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Newspeak: Linguistic Status Symbol of the Easily Convinced

Consider the following words and phrases:

  • Fat-shaming
  • Privilege (White privilege, thin privilege, male privilege)
  • Marriage equality
  • Triggering or triggered
  • Larger person
  • Pro-choice
  • Women’s clinic

Seven simple words or combinations of simple words that have each been meticulously engineered to “trigger” a cascade of ideas and emotions meant to rewrite and reinforce new moral definitions every time they are used. If you are honest and aware of what the engineers of these word-concepts are trying to do, you have to admit that they have been very successful.

A quick Google Trends search for the search term “fat shaming” shows that, before the end of 2012, that particular combination of those two words was practically unheard of in popular culture. But now, just two or three years later, those two words beside each other have a very precise political meaning that tells the listener or reader volumes about the user’s values, background, politics and viewpoint. And most of the Western world is familiar with the concept. Impressive.

If someone uses the term “fat-shaming” (or any of the terms bullet-listed above) un-ironically, you can immediately deduce with a pretty decent degree of certainty that the person is:

  • female
  • white
  • upper middle-class
  • on the leftward end of the political spectrum
  • overweight to a greater or lesser degree
  • college-educated
  • studying (or studied) the humanities or social sciences

(The sorts of people who invent and use a term like “fat-shaming” bristle at how easily astute listeners or readers can peg their social status and political/intellectual position on just about any issue after just after a brief conversation. I know this from experience. )

But the phenomenon isn’t a new one. It’s a cliche’ by now, but whenever totalitarian political movements appear, a struggle for the language of whatever nation being taken over always follows. George Orwell made his career on this fact. 

When the Communists took over Russia, they instituted a well thought-out and organized government censorship plan within ten days of coming to power. They did so for a reason:

“Soviet censors regard[ed] the world as a semantic system in which the information that is let through is the only reality….In terms of truth or falsehood, the objective sense of the world no longer exists. Instead of dealing with real things, the censor hopes that his world view will be accepted. Only what the censor approves is said to exist; what he disapproves has no independent existence.”

From I Must Speak Out: The Best of the Voluntaryist 1982-1999, edited by Carl Watner

In other words, totalitarians believe that reality is a consensus and that if enough people can be convinced that a concept is real (or unreal), it will either magically exist or cease to exist. Americans have seen this theory in action since the 1960s, as concepts of what people have traditionally considered natural or unnatural are continually under semantic assault. Consider ideas of gender, sexuality, body image, race, nationhood, etc. “Normal”and “decent”–two words which once had understood meanings–have been deliberately destroyed. Or, at least, damaged.

But more than a tool of social re-engineering, progressive Newspeak serves as a conversational identifier to differentiate the in-crowd from the politically unacceptable. The use of the words is a status symbol, announcing to the world that the user is superior to the non-user and that the convinced are superior to the unconvinced and that the New Soviet Man is superior to the parasite.

Consider which you are the next time you consider using a word like “transgendered.”