This Week’s Special: George Orwell’s, “Politics and the English Language”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Orwell’s influential essay, published in 1946, when considered alongside his “The Prevention of Literature” (1946) and the Appendix to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak” (1949), offers a powerful picture of language and its abuse, especially in the arena of politics.  It is one of those essays that seems more prescient with each year that passes, which is both impressive – Orwell’s vision was remarkably far-reaching – and terrifying, insofar as it means that the political debasement of our language continues apace and apparently, without end.

At one level, the essay is a style-piece, at times reminiscent of Sections 3 and 5 of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (“Elementary Principles of Composition” and “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”), and dispenses mostly sensible advice for the writing of clear, uncluttered and unpretentious prose.  Three literary sins that Orwell warns against stand out in particular:

  1. Dying Metaphors – A fresh metaphor contributes to writing and speech, by evoking a mental image that enhances and deepens one’s understanding. A stale or dead metaphor does the opposite, providing stock phrases that make it possible to write and speak without thinking, while at the same time failing to facilitate – and even undermining – communication.  We observe this latter effect, today, because audiences – and especially younger ones – are often completely ignorant of the relevant point of reference.  Of what use is it, for example, to speak of someone’s “Achilles’ heel,” if the person to whom one is speaking has no idea who Achilles is?
  2. Pretentious Diction – Orwell includes a number of things under this category, beyond the mere use of fancy words, where simple ones would do. He also means the use of inflationary terminology like ‘epic’ and ‘historic’, as well as the littering of one’s writing and speech with foreign words and especially, Latin and Greek ones (and French too), where the intent always is to create an illusion that something is better, more important or more sophisticated than it actually is.
  3. Meaningless Words – There are any number of expressions that really don’t mean anything until – or conversely, can mean just about anything when – they are filled in. ‘Freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘justice’ have wildly different meanings, depending on the frame of reference from which one is speaking.  The effect of using them, then, without further elucidation, is that they connote a kind of generally positive or negative meaning.  To say that something furthers “democracy”— or, to use a contemporary favorite, “diversity” – is simply a way of saying that it is good; that it ought to be admired and pursued, regardless of what is specifically meant by it, which, if the audience is deemed not to share the writer’s or speaker’s values, will not be made explicit.

Despite the variety of literary sins that Orwell describes, there are some common, general effects: they contract thought rather than expand it; diminish clarity rather than increase it; falsify rather than state truths; and manipulate those with whom one is communicating, rather than engage them as conscious, rational individuals, deserving of respect.  Of course, these modes of writing and speech are most commonly found – and are most toxic in their effects – in politics.  There, obscurantist and manipulative language is deliberate and premeditated, largely for the purpose of “defending the indefensible,” as Orwell observes:

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.  Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.  Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.  Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.  People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.  Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

In this way, politicians and generals make palatable their worst deeds, for the sake of public approval and for posterity.  Even more seriously, when this sort of corruption and debasement of language is not only deliberate but systematic, it has the capacity to undermine human thought and the precious internal liberty that comes with it.  The written and spoken English in Orwell’s day – and even more so, in our own – may be slovenly and debased, because it is used by people to express slovenly and debased thoughts, but as Orwell indicates, a slovenly and debased language makes it more likely that we will think slovenly and debased thoughts.

In the hands of a totalitarian government, like the one that Orwell imagines in 1984, such a language can be used to effect a complete transformation of the individual, ultimately rendering him a defenseless tool of the state; a non-person.  The book’s Appendix, which gives a comprehensive overview of the “principles of Newspeak,” describe a language whose aim is to exercise control over what it is possible for a human being to think and thus over who and what he is, something that is effected, in part, by:

(a) The drastic reduction in the overall number of words and expressions.

(b) The simultaneous sharpening and blurring of language – sharpening, in those cases where vagueness allows people to think of things in morally or politically ambiguous ways, and blurring in those cases where it is important that people not make various distinctions, with all the moral and political subtleties that may follow from making them.  The latter includes words like “Sexcrime” or “Thoughtcrime” which include any and every manner of sexual immorality or forbidden opinions conceived by the regime, the individual terms for which have all been eliminated.

