The Ghouls of Grammatical Egalitarianism, or the Gerund Gestapo
Oc tober 21 2013 (Rule of Reason)
In his FrontPage article of October 19th, "Why Charles Krauthammer Gets It Wrong on the Redskins," Daniel Greenfield corrected columnist Charles Krauthammer over the storm-in-a-teacup issue of the allegedly derogatory name of the Washington football team.
Krauthammer, in his October 17th Washington Post Opinion article, "Redskins and Reason," wrote in defense of his opposition to the team name "Washington Redskins." He claims it is a racial slur, whether or not Indians object to it:
I know there are surveys that say that most Native Americans aren’t bothered by the word. But that’s not the point. My objection is not rooted in pressure from various minorities or fear of public polls or public scolds.
What is his objection? It's a personal, subjective objection. Krauthammer's usual prescience on hard politics has abandoned him on the issue.
Years ago, the word “retarded” emerged as the enlightened substitute for such cruel terms as “feeble-minded” or “mongoloid.” Today, however, it is considered a form of denigration, having been replaced by the clumsy but now conventional “developmentally disabled.” There is no particular logic to this evolution. But it’s a social fact. Unless you’re looking to give gratuitous offense, you don’t call someone “retarded.”
In a feeble attempt to find a substitute name that would omit the term "red," he suggests:
How about Skins, a contraction already applied to the Washington football team? And that carries a sports connotation, as in skins vs. shirts in pickup basketball.
A fair try, but unfortunately, the term skin has too many "negative" meanings, as well, among them the British term for the paper used to roll a joint, a condom, nudity, and so on. Krauthammer seems to be rebelling against the concept of identity, in Standard English and in slang.
The people most obsessed with this question are white people. Mostly white liberals. This is a debate that white liberals and white conservatives are having over political correctness.
And that's the point. Krauthammer, whether or not he admits it, has succumbed to the bogyman of Marxism-driven politically correct speech.
And politically correct speech (and thinking) is the subject of an essay I wrote in 1997, originally published in the November/December number of The Social Critic of that year. It is republished here with some minor editing.
A small, innocuous-looking book appeared in bookstores recently, published under the auspices of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), an organization which claims to be devoted to the dissemination of knowledge and scholarly research. Its title is Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). It is little more than 100 pages long, weighs less than a pound, yet its contents are more potent than the Oklahoma City bomb. Its ingredients are politically correct jargon, multiculturalism, and the phenomenon of what may be called “grammatical egalitarianism.”
It is important to note at the start that the Association boasts a membership of 114 institutions, mostly university presses, but includes such diverse organizations as the National Academy Press, the National Gallery of Art, the Modern Language Association, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the J. Paul Getty Trust. Its membership includes all major American and Canadian universities, plus Oxford University Press and presses in Tokyo, South America, and Scandinavia. This is an organization with significant cultural clout.
What is “bias-free” writing? The Guidelines’ definition of it is “writing free of discriminatory or disparaging language.” It should be stressed that the object of Guidelines’ concerns is not primarily racial slurs. The AAUP is not referring to the language to be found in the pathological hate literature published by the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation, or the Black Muslims, but to staid university publications. Its focus is common, inoffensive usage, and the implication throughout the book is that scholarly works that are not “sensitized” and “sanitized” may in the future be demoted to the rank of hate literature, and treated with the same disdain, regardless of their intellectual merit or significance.
The following is a short selection of terms, phrases and usages from Guidelines, found by its authors to be discriminatory, disparaging or otherwise “biased”:
Man, the singular pronoun none coupled with his; girl, mother nature, the alleged association of he and she with good and bad and great and small; born-again, retard, idiot, redneck, city slicker, Siamese twins, Dutch treat, deprived, needy, underprivileged, well-dressed, ghetto, indigenous, tribe, teenager, juvenile and elderly.
Also on its list of “offensive” terms are able-bodied and intelligent, which are considered discriminatory by implication and disparaging in any instance of comparison.
Guidelines includes the disclaimer, “there is no such thing as a truly bias-free language” and stresses that the advice it offers is only “that of white, North American (specifically U.S.), feminist publishing professionals.” The Task Force, which is composed of 21 university press editors (two of them men), recommends euphemistic proxies for all of the terms on its “hit list.”
“Books that are on the cutting edge of scholarship,” reads the AAUP Board of Directors’ position statement, “should also be at the forefront in recognizing how language encodes prejudice. They should also be agents for change and the redress of past mistakes.” By “prejudice” Guidelines means an operative hierarchy of values, not racist premises or gender “chauvinism.” While the term “encodes” suggests that the authors of Guidelines regard the human mind as a kind of computer chip that must be sterilized before “correct” encoding can be applied (and who therefore imply that the mind is a mere passive receptor and mirror of its cultural environment), another statement deserves still closer scrutiny:
“The term normal may legitimately refer to a statistical norm for human ability (such as 20/20 vision), but should usually be avoided in other contexts as…invidious.”
