Language, Semantics, and the Culture War
The Left and the Control of Meaning By S.R. Piccoli
So YouTube is banning all content they say is spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. “Working closely with health authorities, we looked to balance our commitment to an open platform with the need to remove egregious harmful content,” the video-sharing platform said in a September 29 statement posted to its blog. “We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general, and we’re now at a point where it’s more important than ever to expand the work we started with COVID-19 to other vaccines.” In response, YouTube taking action in censoring anti-vaccine content has been immediately celebrated by liberal journalists and members of the media. “Finally! good grief,” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote. “This is good news, but it’s a little too late,” Salt Lake Tribune correspondent Bryan Schott reacted.
This is just one of the latest examples of censorship that are taking place throughout the U.S. Whether it is anti-vaccine content or politically incorrect discourse, free speech is under heavy attack in America. Take the case of philosopher and pedagogist Peter Boghossian, a Portland State University professor who recently resigned from his position in a searing open letter in which he accused the administration of fostering an environment hostile to intellectual inquiry and dissent. “Students at Portland State are not being taught to think. Rather, they are being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues,” he wrote. “Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly.” You might say he’s reinventing the wheel -- well, right, but Boghossian is a liberal, a liberal who points the finger at the illiberal university. In his resignation letter, he claimed that when he tried to speak out against harmful “illiberalism,” he faced intense reprisal. “The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced,” he wrote. Is it a sign that enough is enough?
It can also be said that the above two cases are emblematic of the huge influence of cultural Marxism on American society. But how did we get to this point? As Michael Knowles makes clear in his recent book Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, the academic world, which has been thoroughly corrupted by political correctness, demands intellectual conformity. “In the second decade of the 21st century,” he writes, “politically correct reformers undermined the old standards by appealing to ‘free speech’ and inveighing against ‘censorship,’ but no sooner had the radicals cracked the old moral order than they began to enforce a new standard of speech with all the force and rigidity they once claimed to oppose.” As we have seen, political correctness reached its apotheosis during the early weeks of 2021, “when corporate enforcers of the new standards took the liberty of censoring a duly elected president of the United States.” How did conservatives react to the attack? They mustered two responses, says Knowles, both of which have only accelerated the progress of the radicals’ campaign: “The most conciliatory conservatives have simply gone along, ceding one piece of the culture after another to political correctness. Their more curmudgeonly brethren have refused to abide by political correctness but nonetheless have effectively tolerated it on broadly liberal grounds.” What is worse, according to Michael Knowles, is that conservatives failed to thwart political correctness “because they mistake it for a campaign of ‘censorship’ against ‘free speech’ rather than a contest between two competing standards of speech and behavior.” In other words, the cleverness of political correctness is that it aims less to erect new standards than to destroy the old ones: “Political correctness may be understood in this way to be a sort of ‘anti-standard standard,’ which succeeds just as surely by persuading people to abandon standards altogether -- for instance, in the name of ‘free speech absolutism’ -- as it does by impelling acquiescence to its ever-changing dictates.”
Meanwhile, in just a few decades the United States has become an increasingly secular nation in which unsettling phenomena such as the sudden rise of transgenderism and the war on Christmas are meant to transform common sense into prejudice and traditional notions of morality into systems of oppression. But if the left has won the culture war, says Knowles, it’s because they won the game of semantics. As a matter of fact, while conservatives look at words as a means to express and hear ideas, leftists see them as instrumentum regni. That’s precisely the idea behind political correctness, which “contorts language in an attempt to remake reality along leftist lines.” Diligent disciples of postmodern philosophers of the Frankfurt school and Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, who laid the foundation for the left’s slow takeover of the culture, leftists successfully infiltrated schools, religion, art, entertainment, the family, and, what is more, the language. Knowles’s subtitle, after all, speaks volumes: controlling words means controlling minds. What college campuses have become -- centers for leftist indoctrination -- is proof that there is a semantic context in which the game’s already lost before it starts, regardless of one’s personal feelings and beliefs. It was the leftists who won the game of semantics, and therefore, says Knowles, it is they who can set the terms and premises of any debate, especially those within elites and other important segments of public opinion and decision-making segments, and thereby win every time. If this isn’t a fight to the death, I don’t know what it is.
Samuel Robert Piccoli is a blogger and the author of the books Being Conservative from A to Z (2014) and Blessed Are the Free in Spirit (2021). He is Italian and lives in the Venice area.