The language of the Left

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“Political language has to consist largely of
euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”
— George Orwell from “Politics and the English Language” (1946)  

What would George Orwell, who once described his own work in “Selected Writings” as “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” say about today’s political discourse, specifically, the language of the Left?

He would likely be horrified. Much of it emanates from greater Boston, the birthplace of “microaggression,” and, more recently, homestead of “benevolent sexism.”

You are probably more familiar with microwaves and microbreweries than mircroaggressions (although you may unwittingly already be a transgressor and of such hostility).

During the 1970s, Harvard professor Chester Pierce invented the term. Defined as situational, spoken, or behavioral slights that convey ignorance, hostility or dismissal towards individuals belonging to minority or marginalized groups, microaggressions were, until recently, the language only of critical race theorists and obscure psychological journals.

But not now.

What began as a study of the psychological has become political and is now omnipresent. Today’s academics and adolescents — dual fuses igniting progressivism’s newest bonfire of victimhood – have hijacked the phrase across campuses and over the web.

A Columbia University Professor in 2010 further classified microaggression into “microassualts,” “microinsults” and “microinvalidations.” At the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2014 the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” was sanctioned as an example of a kind of institutional microaggression; and decrying the “myth of meritocracy,” so too is the phrase, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” Last year black students at Harvard University created an online photo campaign “I, Too, Am Harvard,” highlighting racial microaggression. This has all led to various universities to issue so-called guides to inclusive language that instruct students and faculty how not to cause offense.

Orwell wrote with a gimlet-eyed clarity and his book “1984” spawned a phrase of its own, “Orwellian;” a totalitarian future of irrational political concepts combined with the politicization of everyday language. According to, one in six universities now maintains “free speech zones.” The year 2015 has become 1984.

It’s no better off-campus. The landscape is littered with the likes of “climate disruption,” “gender reassignment,” “Indigenous Peoples Day” (a substitute for Columbus Day), “Holiday Trees” (replacing Christmas Trees) and on and on. So the coherent language of science and biology — and simple language of celebration — is distorted and diluted by prefabricated phrases meant to harmonize but, in fact, polarize and politicize.

Orwell would describe such nonsense as “meaningless words” and “pretentious diction.” The purpose of such language, he wrote, “is to dress up a simple statement and give an aire of scientific impartiality to biased judgements.”

This past March, researchers at Northeastern University conducted a “study” of the social interaction of 27 pairs of undergraduate men and women filmed while playing a trivia game followed by conversation. The findings detected – seriously! — “benevolent sexism.” Simple patience and a pleasing smile are deemed suspicious behavior.

What once may have passed as chivalry is now code for gender hatred; what once would have been regarded as positive attitudes and good intentions are now considered tools of oppression and sexism. Jin Goh, one of the study’s authors, concluded that this type of sexism “can consciously or unconsciously cloak itself in friendliness, so in a way it’s more insidious and treacherous than hostile sexism.”

Like microagression, benevolent sexism was first coined as a psychology phrase. It will only be a matter of time when it too will ultimately be amplified, canonized, and politicized. Conceivably, it could be used as a new appendage to progressive claims that the Republican party – wrongly believed to be dominated by old white men – continues to wage a “war on women.”

As regards the English language, Orwell realized that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” But he said the “process is reversible.”

The idea that this process is reversible is certainly comforting. But it will take the leadership of the precious few conservative thinkers on our campuses and in our culture to effect this reversal.

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and a former Cape Cod Times columnist. Read his previous columns here.