If one sets as his standard of normalcy an individual who is in full possession of his mental faculties, who is not debilitated by disease or physical impairment, who is able to take responsibility for his own life, can think and act without special “accommodation,” then by definition most people are normal, and any limitation in any of these criteria is a measure of subnormalcy.
In private conversation, one might say of another, “He’s feebleminded.” In public – e.g., in a “sanitized” book or in a speech – one may be allowed to say, “He’s cognitively challenged,” or “He’s conceptually arrested,” or “He’s differently conscious.” But assuming an absence of malice or cruel intent, the use of the adjective “feebleminded” represents a conclusion reached from an evaluation or a judgment of a person who, for whatever reason, chooses not to exercise his mind, and thereby renders himself comparable to a feebleminded person who has little or no choice in the range or depth of his thinking.
The same argument can be applied to any of the supposedly discriminatory or disparaging terms targeted by Guidelines. Suppose one said, “He’s an idiot,” or “He’s a moron,” or “He’s a retard”; or was more inventive: “His mind is on crutches,” or “His brain is in a wheelchair” – assuming that one has made an accurate observation and a just evaluation, the terser or colorful one’s descriptive prose, the more heinous one’s act of disparagement. But, in fact, one is not mocking or disparaging idiots, morons, or non-ambulatory men: they are merely being used as referents of normalcy.
In essence, Guidelines advocates abolishing human comparison by prohibiting the identity of referents. In the foregoing example, one would be discouraged from expressing a judgment or evaluation of a person who has offered abundant evidence of his inability or unwillingness to think normally or to perform some task. Such a person is simply there, like a rock or a tree, beyond discrimination (in the strict, nonracial, nonsexist meaning of that word), beyond evaluation, beyond recognition. He is not incomparable; more precisely, he is non-comparable. To compare the inventor of the steam engine with a man who is unable to do simple math or boil a kettle of water without harming himself is, by egalitarian anti-standards, a grave breach of “social justice” and an unforgivable faux pas.
According to Guidelines,
“[a]djectives such as poor and unfortunate have a similar [negatively connotative] effect and are patronizing, as are such epithets as heroic and courageous.”
Thus, if Guidelines’ authors have their way, not only will it be considered a breach of egalitarian etiquette to make a distinction between heroism and cowardice, but it will not be permitted to establish distinctions between normalcy or abnormalcy by which to measure anyone’s character, ability or physical condition. There will be no such thing as normalcy or any hierarchy of values, or value-measurement, just whatever the slot machines of egalitarianism and multiculturalism happen to disgorge from an eclectic, random stew of humanoids. A genius and an idiot are not to be distinguished, discriminated, or even recognized; each is “differently abled” or “specially conscious,” and no value may be placed on one over the other.
This is not the pursuit of “social justice,” even if one could assign a benign intent to the concept. It is a formula for the manufacture of politically correct automatons.
Strictly speaking, measures of subnormalcy are not moral judgments. Neither are they absolute measures of one’s potential for achievement. Helen Keller was both blind and deaf. John Steinmetz, the brilliant electrical engineer, was a hunchback. Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter, was a dwarf (injured by a fall down the stairs when a youth). Neither is gender an obstacle to achievement, nor is race, especially not in regards to intellectual accomplishment or to any field of productive work that entails a greater than average measure of mental labor. The numbers represented by women and individuals of other races or cultural backgrounds in this respect are so great that they do not represent exceptions to the rule – the rule simply does not exist.
(Parenthetically, the act of blacklisting supposedly disparaging terms is self-defeating. Readers will recall how quickly the first wave of politically correct euphemisms was met with disdainful humor. What occurred was the transfer of the intended evaluations or judgments from the banished terms to the euphemisms. The intent of the evaluations or judgments found a new mode of expression – with the added, stressed note of contempt for the euphemism itself, for its stumbling, awkward redundancy, for its ill-disguised role of shielding the subject of the euphemism from true identification or evaluation.)
Webster’s defines egalitarianism as “a belief in human equality, especially with respect to social, political and economic rights and privileges.” Grammatical egalitarianism is the systematic culling of “offensive” words and phraseology from the English language and the substitution of innocuous or “preferred” argot, at the expense of clarity, economy and logic, for the sake of protecting the feelings of real or imagined “victims” of such offending language.
