Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
From Thucydides to George Orwell, the degradation of language during war and political conflict has been recognized. As Thucydides wrote of the brutal and violent civil war in Corcyra, “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” Like truth, the integrity of language is also a first casualties in culture wars.
The culture war that has been waged for over half a century––and is now reaching a destructive absurdity in “wokism,” “cancel culture,” and blatant censorship and suppression of free speech––has made debased language one of its most important weapons. So insidious has been this process that even conservatives opposed to the progressive left’s illiberal and unconstitutional excesses legitimize these transformations of language by using that ideologically corrupted vocabulary.
Take, for example, using the word “gender” instead of “sex.” First introduced in the Fifties by sexologist and suspected pedophile John Money, this change in usage was popularized in the Sixties to reinforce the dubious idea that sex-identity is not binary by nature, but comprises multiple variations, just as linguistic gender is not restricted to masculine or feminine, but can classify nouns by other qualities such as “animate” or “inanimate.” Male and female, masculine and feminine thus are not facts of nature, but social, cultural, and political “constructs” that serve the interests of the prevailing regime of power.
In other words, using the word “gender” to mean “sex” insidiously reinforces the constructivist ideology underlying as well Marxist theory and its antihumanist economic and political determinism. It also gratifies modernity’s fatal hubristic conceit: that human reality can be manipulated, changed, and reinvented at will by “technicians of the soul,” as Stalin called the self-proclaimed improvers of human nature.
One malign fruit of this bad idea is the transgender movement, the destructive consequences of which include poisoning even children with puberty blockers, and later mutilating their bodies with sex-reassignment surgeries, even as the victims of these treatments suffer high levels of depression and suicide. Meanwhile, biological males use women’s bathrooms and showers at school, with risks that became obvious in Virginia when a male self-identifying as a female raped two girls in school restrooms. And don’t forget the gross unfairness of biological “transitioning” males competing against young women in sports, making a mockery of Title IX requirements to increase female participation in athletics.
No front in the culture wars, however, comes close to the linguistic degradation inherent in our racialist discourse and practice. The word “race” for centuries meant “tribe,” “nation,” or “people,” groups that shared a common ancestry, language, and culture, the real attributes that create a particular collective identity. In the late 18th century, “race” started being used to describe, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “One of the great divisions of mankind having certain physical peculiarities in common,” the most prevalent divisions being “white,” “black,” and “Asian.” The shift from the cultural to the physical is the core of genuine racism.
The next pernicious development came in the 19th century with the influence of Darwinian evolution and its notion of the “survival of the fittest” based on inherent physical traits rather than culture. The era of “scientific racism” that followed applied this materialist idea to human beings, a move that further debased the word “race” by giving it a spurious patina of science. Now racism was not an irrational or self-serving form of bigotry, but simply a recognition of scientific reality. Racist, illiberal practices such as Jim Crow segregation could now be rationalized as “following the science.”
The social and procreative mixing of “superior” races with inferior ones, then, was contrary to Darwinian evolution, the “natural selections” that sifted out the “unfit” from the “fit.” Sentimental or superstitious people who objected were rejecting that “science” with their naïve notions like the equality of the races, or humanity’s common spiritual identity.
Darwin himself, in The Descent of Man, lent his authority to this view: “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” But less educated sentimentalists who gave charity to these “unfit,” evolutionary failures were interfering with natural selection, Darwin continues, so that “the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton invented the word “eugenics” and promoted social and political changes to prevent such interference with natural selection. He also actively facilitated Darwinian natural selection with practices like the forced sterilization of the “unfit.” Galton foresaw the logical end of such thinking: “If these [the unfit] continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness”––exactly what happened in Nazi Germany.
The reliance on Darwin to give scientific authority to actual racism––this momentous shift from culture and language to superficial physical traits in identifying the enormous, complex diversity of human beings––created the over-generalized meaning of “race” and “racism” still plaguing our culture today. It also encouraged the reduction of unique individuals to the invidious definitions of their abstract “race,” to the extent that no changes in law, education, or cultural practices could improve or raise them out of their indelible inferiority, a product of evolution.