(c) The deliberate use of euphemisms whose apparent and actual meanings are, in fact, opposed, such as ‘Joycamp’, which, in fact, is the general term for forced labor camps.

1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, describes a person who not only has been trained in this manner of speaking and thinking, but has embraced it:

As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

Which is almost precisely how he describes the real world politician, in “Politics and the English Language”:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy…And this is not altogether fanciful.  A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.  The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.

1984 describes the most extreme possible case of this sort of language and thought-control; a fiction in which, by way of the manipulation of language, a government that already completely dominates the physical lives of its citizens can equally take control of their mental lives.   But Orwell wants to emphasize that the corruption of language is equally dangerous in our own world, even though it operates at a less extreme level.  For in the hands of a particular political or ideological movement, the uses of language that Orwell warns against can create a kind of group-think which, when replicated across the political landscape, renders genuine political discourse impossible and leaves our society exposed to aspirant totalitarians.

Unfortunately, we see this corruption and manipulation of language throughout our political discourse today.  And while no party or ideology has a monopoly on it, we find, as Orwell did, that it is disturbingly common amongst the intelligentsia and thus, on the political Left.  When Orwell wrote 1984, it was language derived primarily from Marxism-Leninism, while today, it draws from a combination of the myriad “social-justice” and post-colonial ideologies that are most popular on college campuses, among both faculty and students.  It is the intelligentsia, after all, that is pushing for speech codes on college campuses; that is behind legislation like Canada’s Federal Bill C-16 and New York City’s “Human Rights Law,” which make failure to use a person’s “preferred gender pronoun” a legally actionable offense; that has redefined “harm” so as to include speech with which one disagrees; and that has engaged in mob behavior in order to suppress the speech of others.(1)

Indeed, Orwell speaks directly to this point in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”:

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent.  Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives…

Our own society is still, broadly speaking, liberal.  To exercise your right of free speech you have to fight against economic pressure and against strong sections of public opinion, but not, as yet, against a secret police force. But what is sinister … is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most.  The big public do not care about the matter one way or another.  They are not in favor  of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him.  they are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook.  The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.




George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature” (1946)

George Orwell, 1984 – Full Text (1949)

George Orwell, 1984 – Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak (1949)

Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (1920)





30 responses to “This Week’s Special: George Orwell’s, “Politics and the English Language””

  1. Dan

    I find this topic *immensely* depressing – as I’m sure you do yourself. But – unlike you (or David Ottlinger, for example) – I can’t even bring myself to talk or write about some of these absurdities.

    I’ll just make a couple of points. I think both the education and legal systems need a *radical* shake up if they are going to continue to be effective and maintain public respect and support.

    Secondly, though I agree with just about everything you (and Orwell) say here, I think one needs to see language as serving a range of legitimate functions – and political and other forms of persuasion and even perhaps manipulation have to be seen as part of the mix.

  2. davidlduffy

    I’ve always liked Gene Wolfe’s response to NewSpeak in “Loyal to the Group of Seventeen’s Story”, though he does give us a parallel translation.

  3. brodix


    As someone whose eduction was mostly self selected reading and working outside, I tend to see pretty much all of human activity as variations on and reflections of the natural world. Largely thermodynamics. While we tend to project linearly and often follow these ideas to their extremes, they exist in larger context and with large undercurrents of feedback and reaction. Our ideal of life is like a calm day, where we can point ourselves in any direction we chose, but often there are larger forces at work, like storm fronts, hurricanes, tornados, etc. and so as individuals we get caught up in these processes. Some going along and some resisting. Both getting battered in the process. Much as a storm eventually loses its energy, by inflicting it on the environment.
    Now in society and likely the academy as well, there has been a great deal of forward momentum and that has often been viewed as good by those riding this wave and not so good by those it washes over. Right now, much of that forward momentum is starting to dissipate and break up into smaller vortices, spinning back on themselves into tight little cultural knots.
    So while much of this can seem overwhelming, deadening, culturally stultifying, murderous, destructive, etc, it is also nature at work.
    Lots can be ugly, as well as beautiful. Often we find the ground we stand on isn’t as stable as we had assumed. Unchanging verities can crumble overnight. The old cling on as long as possible and the young fight the entire way.
    Ultimately they are the same principles of nature under which the dinosaurs lived and we too are just going through our days in the sun.
    Right now, there are some large storms on the horizon and many people are rushing about, thinking they have to be as prepared as possible, yet often working against each other.
    Which isn’t to say it’s good, or bad, but to try to give some broader sense of the forces at work.