In economics, egalitarianism is the philosophical root of antitrust laws and graduated taxation; in politics, of the welfare state and modern university admissions standards. If we treat the identification of individuals or of specific human conditions as “social” elements of some egalitarian ideal, then grammar has lagged behind economics and politics – until now. Grammatical egalitarianism would be employed to “catch up” by leveling people’s conceptual and evaluative criteria, so that by law, etiquette or custom, no person can be distinguished from another, and to no one’s advantage but the lowest common denominator’s.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Guidelines is that its contents are not at all shocking or revolutionary. The “guidelines” contained therein are already a matter of ubiquitous, if uneven, conformity in business, government and the news media. In its bibliography are listed more than a dozen other publications, by university and trade publishers alike, that serve as guides for “nonsexist” and “bias-free” writing. While this would imply that the AAUP Task Force’s effort is redundant, perhaps merely a postscript to a culture-wide phenomenon, it is in fact much more. The welfare state introduced new meanings to such terms as deprived, disabled, and handicapped. As a politically correct metathesis, grammatical egalitarianism strives to purge language of all human distinctions and measures, regardless of their origin.
To illustrate the potential influence of Guidelines, imagine that a scholar whose field of study is American political history has, after years of work, finally completed his magnum opus on modern political trends. His thesis is that, with very few exceptions to the rule, the character and capabilities of political officeholders tend to diminish in direct proportion to the growth of statism. This scholar’s work is being seriously considered for publication by a university press. In his manuscript, however, are several statements of questionable egalitarian taste, one of which, summarizing chapters of dry commentary and rigorously researched proofs, reads, “Modern politicians are moral and intellectual midgets, when compared with the moral and intellectual stature of the Founding Fathers.”
His editor at the university press might feel compelled to ask the historian to rewrite that and other allegedly offensive sentences, or to substitute bland proxies for midget and other red-flagged terms. The scholar cannot use dwarf, or cripple, or any other term which, either as a simile or a metaphor, implies a subnormal human condition; yet subnormalcy is the point he wants to stress and the Founding Fathers are his measure of integrity and intellectual achievement. He harbors no ill feeling toward or prejudice against midgets, dwarfs or the handicapped; he was not even conscious of them when he wrote the sentence. He senses that he had been expected to be conscious of them, but he dismisses that thought as too fantastic. He consults a dictionary of etymology, and learns that midget is derived from a variety of long-dead languages, and that its original meaning was a gnat-like insect or sand fly; that is, the word existed long before it was modified to name a human condition.
What can the scholar do? Should he try to rewrite the sentences? Find substitutions? Remove the sentences altogether? Work out some kind of compromise? Or take a stand and insist that his words remain unaltered?
The answer depends on a host of unknowns. If the scholar does not want to risk reducing his chances for publication – and his career as a historian would depend on publication – he may not want to take a stand for the sake of a few words. Furthermore, he cannot know whether his editor is a staunch advocate of “bias-free” writing; or is indifferent to the issue and so not likely to risk offending his managing editor and coworkers, who may be advocates; or is a loner who is contemptuous of “bias-free” writing, but who is certain that he would be voted down in an editorial meeting.
And there is always the AAUP in the background, ready to reconsider the status of recalcitrant members who publish books whose texts “encode prejudice.” If the editor manages to push through the historian’s “unsanitized” work, the publisher may be upbraided by the AAUP or subjected to other unknown pressures.
If the scholar caves in and accommodates the editor and publisher, he sets a precedent for himself and other publishers and writers. “See? Even the champion of liberty and enemy of collectivism had the decency to compromise. Why can’t you?” And if the scholar takes a principled stand against having his work sanitized – if he does not wish to become an “agent” for a change he does not endorse, if he does not want to become a “redresser” of mistakes he either does not concede or had no role in – he will do so with the knowledge that he risks rejection of his work, for there are other, less troublesome authors willing to be published under almost any conditions.
This scenario depicts the conflict faced by an accomplished adult who presumably, in his formative years, could avail himself of the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and Webster’s Synonyms and Antonyms before large sections of these reference works were X’d out by grammatical egalitarianism and declared off-limits by his teachers. It is a dilemma in which many authors might soon find themselves, unless they are fortunate enough to have courageous publishers willing to place paramount value on an author’s ideas and competency, and none on his capacity for obsequious thought orthodoxy.
In her 1972 essay “The Establishing of an Establishment,” Ayn Rand notes that:
Private cliques have always existed in the intellectual field, particularly in the arts, but they used to serve as checks and balances on one another, so that a nonconformist could enter the field and rise without the help of a clique. Today, the cliques are consolidated into an Establishment….Rule by unofficially privileged groups spreads a special kind of fear, like a slow poison injected into the culture. It is not fear of a specific ruler, but of the unknown power of anonymous cliques, which grows into a chronic fear of unknown enemies. 