The American Social Darwinists and champions of eugenics of the early 20th century, however, didn’t stop with the “great divisions” of peoples such as blacks and Asians. The massive influx of Slavs, Jews, Southern Italians, Armenians, and other ethnicities considered inferior to the earlier Northern European Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Nordic, and Teutonic immigrants––whom the eugenicists meant by the term “white race”–– nurtured the fear of “race suicide,” a phrase popularized by Theodore Roosevelt.
This panic gripped the cognitive elites and the most prestigious universities. General Francis Amasa Walker, president of M.I.T., in 1896 wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that Hungarian, Bohemian, Polish, Italian, and Russian Jewish immigrants were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” and possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.” And Stanford President David Starr Jordan in 1902 published The Blood of a Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit, the title of which reveals both the Darwinian influences and the fear of “race suicide” that characterized this movement.
These universities also offered academic programs in “scientific racism” and its practical application, eugenics. As a result, forced sterilization of the unfit became legal and received the imprimatur of the Supreme Court in the infamous 1927 decision Buck vs. Bell, just as race-based segregation, and its specious fig-leaf of “separate but equal,” were earlier sanction in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896). Popular culture too was a venue for propagating these racist ideas, with numerous magazine articles and bestselling books like Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy, and Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race.
This degradation of the long-standing meaning of “race,” and its spin-off “racism” now dominate our racialist political discourse. Thus we have kept alive the racist vocabulary, especially “black” and “white,” that Scientific Racists used to reinforce the central, unscientific and illiberal idea that all members of an “unfit” race were indelibly and permanently inferior to all members of the “fitter” race––the essence of racism properly understood. Without that foundational notion, all the other manifestations of dislike for those ethnic differences is bigotry.
Finally, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act abolished legal segregation, these truly “white supremacist” racial theories that once flourished in our universities survive only on the fringes of our culture. Yet in the guise of “systemic racism” and “white fragility,” the central assumptions of Scientific Racism live on in academe and even K-12 education. These pseudo-scientific ideologies perpetuate the essentialist, racist categories of “white” and “black,” which are based on superficial physical traits, and which tell us nothing useful or meaningful about the millions of individual humans we experience and interact with every day. They are verbal repositories of threadbare stereotypes, illiberal ideologies, and reductive generalizations.
Worse, the idea that one of these reductive categories, white people, without exception comprise people who are indelibly stained with “racism,” and can never erase that defect, is an offspring of that “scientific racism” that flourished before World War II and led to abominations like forced sterilization. I suppose it’s an improvement that for now, the politically and social “unfit” are “cancelled” or ostracized for their racial sins, or subjected to training sessions and online courses that bully them into admitting their innate flaw, and issuing groveling apologies.
Why is this happening? Thucydides’ explanation for the assault on language during the chaos on Corfu still applies to the peddlers of this racialist nonsense: “greed and ambition.” There are fortunes to be made in institutionalizing ideas like Critical Race Theory; Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DIE) programs, and “systemic racism,” and in requiring corporations and government agencies to promulgate them by subjecting their employees to expensive “anti-racism” and “white privilege” reeducation seminars.
And for the politically ambitious, such racist notions can create political leverage and power, for coercing people into doing, thinking, and speaking what you want them to do is the essence of political power. As for the “white people” who go along with this grift, their guilt over their privilege, whether sincere or simply a form of moral preening, supporting these ideas confers both status and absolution on the cheap. Their privilege and affluence will not be impaired by following the latest “woke” fashion, and their political party will benefit by keeping a reliable voting bloc on the progressive client list.
Such mendacity and political corruption are what happen when words “have to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” The only legitimate way to describe and identify the world’s diverse people is with the word “ethnicity,” which encompasses not the superficially physical, but language, culture, mores, traditions, history––everything that binds a people into a distinct, collective identity.
To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts, the only way to get rid of racism is to stop talking like racists and using their debased vocabulary.