  4. Dan,
    the relationship between good communication, successful rhetoric, and using programming language in the furtherance of an ideology, has always been problematic. The good news is that, historically, efforts to program language ideologically have generally failed. Nonetheless, empty words do fly around us like gnats clouding out a street lamp. And the worst offender in the past 50 years hasn’t been either party, but the government itself. They can call it ‘collateral damage’ all they want, it still means dead women and children.

    I’ll try to come back to this after I dig the coal out of my stockings tomorrow.

  5. EJ: Do you not find legislation like the Canadian bill and the current law in NY alarming? That we now face the prospect not just of government prohibiting speech, but requiring it? That is, forcing people to speak in certain ways, on threat of legal sanction?

  6. > It is the intelligentsia, after all, that is pushing for speech codes on college campuses; that is behind legislation like Canada’s Federal Bill C-16 and New York City’s “Human Rights Law,” which make failure to use a person’s “preferred gender pronoun” a legally actionable offense; that has redefined “harm” so as to include speech with which one disagrees; and that has engaged in mob behavior in order to suppress the speech of others.

    How did it come so far?
    That’s something I’d like to know.
    You don’t have to be highly intelligent to understand that it’s highly problematic to define “harm” so broadly that it includes speech with which one disagrees.
    So why is the intelligentsia pushing for speech codes?
    And why is the phenomenom so strong in the US, of all places?

  7. Dan,
    The Canadian bill does nothing other than add gender-identity to existing law on discrimination and hate-crimes; I don’t read it as impelling speech.

    Similarly, the Guidance from the NYC Human Rights Commission (which is what everyone is squawking about) has to be read in the context of the law itself. It’s actually a rather complicated law; but its primary purpose is preventing discriminatory practices and acts of harassment on a number of identity issues. It generates fines in the public interest and creates causes for action in civil law. The first requires extensive investigation, including prior history of the parties, and the latter of course only promises litigation wherein a number of factors would be argued and considered. We should also ask how applicable the Guidance itself is; its language does not appear in the law itself, and it;s possible this is simply a position paper on the part of the present commission; attempt at specific application could possibly be torn apart in a court case. In short the appearance of ‘speech police’ in NYC is not soon coming.

    In the current fields of public discourse, such gestures seem to me the least of our worries. We have a media that reduces discussion to quarreling, politicians openly contemptuous of fact or evidence, a large percentage of the electorate sucking up ‘fake news’ on social media, echo-chambers isolating us from different points of view… ,

    One of the problems I always had with Orwell’s “politics and the English Language,’ is that it was somewhat out of date even when published. Discursive forms and rhetorical forms were beginning to multiply well beyond the somewhat genteel limits of good communication even then. We have to change our perspective to understand what is happening now.

  8. EJ: I am puzzled by your reading. Both laws very clearly authorize substantial legal penalties in the form of fines, both for saying certain things and failing to say others. Things that are inherently political in nature as these invented gender pronouns are. That is flat-out tyranny and a complete rejection of liberal values.

    I also disagree entirely with you about Orwell’s work in this regard. It becomes more relevant with every year that passes, not less.

  9. EJ: And yes, the Canadians had already jettisoned liberal values with their hate speech legislation. This just makes it worse.

  10. Dan,
    For NYC HRL to be triggered for fines, there has to be demonstrable harm. The law is clear that the assumed contexts involve employment, commercial transactions, residences. Thus the alleged perpetrator would be in a position of authority to cause such harm. I just don’t see this lurching into tyranny as you do. What I do see, and think very problematic, is the multiplication of a myriad lawsuits, and further bureaucratization as these force increasingly complex exemptions. I also see the possibility of any attempt to use the law to suppress freedom of speech being brought before the State Court of Appeals (which has had an ambivalent history with NYC’s Human Rights law, allowing wide interpretation of ‘harm’ on the one hand, while limiting its applicability due to spotty language on the other): New York’s Constitution has a much more liberal commitment to freedom of speech than the US Constitution does.

