A certain fantasy has plagued the modern American conservative movement. In this fantasy, a society of civic-minded gentlemen meet in an open forum, have debates in the purest good faith, and allow the strength of their arguments to win on any question. It is a true marketplace of ideas, and even if disagreements arise, mutual respect and civility would ensure that all perspectives were validated in some form.
As Michael Knowles makes clear in his recent book “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds,” this fantasy has crippled conservatives again and again. In the real world, arguments are often won on the basis of the volume and force behind them, rather than on facts and logic. And no amount of free speech advocacy and appeals to classical liberalism are going to change this.
From the outset of his book, Knowles recognizes that today’s speech is less a matter of semantics and etymology and more a matter of who holds the power. He begins his descent into this war of words by quoting Humpty Dumpty from “Through the Looking Glass,” “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.” Although conservatives look at words as a means to express and hear ideas, leftists see them as tools for domination. They are not merely a reflection of reality; in many ways, they create reality.
Knowles argues that language is an assertion of standards, which is why leftists fight over it. They know if they win the game of semantics, they can set the terms and premises of any debate and thereby win every time. This is the idea behind political correctness, which “contorts language in an attempt to remake reality along leftist lines.”
Many unsuspecting conservatives see evolutions in word meanings as natural or accidental, but Knowles shows the long history and deliberation that can guide this progression. He traces this all the way back to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Unlike most Marxists of his time, who viewed the revolution in terms of overthrowing the government or seizing the economic means of production, Gramsci used the lens of culture: “The revolution
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