“Linguistic Cleansing” as Social Engineering

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Peter Drucker describes what is happening as the “new realities” of an increasingly pluralist democracy. He explains that: “The new pluralism … focuses on power. It is a pluralism of single-cause, single-interest groups—the “mass movements” of small but highly disciplined minorities. Each of them tries to obtain through power what it could not obtain through numbers or through persuasion. Each is exclusively political.” [1] Forcing others to operate within their linguistic agenda and therefore being shaped into that identity construct and set of dominant values and way of perceiving the world is at the core of the strategies.


In the same way that a specific ethnic identity group seeks to “cleanse” a territory of other identity groups in what has come to be known as “ethnic cleansing” there are rapidly evolving language control strategies being implemented by aggressive special interests that are fairly described as “linguistic cleansing”. Even though typically couched in terms of offensiveness, insensitivity, creation of a hostile environment, phobias and bigotry or even alleged fear for one’s safety the real aim of “linguistic cleansing” is to gain power over others’ speech and re-engineer culture into a form desired by the identity group implementing the strategy. This extends to the desire to eradicate traditional modes of expression that are claimed to “insult”, offend, emotionally harm or demean.


This has extended even to the traditional dependence on rational thought and discourse as well as the belief that it is important to seek to come as close to the “truth” of a matter as possible. In commenting on the positions taken by some radical scholars, Martha Nussbaum suggests, for example, that: “Socratic argument is suspected … of being arrogant and elitist.… [T]he elitism is seen as that of a dominant Western intellectual tradition that has persistently marginalized outsiders. The very pretense that one is engaged in the disinterested pursuit of truth can be a handy screen for prejudice.” [2] Of course this argument can be seen as a combination of overstatement and a preemptive attempt to delegitimize critiques that might be levied against the soundness of someone’s work. The strategy is to shape thought and consciousness by controlling and restricting the use of language and acquiring power through control and suppression of discourse while silencing criticisms of analytic inadequacy.[3]


At this point I confess to a hatred of “hate” speech prohibitions. Such prohibitions endanger the liberty of discourse that is at the base of our democratic system. As our society becomes increasingly diverse there is a need for greater allowances on speech rather than its repression. Our growing social diversity creates more numerous factions and there is a danger in allowing any identity group to control social discourse through linguistic shaping.


James Madison recognized the need to balance competing interests in his analysis of factious groups. In Federalist No. 10, Madison sets out the idea of faction in the following words. “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” [4]


Madison goes on to describe two “cures” for faction. One is to “destroy the liberty” that allows it to bloom, the other is to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”[5] Either “cure” destroys democracy. Each approach is being used in an effort to mold and limit social and political discourse. The idea is that free speech serves to protect and enrich the social community while allowing the different factions to gain at least a degree of understanding of the “other”. This presumably occurs through the education of participants, and the venting of potentially explosive internal hostilities. America is failing on both fronts.


Even though I have contempt for people who spew malicious bile, I also have enormous resistance for governmental and quasi-governmental intervention into that realm in any but the most serious situations of inciting and organizing for violence or serious criminal conspiracies. The upshot of the speech criminalization movement will be the further repression of critical speech. This is because, since sensitivity is a highly subjective phenomenon that is in primarily in the perception of the listener, there is a highly discretionary zone in which any reasonably intelligent speaker will look at what he or she might want to say and think that it is safer to remain silent because we have discovered that we live in a society in which someone seems to be offended or insulted by almost anything.


Of course part of the “rational discourse as the core of democracy” argument is obviously flawed because it is impossible to have fully rational discourse in an extremely diverse and complex community. Emotions, ignorance, bias and self-interest all erect barriers to discourse and they are barriers we seldom if ever transcend in any matter of consequence. It may be impossible to have honest discourse relating to important issues of our core social behavior and beliefs because the deep value systems upon which our individual systems of ultimate truths are grounded are not rational or even necessarily consistent with other clusters of belief containing potentially competing deep‑values. One of the hardest and most troubling questions we should try to answer is, if full and honest discourse is no longer possible do we fight to keep as close to that ideal as possible or restructure the doctrines of the community to reflect the new reality of group politics and raw identity group power? [6]


