Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- December, 2002


By Ernest Partridge

Published in The Online Journal, December 18, 2002, 
Smirking Chimp, and several other websites

Adapted for inclusion in Chapter Two of Conscience of a Progressive.


The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ..., but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words, and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.... Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought...

George Orwell,
"The Principles of Newspeak,"

Liberals who are wondering just what hit them in the past twenty years, will find much of the answer to their bewilderment in George Orwell's 1984. That classic presents an accurate description of the tactics that Right-Wing political operatives have employed in their successful anathematization of the once-honorific word, "liberalism," and in their inappropriate adoption of the word "conservative."

In the political strife of the past generation, it is the liberals who have been the authentic "conservatives" as they have treated the received political vocabulary with respect and restraint, regarding the clarity afforded by ordinary language as a necessary and valuable medium of civil and reasoned political debate.

In contrast, the so-called "conservatives," unconstrained by such qualms, have treated language as a political weapon. Because these antics have provoked little if any protest from their opponents, the Right-Wing word-meisters have utilized their semantic weapons with great skill and effect, and thus have prevailed.

(Terminological note: Because the essential purpose of this essay is to examine the use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" in current political rhetoric, we must use these words with great care and circumspection. Accordingly, we will use instead, the terms "the Right" and "the Left," mindful that these words are also charged with emotive and ideological connotations. Indeed, it seems impossible to avoid such connotations when referring to a political faction).

The Assault on (the word) "Liberal."

The rhetoric of contemporary politics has not infected the pages of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, which thus defines the political sense of "liberal:" "Favoring reform or progress, as in religion, education, etc.; specifically, favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual..." Webster's also notes the that the derivation of the word "liberal" is from the Latin liberalis: "of or pertaining to a freeman."

To this, we might add that modern liberals regard popularly elected government, constrained by the rule of law, as a positive force for ensuring the welfare, equality and rights of the citizens. Far from being "anti-conservative," this notion is enshrined in the Declaration of our political Independence ("to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men") and in the Preamble to our Constitution, which proclaims that it is the legitimate function of governments "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Somehow these authentically conservative principles of liberalism have been obscured by the word-meisters of the Right, as they have associated the word "liberal" with "tax-and-spend big government," naive ("bleeding heart") benevolence toward the unworthy (e.g., "welfare cheats"), and bumbling, bureaucratic interference in enlightened private enterprise.

This semantic coup has been so successful that in political rhetoric "liberal" has become an abusive "hot button." Just consider the recent election. In TV spot advertisements (now the dominant arena of political "debate,") the word "liberal" is splashed and shouted, like a witch's curse, over the name of the (generally Democratic) target candidates. "Liberal!" Nancy Pelosi, "Liberal!" Barbara Boxer, "Liberal!" Paul Wellstone. No elaboration is offered of just what the word is supposed to mean. No need for that, since the cognitive content of the term has long since been drained away, leaving a shell of invective. Thus the transformed word, "liberal," becomes a political weapon - like a piece of rotten fruit, to hurl at the candidate.

And so, in tune with the principles of Newspeak, in current political discourse the political faction which advocates "reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual" (Webster's), formerly designated as "liberalism," has now been deprived of its traditional name. And thus, lacking a name, it has become far more difficult to articulate and thus even think of and defend the "liberal" principles of such political giants as FDR, LaGuardia, Stevenson and Javitts.

How did it come to this? In retrospect, it is difficult to determine whether the assault upon the word "liberalism" was calculated, or merely directed without design at a conspicuous target of opportunity. It really doesn't matter; it is the methodology and the consequences of this attack that should interest us.

The success of the attack upon "liberalism," and the failure of the liberals to defend their political label, can be attributed in part to the respective vocations and traditions of "the offense" (the Right) and "the defense" (the Left). Prominent defenders of "the Left" come from the academic world, where language is prized for its precision and clarity, and where the purpose of political discourse is to persuade by force of confirmable evidence and valid argument. In contrast, "the Right," drawing from the practical experience of commerce, seeks, not to prove, but to sell. Any psychological device that promises to "close the sale" (i.e., persuade the "prospect" to buy the product or to vote for "our" candidate) is fair game. And if those devices involve the distortion of language, the pollution of plain meaning, and the subversion of free political institutions, then so be it. George Orwell vividly described such semantic shenanigans, called it "Newspeak," and gave us fair warning. The Right, unconstrained by a "conservative" respect for the acquired wealth of meaning in our language, follows (by design or, more likely, by independent invention) the Principles of Newspeak: "provide a medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ..., [and] make all other modes of thought impossible."

The Right's effective use of language as a political weapon should not have come as a surprise. There was fair warning:

  • In the early 60s, Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, coined a term "ComSymp" to mean, of course, "communist sympathizer." I recall that he said at that time that this was a "beautiful word," in that it didn't convey just how much the individual so designated was a "communist," and how much just a "sympathizer." Thus vagueness, regarded by academics as a semantic weakness, was openly praised as a rhetorical virtue by Mr. Welch.

  • In a similar vein, Vice President Spiro Agnew (more precisely, one of his writers) introduced the term "Radical-Liberal," soon thereafter abbreviated as "radiclib." Thus the long-honored term "liberal" was automatically tarred with the undeserved connotation of "radical" (i.e., "subversive"). This was a masterful stroke of political gamesmanship, at the cost of devaluing the coin of intelligent political discourse.

