Michael Gonzalez: Yes, free speech is hurt when news bans offensive words

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 8:39 p.m. MDT

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WASHINGTON — "The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes," George Orwell wrote in "Politics and the English Language," a prescient 1946 essay that anticipated the political correctness that would befall the English language half a century later.

Sure enough, The Associated Press has banned "Islamic terrorist" and, more recently, "illegal immigrant" from its reporters' vocabulary. Reuters long ago barred the term "terrorist" from its news stories.

Political correctness can of course sap a language of meaning. But there's a higher price to pay. As Orwell observed, the decay of language affects thought, which in turn produces even worse politics.

For example, the forces of political correctness today have made it all but impossible to write the sentence: "The Islamic terrorists were illegal aliens." The subject, "terrorists," is judgmental, they say. And it can never, ever, be used with the qualifier "Islamic."

To be sure, Islamic terrorists have not gone away. But thanks to the arbiters of political correctness, we no longer speak their name, at least not in polite society. Though Islamic terrorists present a clear and present danger, we are denied a concise way to describe them clearly.

Let's turn now to the predicate, "were illegal aliens." The object "aliens" is simply gone, unless you are referring to ET. Back in the 1970s, I carried that word in my wallet — on the "green card" that identified me as a "resident alien." I don't remember ever feeling that the word minimized my existence in any way, yet today it is expunged from our vocabulary when discussing people.

As for the adjective "illegal," that can never be used for people either. Apparently it is now impossible for people to be illegal.

Instead, we learn from our supposed betters that the only acceptable term now is "undocumented immigrants." In making the change, however, we sacrifice meaning and purpose.

For example, the other day I went down to the hardware store to get my wife dishwashing gloves, and suddenly realized that I had left my wallet home. Had I suddenly become an undocumented immigrant? Well, I guess so. I don't think, however, this is what Tulane professor and TV host Melissa Harris-Perry means when she uses the term on her MSNBC show.

The problem here is that if we don't express ourselves clearly, we don't think clearly and then we can't act with purpose to fix our problems. If we can't ever say that there are Islamic terrorists in the world or people who are in our country illegally then we can't articulate real solutions to these problems — whether efficient or compassionate ones.

At its worst, political correctness becomes totalitarian, not just dictating what words we utter or write, but even our thoughts and actions. Say the wrong thing, and you will be kicked out of your university or job, which means you will find it very difficult to enter another — which means that your entire life has suddenly been changed, and not for the better.

As a result, you will avoid even thinking the wrong thought. It would be suicidal to do so. It's Soviet Russia without the Gulag.

Orwell knew what he was warning us against. After all, he lived through some of the worst isms of the 20th century. He observed that, in his time, some considered abstract words meaningless "and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?"

To fight for the good, we must be able to name the bad. As Orwell put it: "To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

Michael Gonzalez is the vice president of communications at The Heritage Foundation.

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