The relevance of her remarks as regards grammatical egalitarianism should be apparent.
The Atomization of Concepts
To atomize a concept for the purpose of destroying or repressing it is to explode a term into its constituent parts, treat the constituents as wholes in and of themselves, and finally to inhibit the rediscovery or usage of the atomized concept with cognitive barriers. Well-known among logicians as a “reductionist” fallacy, this process repeals the law of Occam’s Razor, which states that entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.
Guidelines, which devotes almost half of its page count to the subject of how to achieve “gender-inclusiveness” in writing, focuses on the terms he and man. Reading the recommendations in Guidelines on how to atomize these terms is, at times, amusing:
“[I]n subjects and traditions of discourse where he has been universally employed and men are assumed to be present, it [she] may temporarily redress the traditional omission of women.”
“Using words like mankind and man to refer to men and women, while convenient shorthand, embodies bias and introduces that bias into our perceptions of history and self. Use of the masculine singular pronoun [he] to refer to all people is misleading and exclusive.”
Thus, the concept man must be atomized into numerous phantom concepts which are never reunited under that term again by their essential attributes.
If one consults the etymological source of the term he and remembers how it is used in the generic sense, one will see that it is derived mostly from an amalgam of Old German and Old English, and has come to be used so that it and its derivatives, such as his, refer to a person of either gender. The terms man and men have similar histories, and have been used accordingly since the Enlightenment.
What the feminists are really objecting to are these terms’ secondary but unavoidable masculine connotations. The only answer to their objection is that the terms he and his and man must refer to some abstraction, or to some personified image of a human being. And since one of the attributes of the male gender, virility or potency, has been metaphorically linked to the physical and mental behavior of the human race, for better or for worse, the personified image or abstraction naturally defaults to man. Unless one is willing to settle for a circus freak, or a hermaphrodite, or even an “it” as an alternative to man or he, there is no other term that performs the same task.
And why would the grammatical egalitarians wish to atomize the term man? For two reasons: First, discarding the term gives them the rationale and precedent to perform the same vivisection on other, less complex terms; second, the term man does not include, and certainly does not evoke the image of, any of their pets: the handicapped, racial minorities, the elderly, homosexuals, or women. The term man is an ennobling term; it does not admit ciphers who refuse to poke their heads out of their particular group or tribal shells. The concept is a reproach to the egalitarians, for they see nothing noble or glorified within themselves that correlates to the concept, and nothing in the concept that can be applied to them.
“Insensitivity to racial and ethnic identities” continues the AAUP position statement, “and to differences of religion, age, ability, and sexual orientation reinforces the conscious and unconscious attitudes that allow us too often to reproduce ignorance.”
Both in the AAUP position statement, and in Guidelines’ table of contents, are cited as victims of discrimination, disparagement and injustice almost every group that has benefited from governmental social or economic legislation: minorities, women, the elderly, the handicapped, and homosexuals. However, that grammatical egalitarianism is being sanctioned and promoted by a quasi-governmental organization is not a fundamental cause of the phenomenon. Subjectivist art usurped representational art as part of a cultural trend whose root cause was the disintegration of philosophy. It was private foundations and a coalescing art Establishment which over decades banished representational art from parks, museums and business offices. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) did not appear until long after the fact.
Similarly, objectivity and clarity in language have been under attack from academe for decades, as ambiguity and imprecision in language gradually became hallmarks of sophistication and wisdom among the pseudo-intelligentsia. It was only a matter of time before the sewer lines through which the universities have been spewing effluvia into the culture themselves became rotted. The proposed “homogenization” of language by grammatical egalitarianism is merely another feature of a wider phenomenon, with government nomenclature and subsidies abetting and accelerating the trend.
Thought orthodoxy is not synonymous with thought control. There is no Federal Board of Language Usage to which publishers must submit their books and journals to be tested for discriminatory of disparaging language before they can be put on the market for sale to the public. However, while no official agency of control exists, there is a kind of interlocking directorate of semi-public institutions and organizations which accomplishes the same purpose by presenting a united front against freedom of expression and imposing orthodoxy on our culture’s intellectual and literary pacesetters.
“Say what you please, we’re not censors!” proclaims the AAUP’s unspoken credo. “But say it our way, or do not bother to say it.” Short of overt government repression, I cannot imagine a more insidious form of thought control than this, which is to thrust independent minds of whatever professional suasion or degree of ability into a purgatory that is not quite freedom and not quite slavery.
