The Linguistic Chains

April 5, 2024 in Columnists, News by RBN Staff



By Peter Serefine


How Language Control Is Thought Control


In the world of democratic governance and individual freedom, the control of language represents a subtle yet potent form of dominion over thought and, ultimately, over people. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, cognizant of the pernicious potential of such control, enshrined the principles of free speech and expression as cornerstones of American liberty. This op-ed explores the intrinsic link between language and thought, illustrating how controlling the former inherently means controlling the latter, with profound implications for individual freedom and societal health.

The assertion that language shapes thought is more than a linguistic theory; it’s a reality with deep philosophical and political ramifications. George Orwell, in his dystopian novel “1984,” encapsulated this notion with the concept of Newspeak, designed to limit freedom of thought. While Orwell’s work is fictional, the underlying principle is not: when authorities manipulate language, they manipulate reality, constraining the public’s ability to reason, debate, and dissent.

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The Founding Fathers, particularly Madison and Jefferson, were acutely aware of this relationship. Madison, in Federalist No. 10, argued for a republic over a direct democracy precisely to protect individual rights and opinions from the tyranny of the majority, which includes the imposition of orthodoxy in thought and speech. Jefferson, meanwhile, emphasized in his correspondences the importance of education in nurturing free-thinking citizens capable of resisting the chains of mental servitude.

Censorship of words can be starkly observed in authoritarian regimes, past and present, where words that criticize the government or challenge the status quo are often banned. Historically, language control has been a tool of totalitarian regimes to consolidate power and suppress dissent. The Nazi regime’s manipulation of language through propaganda, redefining terms like “Aryan” and “Jew” to suit their ideology, is a chilling example of how language can be weaponized to dehumanize groups and justify atrocities.  In the Soviet Union, for example, words like “gulag” or phrases critical of the Communist Party were suppressed to control the narrative and maintain power. Similarly, in contemporary China, terms related to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 are censored on the internet, demonstrating how the control of language serves to erase historical memory and curb dissent.

Control of language extends beyond mere censorship. It encompasses the shaping of discourse, the setting of agendas, and the framing of ideas. When the government or any dominant group controls the language, they set the parameters within which public debate occurs, effectively controlling how individuals perceive and interact with the world. This linguistic control becomes a tool for mental domination, stifling dissent and promoting a homogeneous worldview.

The changing of word meanings is another potent tool for controlling thought. For instance, the term “liberal” originally meant favoring freedoms and individual rights, but over time, especially in the American political context, it has come to be associated with left-leaning political ideologies and policies advocating for more government intervention. This shift in meaning can dilute the original principles of liberalism, such as individual liberty and skepticism of government power, and reshape public discourse in significant ways.

John Stuart Mill, in “On Liberty,” argued that silencing an opinion is a peculiar evil. If the opinion is right, we are deprived of the truth; if wrong, we lose the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. Mill’s insight underscores the value of linguistic diversity and the free exchange of ideas, highlighting the dangers of a monolithic control over language and thought.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of selective permission to use certain words starkly illustrates the control of language. A prominent example is racial epithets: while these words are universally recognized as offensive and derogatory, there are contexts in which some groups claim the right to reappropriate these terms within their community, whereas outside groups are condemned for using them. This selective permission creates a dichotomy in language use, reinforcing social boundaries and often perpetuating the very stereotypes and inequalities the controlled use of language is purported to mitigate. For example, a Caucasian cannot say “colored people” without being labeled as a racist, but the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) has never been pressured to change their name.  The same goes for the United Negro College Fund.

The psychological impact of language control is profound. When people are conditioned to use or avoid certain words and phrases, they are, in essence, being trained to think in ways that align with the controller’s agenda. This conditioning can limit critical thinking skills, reduce the capacity for independent thought, and create an environment where people self-censor out of fear of social ostracization or legal repercussions. The phenomenon of “doublethink” described by Orwell—where an individual can accept two contradictory beliefs as true—is a direct outcome of such linguistic manipulation.

Moreover, the role of education in combating language control cannot be overstated. A populace that is taught to question, analyze, and seek multiple perspectives is more resilient against attempts to control thought through language. Educational systems should thus emphasize critical thinking, linguistic analysis, and the historical consequences of language control to empower individuals against such manipulation.

In conclusion, the control of language is a form of intellectual bondage that strikes at the heart of democratic values and individual autonomy. It is a path that leads to the homogenization of thought and the erosion of the foundational principles of a free society. As we navigate the complexities of modern governance, media, and technology, we must remain vigilant against the encroachments on language and thought. Upholding the sanctity of free speech and expression is not merely a constitutional mandate; it is a bulwark against the tyranny of mental control and a testament to our enduring commitment to individual liberty and democratic health.