My position is that particularly given the increasing diversity of the American social and political communities that granting any political faction and major quasi-state institutions such as universities and large corporations the power of the State in ways that allow that special interest group to intimidate, shape and suppress speech because it subjectively offends, makes someone “feel bad”, supposedly incites others to violence, or is rude, “insensitive” (or any number of other pejorative labels) is a corruption of Western democracy.[7]   This suppression of speech movement is considerably farther along in Europe and the United Kingdom than America but the US is experiencing a rapid advance toward official speech suppression through law and bureaucracy as well as large-scale organized private group action designed to intimidate, threaten, shame and repress our willingness to engage in honest social discourse.[8]


The conflicts produced by the tensions of our traditional expansive doctrines involving the vital importance of free speech aimed at allowing the introduction of controversial positions in the face of the disapproval of dominant interests are forms of ordered conflict designed into our political system. This allows for the venting of hostility that—if repressed by powerful interests that disapprove of the particular position—tend to generate internal stresses that weaken the spirit of the democratic system. At a certain level of discursive rigidity, intransigent value conflicts emerge that allow for no face-saving and compromise. This renders what should be a dynamic and adaptive society brittle and fragile.


Hate, Bigotry and “Insensitivity”


Using governmental power to formally carve out “hate” offenses takes sides in the process of political discourse in ways that favor the interests of factions that have been successful in gaining the power of law to advance their agenda. The term “hate” in this context is nothing more than a propaganda tool that condemns and obstructs discourse by labeling it pejoratively. More accurately, in many instances, there is a blurring between truly irrational animosity and legitimate (or even illegitimate) criticism whereby it is convenient for interested parties to condemn anything that challenges or obstructs their agenda as “hatred” or bigotry. [9]


The problem is not that a limited number of expressions–the “N” word immediately comes to mind–should be used in our discourse. I consider that term an obscenity regardless of who uses it, including Americans of African ancestry. But once we move beyond that specific context the efforts to control language have spread so far into the subjective realms of special interests and identity groups that a Pandora’s Box of taboo and subjective words and phrases has been opened. That “box” is one in which anyone who claims that a word or phrase “offends” them, or in some way hurts, diminishes, insults or is simply insensitive to them or their identity group’s interests or beliefs now feels entitled to demand that others refrain from use of that language or suffer significant consequences.


I for one am “offended” [but no one cares] by claims that essentially say that: “all white males are the source of all evil in the world”. This seems to paint with a “slightly” too large brush. Yet some variation on this theme can be found in many places. Consider the following report by Todd Starnes, undeniably a conservative voice but that does not erase the reality of his description of the content of an official military training document. [10] Starnes reports: “A controversial 600-plus page manual used by the military to train its Equal Opportunity officers teaches that “healthy, white, heterosexual, Christian” men hold an unfair advantage over other races, and warns in great detail about a so-called “White Male Club.” “Simply put, a healthy, white, heterosexual, Christian male receives many unearned advantages of social privilege, whereas a black, homosexual, atheist female in poor health receives many unearned disadvantages of social privilege,” reads a statement in the manual created by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI).”


Starnes indicates he: “obtained a copy of the manual from an Equal Opportunity officer who was disturbed by the course content and furious over the DEOMI’s reliance on the Southern Poverty Law Center for information on “extremist” groups.  “I’m participating in teaching things that are not true,” the instructor told me. He asked not to be identified because he feared reprisals. “I should not be in a position to do that,” he said. “It violates Constitutional principles, but it also violates my conscience. And I’m not going to do it – not going to do it.” DEOMI instructors were also responsible for briefings at bases around the country that falsely labeled evangelical Christians, Catholics and a number of high-profile Christian ministries as domestic hate groups.” [11]


I have absolutely no difficulty calling that manual a racist, bigoted, insensitive and divisive work. On an official and unofficial level it also demonstrates how the system of speech repression and identity group social engineering through language control and suppression works. On an official level the message contained in the manual has the power of the Army behind it. On the unofficial level a rational individual who is offended by the overly broad bigotry of the message also understands that to challenge it would bring immediate repercussions by members of the group that had been successful in creating and implementing the program. A result is that the person is silenced.


We Are Language


As an abstraction the assertion concerning “linguistic cleansing” and social engineering through language control might seem ephemeral. But language is an integral part of how humans function and perceive. As Rush Anshen once observed, humans do not only use language, they are language. [12] The ability to dictate and control the language that is allowed to be used is therefore the power to design not only what we say or are even able to say as particular language is erased from our culture but to define who we are, how we think and even what we are able to think about.


