More and more contemporary writers are publishing books that are neither strictly academic nor merely popular. Recognizing the importance of topics like liberal education and political philosophy for the educated public, these authors translate complicated ideas into readable prose. They wish to make ideas originating in the academy accessible to non-specialist readers.
Conservative commentator and podcaster, Michael Knowles, has contributed a book in this genre that explains the origins of political correctness. Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds offers a competent and clear history of the century-long movement to make ordinary language less offensive to progressive sensibilities. Knowles weaves the ideas of Marx, Gramsci, Mao, and Marcuse into a story about political correctness that is easy to follow. He describes the evolution of campus speech codes, the “war on Christmas,” Covid science, Supreme Court nominations, and much more. Knowles concludes by highlighting examples of current controversies over speech, including the 2021 deplatforming of Trump, Black Lives Matter, and transgenderism.
This is the kind of book that might profitably be read by a teenager about to begin college, or by parents whose children are entering college. Since part of its aim is to show how academic controversies flow out to the wider culture, it is also of general interest for anyone who cares about truth, language, and the culture wars. Conservatives will find their prejudices confirmed, and progressives will certainly hate this book. Knowles offends all the progressive pieties and seems to enjoy doing so. The volume is polemical, opinionated, and fiery—not a scholarly tome that aims at objectivity and balance.
This is at once its virtue and its shortcoming. Knowles understands that he is writing to a mostly conservative audience. He therefore feels no need to hide his views, or to qualify them, or to consider alternative understandings. The book contains no delicate parsing of arguments or subtle qualifiers. It delivers a strong message about the evils of political correctness and the failure of conservatives to mount an adequate response.
But it does not convey the complexity of many difficult issues. For example, in considering questions of justice he observes that “political correctness exalts ‘social justice,’ or giving to each what he does not deserve because he is favored” (my italics). Now, any conservative will recognize the idea Knowles wants to convey here, but a world of controversy is bound up in this statement. While many of us may deplore the excesses of the social justice movement, and perhaps question the very idea of “social” justice, the movement can’t simply be dismissed by saying that individuals “don’t deserve” what they get because they are “favored.” The book is full of claims like this, which taken together drive home a partisan perspective without fairly representing the other side. It is a polemic in the original sense of the word—a war waged against a set of opponents.
This leads to my other objection. Speechless is part of a voluminous literature that inflames our current cultural divisions. The Schmittian vision of politics as conflict between friend and enemy undergirds the entire argument. And while Knowles is not wrong to say that some progressives are conducting a war against traditionalists and our values, this is certainly not true of everyone who uses politically correct language. The colleague down the hall who assiduously observes progressive pieties is not necessarily an enemy.
One wonders why so many modern conservative writers offer polemics and horror stories about wokeness instead of subtle and qualified arguments about political life. No doubt part of the answer is that polemical writing makes a better story. It’s more exciting, invigorating, and gets the blood pressure up; it incites us to activism, gives us purpose, provides a unified front, and makes us feel part of something larger than ourselves.
It’s also sometimes appropriate. But perhaps not as often as we think.
The polemical, adversarial tone of much modern conservatism must be understood against the backdrop of the enormous diversity of circumstances in the United States. Not every university is Princeton or Berkeley; not every company is Google; and not every state is Oregon. While it’s true that American elites are overwhelmingly progressive, many ordinary Americans are not; and these people mostly ignore the elites who so eagerly wish to be their moral minders. We should not assume that conservative bloggers, writers, and podcasters are always offering accurate assessments of the real political world. We would do better to trust our own experience. In practice—in work, school, civic life, and the marketplace—we are obliged to reach détentes with each other. Understanding ourselves as warriors does not help in navigating the tricky political landscape of contemporary social life.
To wit: a reader may reach the book’s end and exclaim, “Yes! Political correctness is nonsense!” I’m not sure that’s true; but even if it is, this yields no insight into how one might handle the challenges of daily interactions in 2022. The contemporary social world is full of people who do not see the world the way we do. What do we say when meeting our childhood friend’s daughter, who says she is a boy, and has taken a boy’s name? How do we respond to family members whose identities are bound up in politically correct categories? Even if we believe, with Knowles, that marriage is an institution constituted by sexual complementarity, how do we welcome the gay and legally married couple that moves in across the street?
Practically speaking, it would be difficult and probably counterproductive to oppose political correctness as stridently as Knowles implies we ought. Social life requires that we accommodate ourselves to others (and they to us). To oppose political correctness without exception would require either (a) that we live wholly among those who think like we do, and who will therefore not mind and even appreciate our truthful speech, or (b) that we not care about the offense and hurt that will result from our refusal to use any politically correct language.
Knowles does not exactly consider either of these options, but he does castigate conservatives for our powerlessness in the face of the politically correct revolution. On his telling, conservatives either give in to progressive demands to amend speech (as he might think I’m doing here) or we lamely oppose them by shouting “Free speech!”
He does see, correctly, that appealing to some pure, unlimited ideal of free speech is not a workable solution because both sides—conservatives and progressives—actually wish to constrain speech for their own purposes. Progressives enforce conformity on matters of race and gender, as they demand the use of “proper” pronouns. Conservatives outlaw teaching of critical race theory and “divisive concepts” in multiple states. In neither case is language morally neutral.
The practical takeaway from this book is that conservatives must use political power to tamp down and defeat their PC oppressors, though Knowles does not explain how this might happen in practice. He admits that he needs another volume to tackle this question.
So far, I have been mostly critical of Speechless for its polemical character and for its division of people into friends and enemies. Yet one of the book’s fundamental insights is nevertheless serious and important: language can certainly determine the way we think, and our views can semi-consciously be changed by hearing different phrases that designate the same reality. Global warming becomes climate change, which then becomes “the climate crisis.” Gay marriage becomes “marriage equality.” Though the differences appear subtle, the newest formulations contain moral imperatives which are increasingly difficult to oppose: who could ignore a crisis? And who would stand against the good of equality? Thus do progressives, as Knowles aptly documents, “win” the culture war by manipulating and controlling language.
If there is a lesson in this book that I would recommend without reservation, it is that we must become more aware of the way language shapes reality. Words matter, and they can move us either toward clear and true understandings or toward untruths that are hidden by carefully chosen euphemisms. Nobody understood this better than George Orwell, whose essay “Politics and the English Language” always repays another reading.
At a minimum, our lack of concern in using language is a matter of poor mental hygiene. Just as we might carelessly throw together an assortment of ready-made foods instead of cooking a real meal, we parrot back the ambient language of our culture without thinking carefully about what we want to say. “The slovenliness of our language,” writes Orwell, “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”—or perhaps no significant thoughts at all. How often indeed, in business and the academy, do we read contemporary writing that consists of phrases “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house,” to use Orwell’s vivid image. In contemporary conversation and correspondence, we must all endure sentences like the following: “I wanted to reach out, hoping that shared best practices will allow us to drill down into the space around this wicked problem.” Translated into plain English: let’s talk.
More seriously, our mental laziness renders us vulnerable to lies about the nature of reality. This is nothing new, and perhaps it has always been the character of political language. Orwell thinks so. He cynically observes that language of all political parties “from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Knowles is right that we do nobody any good by believing falsehoods—such as that a man is a woman, that the colonists fought the Revolutionary War to preserve slavery, or that contemporary liberalism is thoroughly and irredeemably corrupt.
To think clearly “is a necessary first step toward political regeneration,” maintains Orwell. The challenge that faces us at present is to believe the truth, speak it with a generous spirit, and attempt to persuade others instead of making them our inveterate enemies.