Newspeak and Doubleplusgood Duckspeakers
Language has enormous benefits. It dramatically reduces the transaction costs in exchange, taken both in the narrow sense of trade and in the larger sense of interindividual interaction. It allows the development of literature, philosophy, and science. It opens the road to prosperity. The more complex a language, the larger these possibilities. Language is a standard case of what Friedrich Hayek calls a spontaneous or autoregulated order, and its very complexity is a product of unplanned social evolution.
Newspeak was imagined by novelist George Orwell as a language manufactured by the state and meant to replace English. This would be the exact opposite of a spontaneous order. In the Appendix to his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell explained:
Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. … The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. … Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought,
Except for dead languages, any language of course changes as it adapts to new knowledge, technology, institutions, and general opinion. Contrary to what the Big Brother of Nineteen Eighty-Four was doing, however, changes are typically slow. We would, for example, expect changing opinions about sex and gender to bring linguistic changes, but slowly. Given the relative youth of the woke movement, not more than half a century if we include its postmodernist predecessor, we would not expect it to have already had a widespread impact on common language. So it is surprising to read in the Wall Street Journal (Alexa Corse, Suzanne Vranica, and Sarah E. Needleman, “Elon Musk Raises Specter of Twitter Bankruptcy Amid Executive Turmoil,” November 10, 2022) the following sentences:
“I’ve made the hard decision to leave Twitter,” Mx. Kissner, the chief information security officer—who uses the gender-neutral honorific—tweeted early Thursday.
Mx. Kissner resigned Wednesday after a disagreement …
Of course, Lea Kissner is free to call herself whatever she wants, but why would the Wall Street Journal echo the eccentric title she has chosen? Although most of us would agree that her sex should be of no import in our evaluation of her job performance or opinions on Twitter, why should anybody else change the way he talks about her just because she says so? Who has the power to change language everybody speaks like Big Brother fictionally did in Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The Mx. title, gender and racial obsessions, the multiplication of pronouns, and group-identity cages are just some elements of the linguistic innovations that have been pushed by the same fringe over the past few decades. It looks a bit like Orwell’s Newspeak.
For sure, today’s Newspeak in the making is a bit more elaborate. Let me give three examples. The first one, already quoted in my post “′Ice is not Ice′ and the Limits of Conversation,” is an excerpt from a 2018 article by Professor Donna Riley in Engineering Studies and emphasizes identity groupism against intellectual rigor:
For those of us who work on engineering identity development, rigor may be a defining tool, revealing how structural forces of power and privilege operate to exclude men of color and women, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, first-generation and low-income students, and non-traditionally aged students.
The second example comes from an article by UC Berkeley philosopher Judith Butler in the journal Diacritics, and won the 1998 first prize awarded by Philosophy and Literature for the world’s worst writing —for “the most stylistically lamentable [passage] found in scholarly books and articles.” But I am not sure it’s a question of bad writing or of scientifically-looking obfuscation. I suspect Newspeak:
The theoretical rearticulation of structure as hegemony marked the work of Laclau and Mouffe as consequentially poststructuralist and offered perhaps the most important link between politics and poststructuralism in recent years (along with the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
The third quote is from a 1989 University of Chicago Law Forum article by Kimberle Crenshaw, a critical race theorist, and mentions the development of a new language (thanks to Alan Kors for having pointed out this article to me, as well as the previous one):
It is not necessary to believe that a political consensus to focus on the lives of the most disadvantaged will happen tomorrow in order to recenter discrimination discourse at the intersection. It is enough, for now, that such an effort would encourage us to look beneath the prevailing conceptions of discrimination and to challenge the complacency that accompanies belief in the effectiveness of this framework. By so doing, we may develop language which is critical of the dominant view and which provides some basis for unifying activity.
I grant that this Newspeak lacks the conciseness of the Nineteen Eighty-Four variety. Perhaps it is because the easiest (least costly) entry point of today’s Newspeak in public discourse was through scientific-looking but alchemist journals. And remember that Orwell’s Newspeak did have different forms and levels of vocabulary.
I have a hypothesis: the real function of current Newspeak—that is, why its promotion is so easily embraced, consciously or not—is to make sure that anything written before the woke liberation becomes so awkward, outdated, and difficult to read that fewer and fewer people will read it. Orwell would have been prescient when he wrote:
In practice, this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole.
Two pages before, he explained that the Newspeak word duckspeak, meant “to quack like a duck.” (Doubleplus was a standardized prefix for an accentuated superlative.) The word duckspeak was
was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.
How can a fringe group of intellectuals and rich college kids push today’s Newspeak’s so effectively? Hypothesis: it has to do with government subsidization of colleges and universities, and indirectly of the “academic” journals who benefit from professors’ free time for writing duckspeak.