A challenge to the ability to dictate the subjective content and form of controlling and taboo language, along with an emphasis on the importance of open discourse has been argued by Daphne Patai in the context of a challenge to the frequently voiced assertion that those who are from a subordinated class have the right to use offensive speech against other dominant groups. The other side of that claim is that members of those historically dominant (or now previously dominant) groups must be condemned severely if they have ever used a disfavored term at any point in their life and in any context or culture.[13] She reports that: “[Harvey] Silverglate … rejected the arguments of critical race theorists that offensive speech uttered by historically oppressed minorities should be protected, while comparable speech by their supposed oppressors can be suppressed.”[14]


The Techniques of Linguistic Control


The “social engineering” of the human through language control is being done through a wide-ranging variety of techniques. These include outright criminalization of speech, interpretations of civil and regulatory laws consistent with the disfavored speech that consider language as a verbal act, media-driven “political correctness” in which stories are being selected and slanted to create subjective impressions, and organized strategies by aggressive special interest and identity groups. [15] A critical element in what is occurring involves the transfer to private interest groups of the subjective unilateral ability to condemn and sanction disfavored speech. This variation can be termed the “privatization” of the power of “linguistic cleansing”. This is occurring both through large-scale and coordinated use of the Internet and through special rules created by government that confer what is in essence “public” power on the groups.


A common tactic of the identity groups is to react venomously to any speech considered within their particular subjective perspective to be “offensive”, insulting, insensitive, or “phobic” or that simply challenges their views and agendas.[16] The quite unpleasant reality is that in many ways there is a close similarity between the practitioners of “linguistic cleansing” of the Left and Right and the behavior of fanatics. Taken together these strategies have coalesced into the large scale “privatization” of speech repression. This occurs even though much of the strategy is only made possible through use of the Internet as a vehicle functioning through public airways in much the same way as radio and television broadcasts that are subject to regulation. This Internet-based organization and vilification is done through a combination of intimidation, propaganda and “linguistic cleansing” to eliminate words, phrases and even concepts from ordinary discourse by rendering them “taboo”. [17]


The strategy of linguistic cleansing works by imposing social and legal punishments if taboo words, phrases are uttered or verbal acts performed. The important aspect is that this is not simply an issue of one-to-one disapproval of others’ speech as has been the situation in the past. The ability to organize, mobilize, intimidate, condemn and sanction has been changed in its fundamental character by the scale, comprehensiveness and intensity of what has come into being through the communications and organizational mechanism of the Internet. Just as so many are now recoiling from the vast expansion in surveillance powers of governments that has resulted from the combination of the Internet and information acquisition and management technologies, a shift has also occurred in the empowerment of special interest and identity groups to wield its power to intimidate and punish.


The fundamental issue is the shift from people having the right to say what they want, to offer opinions whether insightful or asinine, and to say things that are claimed to “insult”, “offend” or display insensitivity. The seemingly odd thing is that the move toward diversity, multiculturalism and “difference” that Europe and the US have experienced in the past several decades was claimed to be something in which new variations on traditional cultures were supposed to enrich the existing overall culture into which the “differences” were injected.[18] Diversity was not intended to be a mechanism for allowing cultural variations “veto power” over the system because they do not like how the members of that traditional culture speak. [19]



[1] Peter Drucker, The New Realities 76 (Harper & Row 1989).

[2] Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education 19(Harvard University Press, 1997).

[3] The language used by each collective movement (and counter-movement) has been language of attack, protest and opposition. It is language as a weapon employed to gain or defend power. On this theme see, Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (Transition, 1991).

[4] Federalist # 10 (November 22, 1787) The Federalist, Edited and introduced by Jacob E. Cooke (1961), at 56. Federalist # 10, id, at 58.

[5] Federalist, Id.

[6]See also Thurman W. Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism 9-10 (1967).   He asks: “[H]ow do men actually choose … creeds? The answer is that they do not choose them. Men become bound by loyalties and enthusiasms to existing organizations. If they are successful in obtaining prestige and security from these organizations, they come to regard them as the ultimate in spiritual and moral perfection. This attitude is necessary for the morale of these institutions.”