    As for the Canadian Bill, again, it should remembered that it occurs in the context of a process of law. Researching it, I find this from Brenda Cossman of the University of Toronto, remarking that the offending speech “will have to be extreme and the Attorney General will have to approve the prosecution. These are not run of the mill prosecutions against professors who refuse proper pronoun usage. Offensive, sure. But criminal? Not unless it was accompanied by some other really nasty speech that promoted hatred towards trans and gender non-binary folks.” *

    Over-reach? possibly. Unnecessarily complicating social relations? probably. However, one always has to pay attention to context. I can’t speak of Canada, but I do know that NYC, with probably the most diverse population in the US, has an absolutely rank history of discriminatory practices in many of its institutional and business practices.

    As to gender identification issues, back in November 2015, I posted a series of notes on my blog ** where I discussed what I saw as an epistemic difficulty, in that one not born with a given genitalia could never know what it would be like to have such genitalia, and thus gender-identification would always be an identification with a social construct, there could be no ‘being born a man in a woman’s body’ or vice-versa. I’ll even go deeper into that hot-water: I suspect that transgendering is a fad, originating in a stew of mixed messages in an age of information over-load and sophisticated cosmetic surgery. It may not pass away as a fad – and there will always be transvestites of either sex; but many people engaging in this behavior are narrowing their social horizons severely, and I suspect that will tell in the future.
    _ _ _ _ _
    ** – which I think may have arisen as a comment on an article here.

  11. Now, as to Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: First, let me say that I have enormous respect for this piece and I was required to read it twice as an undergraduate and twice as a graduate student. I understand where he is coming from, and even to a large extent sympathize. But as a student of rhetoric, I recognize a number of missteps. The first strategic error is the very belief that rhetoric can be constrained and clarified in some fashion. It cannot. Successful rhetoric is whatever rhetoric succeeds. If the deployment of empty platitudes innuendo, worn out clichés, etc., gets the speaker an audience and persuades them to his or her cause, so be it.

    Secondly, Orwell is too judgmental on the routine and formulaic nature of discourse. In fact most people speak in formulas, one hears memes and clichés all the time, it is probably not possible for us to speak without this. Again, as a student of rhetoric, I am painfully aware how stale it all sounds, even from highly intelligent friends. But I cannot say ‘they should know better,’ because they know pretty much whatever anyone in their circle knows, which requires repetition of formula to remain a shared knowledge..

    Third, in contradiction to some of Orwell’s stylistic restrictions, all writers write to some degree as their discursive context demands of them. A good writer will use what is allowable within that context to make his or her point clear and meaningful. A great writer will use whatever it takes to make such an impact that it is memorable to a wide audience beyond immediate context. “Take arms against a sea of troubles” – this outrageously mixed metaphor was composed by a writer who didn’t give a jot if he observed the proper rules of dramaturgy, and was only concerned that his audience would applaud and come to the next show.

    Contemporary politics has raised problems that Orwell never foresaw. Everything about Donald Trump’s rhetoric said it should not have worked – but it did work, at least among a large enough number of voters in the winning Electoral College districts. I suspect one reason (which began to haunt me during the primaries) may be that such voters saw him primarily as the host of a television game show, and thus allowed a rhetorical style completely in keeping with game shows, reality TV, soap operas, etc. He was first of all a vicarious stand-in, but also someone with perceived superior talents, engaged in a game with a dramatic outcome.

    This reading may only be the smallest part of the story; but is not unfounded. Television, the internet, social media, have all engendered new discursive forms and formats, new rhetorical expectations and skills.

    At about the time Orwell was writing “Politics,” Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca were writing The New Rhetoric (which I’ve been reading recently), explaining why much of what Orwell complains of actually works, as rhetoric, within certain contexts. It was certainly an advanced work of rhetorical theory for its time. However, there’s nothing in it about heads of state engaging in twitter duels over fake news reports. In a sense it too has been rendered somewhat out of date.

  12. EJ: What harm, in any reasonable sense of the word, can come from someone refusing to refer to a person as “ze”? Regardless of the context.

