One of things I find most sinister about the odious and autocratic “social justice” movements, currently destroying all that was once great about campus culture and academia, is their tendency to speak in a bizarre lexicon all of their own, cooked up in their little cultural echo-chambers. Aside from being infuriatingly pretentious, it is also rather creepy when you consider the goals they have in mind and the kind of horrible world they are trying to create.
As well as their tendency to invent new words and phrases (all annoying, pompous and self-righteous in equal measure) they have also for some time now, taken it upon themselves to completely change the meaning of existing words. I have a natural distaste for anyone trying to reverse-engineer or tamper with the integrity of the English language but, beyond my own aesthetic concerns, this is also dangerous because it allows them to distort reality through simply redefining it. Language is a powerful tool for good or ill and, like any powerful tool, should not be tampered with by inexperienced children.
Most people are familiar with the concept of ‘Newspeak’ from Orwell’s 1984 which illustrates how powerful language can be, especially if it can be manipulated or controlled. In Orwell’s vision, Newspeak was devised as a language in which concepts relating to individuality, self-determination or human flourishing could not be expressed. While it is rather trite and clichéd to label one’s opponents as “Orwellian”, it is hard to ignore the parallels in this case.
There are certain words that are essential in our lexicon that express powerful and emotive concepts for which we need a concrete definition. One such word that social justice movements have been chipping away at the integrity of is “violence”. There is not a great deal of wiggle room for how one uses this word; the Oxford English dictionary defines it as “behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something” – pretty clear. It is also a word that allows us to conceptualise and group together some of the most harrowing, frightening and emotive moments in human experience, as well as some of the most heinous acts that can be committed. However, as clear-cut as this appears to be, never underestimate the ability of a pretentious pseudo-academic to miss the point of even so intuitively obvious a concept.
Words don’t just mean what you want them to mean.
I first noticed this back in 2011, when I was still living in London, shortly after the shameful wave of mass looting, vandalism and thuggery that swept the country. Interviewed shortly afterwards, Labour MP, David Lammy attempted to couch the riots as a response to the welfare cuts of the Conservative party’s austerity policy; “that is also a violence”. No it isn’t David, words don’t just mean what you want them to mean.
In subsequent years we have seen this word often stretched so etymologically thin as to be stripped of all meaning. It is quite a feat to achieve that with a word as concretely rooted in physical action, cause and effect as “violence”. This is often achieved by prefixing it with some silly adjective like “socioeconomic” or “rhetorical”. The reason this is inherently dangerous is that if you can redefine anything you don’t like as being a form of violence, it justifies pretty much any disproportionate response. Violence is usually considered the last straw, the point at which all bets are off and any means necessary can be justified in defence. It also risks stripping real violence of any intrinsic meaning and blurring the usually very distinct line between violent and non-violent actions.
We have seen many examples of this abject confusion among student movements across the world. One anecdote that highlights this is that off Mizzou professor, Melissa Click, who, when a student reporter refused to vacate a “safe space” (which was in a public area) she called for “muscle” to have him ejected, a clear-cut request for violent physical assistance to eject a student from somewhere he had every right to be. When she was subsequently (and rightly) dismissed from her position, the student movement she had been supporting, Concerned Student 1950, responded that she had been the victim of “social and political violence”. Actual violence is apparently not violence if the person instigating or prosecuting it happens to agree with your cause, but a non-violent structure of due process to discipline someone for the same actions can simply be redefined as violence with the use of a few meaningless adjectives.
This is another of the many dangers of collectivism; an attack on an individual is not such a big deal if it advances the cause or if that individual was outside of your collective. But an attack on the ideas, beliefs and practices of the collective (necessary and normal of discourse) can be shut down as a violent act. Safe spaces must be erected to protect the poor coddled cultists from the “violence” of dissenting opinions. “Micro-aggressions” lurk around every corner, tiny acts of violence further chipping away at their precious safety. The “soft violence” of hurtful words or criticism forces the collective to close ranks even further. Eventually any response is justified to this horrendous onslaught of rhetorical, social, political and conversational violence. This process appears to have already begun, given that student protest movements seem to have abandoned their qualms about resorting to framing, slander and outright lies in the name of self-defense.
This is madness. This is how movements surrender their rationality and moral compass, deteriorating into fanatical hyper-defensive cults.