[7] Consider the recent arrest in London of an individual under the “hate speech” laws. Hilary White, “U.S. street preacher arrested in London for saying homosexuality sinful”, LifeSiteNews, Tue Jul 09, 2013. http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/u.s.-street-preacher-arrested-in-london-for-using-homophobic-language/. Aimee Stauff, “American street preacher arrested in London for ‘hate speech’”, July 9, 2013. http://www.worldmag.com/2013/07/american_street_preacher_arrested_in_london_for_hate_speech. “According to London law, anyone who engages in homophobic speech that offends others can be arrested. After questioning the woman, police arrested Miano for breaking Public Order Act Section 5, which prohibits anyone who “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

[8] Leader, “Blows to democracy,” The Guardian [online], Saturday, September 17, 2005, where the argument is made that there are: “three ways fundamental democratic principles are being quite unnecessarily damaged by this week’s moves. First, free speech. Under the proposed law anyone who “glorifies, exalts or celebrates” any terrorist act committed over the past 20 years could face a sentence of up to five years. Rarely, even within notorious conspiracy legislation, has there been such a broadly drafted clause.”

[9] Jung warns: “Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.” C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self 12, 13 (Mentor 1957). Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull.

[10] See, Todd Starnes, “Pentagon training manual: white males have unfair advantages”, Todd’s American Dispatch, October 31, 2013, FoxNews.com.

[11] Starnes, id.

[12] Ruth N. Anshen, Language: An Enquiry into Its Meaning and Functions.

[13] Daphne Patai, “Within the Speech Code,” . One need only think about the history of language in the South and the effects on Paula Deen based on words used years earlier.

[14] Patai, id. A stunning variation on the theme is as follows. “In this new scholarship, factual accuracy is no longer important. Writes Stuart Alan Clarke in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities: “It is naive, if not disingenuous, to suggest that all that matters is the promotion of the truth.” Patricia Williams’s portrayal à clef her teaching stint at Stanford Law School is deeply distorted, according to former colleagues there—leftists all. Williams fittingly takes refuge against such charges in the shadow of Tawana Brawley: “When students . . . believed and then claimed that I had made… up [another of her personal victimization stories], they put me in a position like that of Tawana Brawley.” Indeed, Brawley, whom Williams beatifies as the patron saint of victimized black women, is the perfect symbol of the movement: as Brawley’s supporters on the radical left would have it, it didn’t matter if her story of racial brutalization wasn’t actually true, because it could have happened that way.” [emphasis added]

[15] Cynthia Crossen, Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994). James Carville with Jeff Nussbaum, Had Enough? A Handbook for Fighting Back (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003). Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003). Joe Conason, Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (Thomas Dunne Books, St Martin’s Press imprint, 2003). Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too, (Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1994). Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval with Delia Marshall, BANG! Getting Your Message Heard in a Noisy World, (Doubleday, New York, 2003). Andrew P. Morrison, The Culture of Shame (Ballantine Books, New York, 1996).

[16] Gabriel Marcel warns of the improbability of having effective discourse in a politically polarized environment. “The … fanatic never sees himself as a fanatic; it is only the non-fanatic who can recognize him as a fanatic; so that when this judgment, or this accusation, is made the fanatic can always say that he is misunderstood and slandered.” Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society 136, 137 (1969).

[17] See Jacques Ellul, Propaganda 57 (1965). In Propaganda, Ellul reminds us: “A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor…. The stereotype arises from feelings one has for one’s own group, or against the “out-group”. Man attaches himself passionately to the values represented by his group and rejects the cliches of the out-groups…. The stereotype, … helps man to avoid thinking, to take a personal position, to form his own opinion.”

[18] For an example of how many in Europe are reacting see, AP, “Geert Wilders to spread his anti-Muslim movement west. Dutch far-right politician forms international alliance to attempt to ban immigration from Islamic countries”, Friday, July 16, 2010, The Guardian; Kate Connolly, “Angela Merkel declares death of German multiculturalism: Chancellor’s remarks, which claimed multiculturalism had ‘failed utterly’, interpreted as a shift rightwards from previous views”, Monday, October 18 2010, The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-germany-multiculturalism-failures. Merkel is quoted: “We kidded ourselves for a while that they [foreign Muslim guest workers] wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality,” she said…. “Of course the tendency had been to say, ‘let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other’. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly,” she said. See also, Jon Henley, “France prepares to expel radical Islamist leaders,” The Guardian [online], 8/2/05.

[19] On this theme see, Mathew Tempest, “Davis calls for rethink on multiculturalism,” The Guardian [online] 8/3/05; David Davis, “Why cultural tolerance cuts both ways,” opinion.telegraph (London Daily Telegraph) 8/3/05; George Jones, “Multicultural Britain is not working, says Tory chief,” news.telegraph (London Daily Telegraph) 8/3/05; “Obsessive correctness betrays all of us,” opinion.telegraph (London Daily Telegraph) 8/3/05.


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