  13. EJ: Orwell’s worry is not that it doesn’t work, but precisely that it *does* work. That’s what alarmed him about it.

  14. Dan,
    The harm would be in the discriminatory practice during which the presumed offensive language would be used, and because which such language would count as evidence of discriminatory intent. Thus is a supervisor continually harasses transgender Jane as ‘Mr. James, take off that wig and get to work. I don’t know why they hired an ugly fag like you, why don’t you quite?’ the harm would be the harassment and making a suitable position of employment untenable through a bullying practice. The law is about jobs, housing and services.

    As to Orwell: yes of course,; but the problem with rhetoric that works politically is, first, it needs a stronger criticism than complaining about its vagueness or misuse of certain language practice (an stronger than critique of its informal fallacies); and secondly, the correct response is deployment of a more successful rhetoric to counter it.

    It should be noted in passing that rhetorics that may appear strong, because forceful, are actually exhausted residue from previous eras, or may never be able to get off the ground. By the time the Soviet Union fell apart, few in Russia still bought the old Stalinist catchphrases as anything more than self-serving bunk. And the rhetoric used by some sects on the left, especially concerning some identity politics, including that of gender, is really persuading nobody not initiated into that club.,

  15. (Sorry for typing the first paragraph above too quickly for its own good!)

    I just wanted to add that I am not defending either the NYC Law or its Guidance, although I think there is some good in both. But I am more concerned with the bureaucratization of the social experience than with the threat of imminent Newspeak. I think we’re headed into some form of dystopia, but not necessarily 1984. If we end up with a Big Brother, he will be handing out soma and reassuring us that life is wonderful if we all just plug into the social media….

  16. and that has engaged in mob behavior in order to suppress the speech of others

    The trouble is, it is only called “mob behaviour” when it is left wingers doing it. When it is right wingers doing it, they call it “free speech”.

    In Australia, two MSM right wing pundits led a twitter mob calling for the sacking of a journalist who had tweeted that Australian soldiers hadn’t all been angels during the first world war and that some of them had engaged in rape and other abuses against the locals. As they were powerful pundits they got their way and the journalist was sacked on the influence of the communications minister, to whom they had addressed their tweets.

    Both pundits regularly tell us how much they disapprove of twitter mobs and how much they approve of free speech.

    My best friend at school, today is trolled by MSM pundits on a regular basis for years, sometimes three or four of them naming him in the same week and sneering about him or something he has said in an obvious attempt to intimidate him into stop expressing his views. Of course all their fans follow their leaders and he is subjected to a torrent of abuse online and by mail.

    I am willing to stand for the free speech of all, to the extent that I have any influence. When one of those right wing pundits was convicted of racial vilification, I sent a message of support on his blog, that this was an unacceptable attack on free speech. I will continue to support the push for this law to be changed.

    But I don’t want to do this in order to give him and his the freedom to try and suppress the free speech of others.

    It has to cut both ways.

  17. EJ: Well, then there is widespread disagreement about the interpretation of the law, as the sources I have read indicate that one can run afoul of the law on the basis of the refusal to use certain pronouns alone.

    Robin: A mob is a mob. In this country, most cases of the mob suppression of speech are going on on college campuses and are being done by left wing activists.

  18. Hi Dan, nice essay that fits in with things I have been thinking about recently. After the back and forth at plato footnote over what counts as progressive, left, right, conservative, liberal, etc I’m starting to think that those have become meaningless buzzwords which stand in for “like/dislike”.

    I mean I know what I mean by those terms and can discuss the historical usage, and hang my hat on a particular use, but it is clear most people are using it like badges without much concern for any historical content. And if there is concern it is to show how the history is so convoluted regarding use the argument is (I guess) that it can be used any different way?

    Anyway I then watched a few recent vids by Bernie Sanders explicitly using (and promoting) the label progressive over liberal in a way that is exactly opposite the way I learned and understood it.

    Then I thought… what is the point?

    Along the lines of what was discussed by Orwell, I think I would choose to use “liberal” by myself, given its derivation from liberty. But maybe it is just like a metaphor that has been used past its death, well into extinction. Maybe it is time for simple. concrete statements of what policies I support rather than catchy words that I think capture their meaning (even historically). Though I guess what Trump showed is the best method is to come up with novel terms and test-market them with fresh audiences.

    I am not sure if the “left” (based on the concept within your essay) is any more guilty of efforts to control via restricting/policing language, though I agree the examples you gave are repulsive. It is just that these are new efforts and so stand out from the ones that other social factions have mounted (or succeeded at pushing through).

    Given the view argued in my previous essay on third party voting, two political factions may have done a fantastic job of controlling thought by restricting language (informally) to binary left/right, liberal/conservative ways to conceive (or “box”) choices of policy or representation.


    Hi EJ,

    “I think we’re headed into some form of dystopia, but not necessarily 1984. If we end up with a Big Brother, he will be handing out soma and reassuring us that life is wonderful if we all just plug into the social media….”

    Huxley argued to Orwell that Brave New World was the final destination starting from 1984. Frankly the dystopia is looking much more like 1984 than Brave New World to me. The ever present surveillance and total anti-hedonist agenda combined with social connected enthusiasm, reporting on each other. Ugh. It’s worse than Orwell imagined. And the only pills they want to hand out make you feel numb, not happy.

    Then again with the bizarrely dysfunctional capitalist vs terrorist air about it Brazil might be closer, leading to Paranoia (if you ever played the role playing game) by the end.

  19. Robin: The most notable examples I can recall of right wing mobs suppressing speech were at Donald Trump rallies this last year, and they most certainly were identified as mobs throughout the media coverage.

  20. dbholmes: See my replies to Robin. Other than Trump rallies, I cannot think of any prominent examples of right wing mobs punishing people for using certain words or failing to use certain words; making it impossible for invited speakers to speak; going on twitter and hashtag campaigns to drive people from their jobs; and the like. This has become the preferred tactic of the progressives in this country.

    The Right has its own sins, but this is not one of them.

  21. Hi Dan, I want to make clear that I’m not rejecting your criticism of current movements (and laws) such as the ones you mention. I am troubled by them and consider it important to deal with them.

    That is separate from a claim that this kind of thing is not or has not been engaged in by those of opposing political/social culture. It is possible that one group is more social media dominant than the other or more prevalent on campuses and so use that platform more, or are seen enacting such things on campuses, but I don’t think that really tells us whether one group is hushing people up or shutting people out more. Particularly if we are talking about the use of mechanisms for control of language and speech.

    The list of things people cannot say, or must say (legally and socially) has been dominated by the “right” for most of last century. The reason you don’t see many mobs along these lines is because they have basically won their mob action already. We can start with simple symbolic things like the fact we now have “God” all over the place (money, pledge of allegiance, national motto, etc). Try to get that changed and you will see the mobs you are talking about. Same goes for almost all legal codes regulating speech in public and private spaces. And where not enforced by law (usually fines), boycott campaigns (by companies, conservative groups and citizens) have been very successful at limiting speech over airwaves. Again, try to get those changed and you will see the mobs.

    Such boycott campaigns have also been launched to enforce mores over language (or even display of colors) during winter holidays (Merry Christmas!) and against companies where employees have said something derogatory about conservatives (to get the employee fired).

    The never ending movement to block science education and replace it with creationism (or forms of) is surely what I would call “mob action”. They have organized to knock out teachers and administration officials to get what they want.

    I have personally seen the mobs you have not seen, marching outside of women’s health clinics protesting to get changes so that alternatives to abstinence and adoption are not available *to be mentioned*. And more recently, and quietly, religious organizations have been buying up hospitals and medical facilities, after which they can gag doctors from discussing not just abortion but methods of birth control including sterilization. I was shocked when this happened recently to a friend in a traditionally liberal state.

    It would be fair to say that the inability to have a rational discussion about sex, much less produce or enjoy sexual entertainment (a form of speech) without draconian limitations, has been the result of a joint effort between factions on the left and right (hence the disappearing utility of such terms). Still it is based on the acceptance of traditional, conservative sexual mores which had been enforced legally before efforts at loosening them up during the 60s and 70s met with (limited) success.

    The entire “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was just about as Orwellian a policy as you could get. That it was put into place by a crypto-republican to make it look like he was a good guy working for LGBT interests, while simultaneously meeting the desires of republicans to throw gays out as much or more than before and create a national pretence that gays don’t exist in the US military among all ranks (and well-decorated too), by purging all communication on the subject… ok really only communication by gays… was a work of sadistic political genius.

    From your own writing, regarding the need to fit social interests of a silent majority by limiting (what might be natural) discussion of social issues in a campaign (or face their wrath), and that of the social stigmatization faced in your community based on your religion, all sound like social mob-like activities to limit discourse.

    I want to end by repeating, this is not to undercut in any way the importance of criticizing and resisting the movements and actions you discussed. I just don’t think it is necessary or useful to pretend it is a problem limited to “our” side when doing so. What I have found is when that is done conservatives who hate that sort of thing go “yeah” and are willing to go along to shut that down on the “left”, and then return to the same activities from their side.

    It is all double-plus ungood.

  22. dmf

    DK, slight aside but the alt-rightish/trolling campaigns against folks they have decided are failing to properly define/name the threats posed by terrorists who identify as muslim are well reported.

  23. Jane Smith

    Dan, on the question of who’s most guilty of this anti-free-speech behavior: I suspect there’s some truth in DB’s claim that the right is frequently guilty too, and that you (and I) may just not be as aware of it.

    That aside, though, I’m curious about your idea that (a big part of) the problem is the “intelligentsia”. First, though, who exactly are you talking about when you say this? I assume you mean something more than just the intellectuals/well-educated.

    But even if you’re talking about some subset of that group, and you’re right that too many of them endorse speech codes, I’d suspect that this “intelligentsia” would also contain/nevertheless contains some of free speech’s strongest defenders. For, in my experience, pretty much the only people who will fight for free speech—on principle, and when it’s their beliefs getting attacked—are the well-educated. Of course, just because all who truly support free speech are well-educated (in my experience), that doesn’t mean that all the well-educated truly support free speech. But it does mean that we’d be in an even worse situation but for this well-educated group.

    About the incidents you cite: it’s worth remembering that the NYC law, at least as the city seems to be interpreting it, would almost certainly be unconstitutional[1] and that, in many of these campus incidents, it’s been the students challenging free speech, not the faculty, and the faculty have often defended it—though maybe not as courageously as they should have.

    [1] SCOTUS has, even recently and along non-partisan lines, struck down far more modest speech regulations. Cf.

  24. marc levesque

    Dan, interesting piece, I’m keeping it for reference, but I find the commentary in the links on the Canadian Bill-16 out of context and unfounded, in short :

  25. From the article you linked:

    “Non-discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression may very well be interpreted by the courts in the future to include the right to be identified by a person’s self identified pronoun. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, in their Policy on Preventing Discrimination Because of Gender Identity and Expression states that gender harassment should include “ Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun”. In other words, pronoun misuse may become actionable, though the Human Rights Tribunals and courts. And the remedies? Monetary damages…”


    Seems quite clear to me. And outrageous. I am very glad for our First Amendment.

  26. marc levesque

    In the section you quote I think the author is attempting to inject her bias but I’m not impressed by it, anymore than I’m impressed by a ‘we should do x’ from a committee of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which has no judicial power, is a provincial entity and isn’t connected in any way to the federal Bill-16.

    And similar gender laws have been in place in provinces starting in 2002 and nothing people feared has come to pass, and there were also objections to the discrimination laws for colour, race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, and mental or physical disability when they were introduced but again the problems some people feared didn’t happen. Moreover I have confidence that our judiciary, will continue as it has in the past, to not go overboard in it’s interpretation and application of the law.

    Moreover, we also have similar laws to the US protecting free speech in our constitution that take precedence, so if the bill did restrict free speech it would be amended or struck down.

  27. The objection isn’t to anti-discrimination laws, generally. It’s to the notion that the refusal to use certain demanded words could be legally actionable. It seems pretty clear that the legislation envisages this, and I stand by my view that it is abhorrent and incompatible with a liberal ethos.

  28. marc levesque

    Bill-16 doesn’t do things like that. It doesn’t touch on the idea of forcing people by monetary or other means to use certain words, and it doesn’t leave the door open to that idea.

  29. The quoted section from your own link suggests it does. As do the critics of the law, like Professor Peterson. I can’t personally vouch for the fact-checkers at The Hill and WaPo, but they are respectable news outlets who *do* still exercise editorial control over content.