Pejoration for power
How the right's co-opting of left wing terminology has rendered discourse illegible
George Orwell’s 1984 has been used by the right-wing as a hammer when it should be used as a scalpel, especially when it comes to language. On the one hand, the right-wing begrudge any kind of criticism of their proudly politically-incorrect polemic and accuse leftists of ‘thoughtcrime’ (an illegal thought that goes against the all powerful ideology of Ingsoc) while simultaneously dismissing any notion that doesn’t fit into their (normally) pseudo-Christian, exceedingly white and western worldview. Nevertheless, Orwell’s most famous work does highlight a valuage point: it is difficult to understand, or challenge, notions without some code of language by which to understand them. Writing about the state of surveillance capitalism, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff says that when thinking about how data was used in modern day systems she “didn’t really know what it was and I didn’t have a name for it, and now I can name it. And when I can name it, I can think about it, and there’s a language. And once you have that, really, the landscape changes and the power dynamics change”. Without ways to name these emotions and behaviours, there’s no way to challenge them. That’s why the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows exists, creating neologisms to describe feelings of existentialism created by 21st century society, filling a hole in our current language. For liberals reading, it’s a little like Dumbledore saying how fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself. (Dear liberals, I’m joking. Sort of.)
However, there are so many times when the left attempts to create language, or actions, that highlights a criticism of capitalism, only for a right-wing zeitgeist to absorb it for its own ends. Take the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” The notion is a nonsense, an impossibility. There is no physical way to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and, politically, the criticisms are the same: leftists argue that there is no widespread means of success in a capitalist system due to vast wealth inequality, the lack of social support, and various gender and racial differences between a white, PoC, male, and female working class (not to mention the elite.) The bootstraps are a metaphor for these systemic inequalities; you cannot simply pull yourself through them. Nevertheless, the phrase has entered the lexicon of the American right to become a parallel for the individualistic American dream, and even those criticising the right’s mentality use the phrase as if the action was actually achievable. Similarly, there is International Women’s Day - an event with undeniably radical roots. In 1909 the United States’ Socialist party called for the day in honour of a garment workers’ strike the year before.
German socialist feminist Clara Zetkin proposed the idea for International Working Women’s Day, and by 1913 many left-wing parties recognized March 8 as International Working Women’s Day. In March 1917, Russian women garment workers walked away from their posts and held protests against starvation and world war demanding “Bread and Peace,” which became part of the chain leading to the resignation of Tsar Nicholas and the culmination of the Bolshevik Revolution. This year, International Women’s Day is sponsored by Amazon and McDonald’s, with the slogan #BalanceforBetter - although exactly what ‘better’ is referring to is left neoliberally vague, the “Hire 👏 More 👏 Women 👏 Guards!” of national movements.
Photo: International Women's Day
Once you notice it, examples come quick and fast: Monopoly, which was created as both a capitalist and anti-capitalist game, was created by a left wing feminist called Lizzy Magie whose idea was bought, stolen, and repackaged as a “nice, clean, well-structured example of the Eureka School of American industrial legend” by Charles Darrow, who is credited as the creator of a game that existed in the public domain previously for decades. “Fake news,” or the idea that the media’s representation of events, had previously been a left-wing notion perhaps popularised by Jean Baudrillard’s arguments that the Gulf War did not happen - that is, not that the war did not actually occur, but rather that it was an atrocity which was masqueraded by the media as a war. Now, President Trump, his ilk, and the right-wing commentariat here in the UK have adopted it as their own to mean, well, anything they want.
Then, of course, there’s “woke.” As Splinter summarises, “Among black people talking about Ferguson, ‘stay woke’ might mean something like: ‘stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy, don't automatically accept the official explanations for police violence, keep safe.’ Now, the word has been dragged through the gutter as brands exploit social awareness for monetary gain and white people use it for the briefest flicker of realisation that there are problems in the world.
While it is obvious, and immutable, that language changes as it moves from esoteric definitions into the mainstream, it has a specific, and difficult, result for those who want to use it to instigate change - be that economic or social, systemic or specific. The context of these tiny rebellions get lost to the ages if the left is unwilling to snatch them back from the jaws of a gluttonous right. Without adequate language to describe necessary progression, a stagnant status-quo will remain and monetize the rot.
Orwell said that to imagine the future is to imagine a boot stamping on a human face; but the worse future is one where we don’t even notice the boot.
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