The goal of the grammatical egalitarians is not to diminish our range of thought, but to homogenize it. To homogenize the contents of a mind, however, is to accomplish the same end: unquestioning, knee-jerk obedience to the authority of orthodoxy. Such a mind may be able to produce a “sanitized” book without prompting by the czars of goodthink, but it would never venture to extend its range of thought. Instead of reducing the number of words available to people in an ever-shrinking Newspeak dictionary (as described in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four), Guidelines and its proponents advocate swelling the number of “value neutral” euphemisms for the ostensible purpose of preserving the “self-esteem” of the beneficiaries of collectivism and altruism (and, indirectly, to preserve the “moral” aura of the welfare state by squelching any incipient criticism of it). 
What of young minds? Discussing the issue of reprinting old or classic texts or collections of historical and literary documents, Guidelines advises that “Educated readers generally understand that scholarly publishers may not revise the language in a reprinted text…unless the text is intended for classroom use in the primary and secondary grades.” [Emphasis added.] Thus, an educated adult may be permitted to read unexpurgated, unsanitized reprints, because he will somehow know better than to be “prejudiced” by whatever “disparaging” language he may encounter. The minds of children and adolescents, however, must be homogenized before “encoding” sets in, and so it is permissible to tamper with old or classic texts.
In the scholar’s case, the cognitive obstacle is fear – fear of recrimination from unknown powers and influences in the realm of publishing. In the school textbook case, the cognitive obstacle is engineered ignorance by schools in concert with the publishers of textbooks – a practice that has been unofficial policy in public schools for decades.
Ayn Rand concluded her 1972 essay, “Censorship: Local and Express,” with a dedication to Jefferson’s vow, inscribed in marble above his statue: “I have sworn…eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” She wondered how conservative members of the Supreme Court could bear to look at the Jefferson Memorial in light of their decisions. In 1996, the grammatical egalitarians are neither blind to the magnificence of the statue, nor deaf to the meaning of the words. They would prefer to see the statue and the words replaced with an NEA-financed androgynous hulk who humbly swears subservient deference to any random cipher who chances by.
Guidelines reflects almost every collectivist trend that has come to fruition over the past thirty years: gender conflict, egalitarianism, the elevation of mediocrity, the indulgence of the irrational as a right, and the theft of physical and spiritual wealth under the rubric of “social justice.” The grammatical egalitarians have assigned themselves the task of concealing the destruction caused by these and other trends behind a wall of words designed to exclude reason, inquiry and truth. This wall is composed mostly of euphemistic, concept-destroying argot; lining the top of it is the barbed wire of envy and the broken glass of malice. The wall will remain intact for as long as men consider it their altruist duty neither to question its existence, nor to wonder what it hides, nor to speculate whether it is meant to protect or to imprison them.
Under the entry “The Aggrandizement of Mediocrity” in Usage and Abusage, the late lexicographer and grammarian Eric Partridge concluded a poignant commentary on the decline of standards in literature, the arts and language with the observation that
“[a]nyone who believes in civilization must find it difficult to approve, and impossible to abet, one of the surest means of destroying it. To degrade language is finally to degrade civilization.” 
Had he lived long enough, Partridge might have made the astonished observation that there exist those who do not believe in civilization, who approve and abet its destruction, and who are dedicated to diminishing men’s minds by degrading language as a means of finally degrading civilization, not by reason of ignorance or ineptitude, but as a conscious, informed policy.
1. "The Establishing of an Establishment", in Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet, 1984. P. 168
2. See Orwell’s “The Principles of Newspeak” in the Appendix following the conclusion of the novel. While it is a brilliant essay on the methodology of the deliberate epistemological stunting of minds, there is a distinct difference in goals between the grammatical egalitarians of today and the totalitarians of the novel. Ayn Rand rightly remarked that such a society as Orwell describes could not long survive even as a semi-industrialized one, chiefly because the minds that could make it function would perish. And, there is another difference between the grammatical egalitarians’ purpose and that of the minions of Big Brother, which is that the former wish to impose thought orthodoxy on everyone, while the latter imposed orthodox thought and language only on ruling Party members. Rulers who reduced their range of concepts to the parroting vocabulary of an autistic person would not be able to continue making and maintaining telescreens, helicopters or any other product of free, thinking minds, nor would they be able to indefinitely retain their power, as Orwell suggests such a dictatorship could, regardless of the degree of their brutality.
3. In Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 188.
4. “The Aggrandizement of Mediocrity” in Addenda, Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English, by Eric Partridge. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1947. Reprinted by Penguin, 1981. P. 379