  • Finally, there was the abortion debate which followed closely upon the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. The anti-abortion forces quickly adopted the semantically powerful label, "pro-life." Then a savvy advocate noted that if you combine the words "baby" and "killing" you will have a no-lose political issue. Thus fetuses and embryos, back to the moment of conception (an invisibly tiny cluster of cells) were called "babies" and endowed with a moral significance more precious than that of a fully-formed adult woman. Opposition to the so-called "pro-life" and "anti-abortion" platform automatically carried heavy and undeserved moral burdens, due to the simple (yet false) implication that the defenders of Roe v. Wade were ipso facto "anti-life" and "pro-abortion." These "liberals" paid a heavy price for their unwillingness to engage in "merely semantic" debates. Late in the debate, the Left finally wised-up and adopted the term "Pro-Choice," but by then considerable damage had been done. (For more on the topic of the semantics of abortion, see "The Right to Life and the Right to Love"). 

In sum: "The left," poor saps, constrained by their genteel "rules of (verbal) fair play," chose not to stoop to the tactical level of their opposition. And thus, of course, they were clobbered in the political arena, as an over-the-hill actor was "cast" in the role of Presidential Candidate, and prevailed over an authentic scholar and Christian gentleman. The poor, hapless left forgot the advice of one of their own: "Tip" O'Neill, who observed "Politics ain't beanbag."


The Capture of (the word) "Conservative."

The political Right, which calls itself "conservative," is nothing of the kind. As I have noted elsewhere (see "Kill the Umpire!," this site), they might better be called "radical anarchists." To these so-called "conservatives," popularly elected government - which tells them that they cannot poison the common air and water, sell unsafe and ineffective food and drugs, cheat their customers, or abuse their employees -- is some sort of occupying foreign power.

"Government," writes the Libertarian philosopher, John Hospers, "is the most dangerous institution known to man." The libertarians can at least be credited for having a consistency and courage of their unfortunate beliefs, as they advocate the abolition of all laws regulating private and "victimless" behavior. (Cf. "With Liberty for Some," this site). Self-described "conservatives," on the contrary, are not constrained by consistency. It is quite acceptable, they tell us, for government to interfere with doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationships, to establish a religion ("This is a Christian Nation!"), to incarcerate indefinitely without charge or access to counsel, and to criminalize sexual relations between consenting adults. (As one wit has said, "the Right has taken government off our backs and put it into our bedrooms"). And finally, as we know so well, the Right has no qualms about disenfranchising citizens, over-riding state law, and conducting a coup d'etat under the guise of "law," in order to install their candidate into the office of the President of the United States.

Yet these anarchist have the unmitigated gall to call themselves "conservatives." Still worse, the press and public have consented, without protest, to this violation of our language - to this exercise in "Newspeak."

Semantic Conservatism and the Liberation of the English Language.

The Rectification of Names consists in making real relationships and duties and institutions conform as far as possible to their ideal meanings.... When this intellectual reorganization is at last effected, the ideal social order will come as night follows day - a social order where, just as a circle is a circle and a square a square, so every prince is princely [and] every official is faithful... 

Confucius (as described by Hu Shih)

What, then, is the remedy?

First and foremost, the Left must become aware of just what has been done to them and to their language. And then, with this awareness, they must act - alerting the public to the subversion of our common language, and then piercing the screen of concocted labels to deal with the reality of public issues and moral principles beyond. They must, to use the old slogans of "General Semantics," direct public attention away from words to things and ideas - from maps to territories.

Second, the Left must acknowledge that the assault on the word "liberal" has left that once-honored word in critical condition. Accordingly, "liberal" must be given a prolonged rest, and perhaps even retired permanently. In the 1988 Presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis sensed the wisdom of this move, as he avoided the word "liberal" (along with all the unjust rightist baggage attached thereto), and adopted the word "progressive" to describe his program. Though it didn't "take" at the time, this "semantic handoff" should be tried again. If the word "progressive" can be attached to the meaning that Webster's assigned to "liberal," then the Left must proudly proclaim that meaning and relentlessly defend it from the attempt at semantic subversion that is sure to follow. Hopefully, with the sad fate of "liberalism" fresh in their minds, the new "progressives" will be more successful this time.

Third, the Left must rescue the word "conservative" from the radical-anarchists who have captured it. In place of "conservative," another label should be adopted to designate the Right wing, and used repeatedly until it "sticks." "Regressive" seems an appropriate choice, and it pairs nicely with "progressive."

Finally, as an antidote to the opportunistic subversion of political discourse (i.e., "Newspeak"), political "progressives" must steadfastly support the teaching of Critical Thinking, both formally and informally. Such a program has been in effect in the California State Universities for some twenty-four years. It should be extended, both geographically and "vertically," throughout all age-groups. "Critical thinking," like virtue, is universally endorsed, while it is universally violated. Almost everyone believes that he is a "straight thinker," and resents any suggestion that his thought processes might be systematically improved. Thus attempts to institute programs in the teaching of critical thinking are likely to face considerable difficulties.

In one of his final works, Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley recounted the sad fate in the late thirties of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis:

Certain educators... disapproved of the teaching of propaganda analysis on the grounds that it would make adolescents unduly cynical. Nor was it welcomed by the military authorities, who were afraid that recruits might start to analyze the utterances of drill sergeants. And then there were the clergymen and the advertisers. The clergymen were against propaganda analysis as tending to undermine belief and diminish churchgoing; the advertisers objected on the grounds that it might undermine brand loyalty and reduce sales.
And yet, as political philosophers have reiterated, from Aristotle through Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, and on through John Dewey and the late John Rawls in our own day: the cultivation of critical intelligence is the foundation of moral autonomy in the individual, and of liberty and justice in the body politic.

In sum, and above all: "Progressives" (formerly "liberals") had better wake up and smell the brew: those who control the language, control the agenda - they control, that is to say, what can and will be said in public discourse. Orwell's inquisitor "O'Brien" saw this clearly, when he explained: "... the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. . ."

We must take back our language, lest others decide for us what is to be "thinkable." 


Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .