all the pornography. Again, the objections are phrased in terms of democratic theory, rather than State paternalism. When a powerful senator calls for censorship of the Internet, it is seen not as heavy-handed State intrusion, but as the will of the people, because he will invoke the safety of children, and we all care about children.
Wooed by Words
Both the “left” and the “right” are currently amenable to anti-individualist rhetoric. One side urges an end to selfishness, resulting in a broad redistribution of resources, as well as a skepticism about entrepreneurial capitalism. The other also urges an end to selfishness, resulting in eroded individual liberty in the arenas of criminal law and freedom of expression. After all, what is the root of an insistence on search warrants and a resistance to taxation but the attempt to preserve individual freedom against the claims of the community?
Given a looseness about language, both sides have become quite adept at employing the language of rights and freedom to promote their causes, while couching anti-individualist programs not in the language of the fascist or the socialist, but in the language of democracy. Hence a trend towards theories based on the “rights” of the community, which are always invoked to justify an abrogation of some person’s rights. Hence the currently fashionable “freedom not to be offended,” which is always invoked by the censorious to suppress freedom of expression.
The gravest threat to freedom, one might argue, is not any particular illiberal scheme, but, as Orwell predicted, the corruption of political language. It is easy to note the irony of an incredibly repressive regime deciding to call itself “The Democratic People’s Republic of Freedonia,” but the same corruption is evident when both major American parties refer to the pro-freedom ideas of the other party as selfish, and to their own anti-freedom ideas as democratic.
A perhaps more subtle corruption of language can be found in, of all places, the mainstream news media. I do not attribute this to any sort of conspiracy, but to their interests in catering to an audience whose critical faculties are on the wane. For instance, consider news reports about the Montana “Freemen” (no connection to this magazine). These reports always refer to “the anti-government Freemen group.” Not “the violently anti-Semitic Freemen group,” or the “fraudulent check-kiting Freemen group,” or “the white separatist, would-be kidnapper Freemen group,” but always “the anti-government Freemen group.” The clear implication is that simply being critical of the government is somehow evidence of an unbalanced mind, or violently criminal intentions. By consistently associating this epithet with violent criminals, legitimate concerns about the scope of government power are undermined.
A similar pattern was evident in UNABOM reporting. How did authorities close in on the suspect? According to news reports, “the FBI says that they discovered anti-government writings.” Not “pro-violence writings,” or “writings which rationalize killing innocent people with package bombs,” but simply “anti-government writings.” Again, by continued association of the label “anti-government” with the violent and the unbalanced, the news reports create the sense that there is something wrong with reasoned opposition to the power and policies of Leviathan.
The erosion of personal responsibility in the legal system and in economics poses a threat to the underpinnings of the classical liberal case for freedom. Calls for censorship and government regulation of some activities seem to be on the rise, in the name of communitarianism or democracy (or “political correctness”). “National service,” the fashionable label for conscription, is a pet project of both major political parties.
Restoring the Integrity of Language
A successful strategy for countering these negative trends should involve, among other things, an insistence on linguistic integrity. Restoring freedom means, in part at least, restoring the integrity of language, particularly the language of classical liberalism. Classical liberals should insist on referring to socialist or mercantilist or fascist proposals by their correct names, and insist also on defending pro-freedom proposals on the grounds that they are in accord with the principle of liberty, which ought to be sufficient justification.
Linguistic integrity and precision depend, in part, on a repudiation of currently fashionable relativism, which holds that words have no fixed meanings, and no opinion is more right or wrong than any other. In order to argue that individual liberty ought to be the paramount political value, there has to be such a thing as a paramount value. The prospects for freedom are good, but liberty, as the saying goes, requires vigilance, and that must include a vigilance about clear language and clear thinking.