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Janresseger: Orwellian Language and the Moral Perversion of American Politics

Back in 2021, in a policy memo, Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory, scholars at the National Education Policy Center described the working philosophy of Christopher Rufo, the right-wing political operative we have, since that time, come to discover is or has been associated with the Manhattan Institute, the Claremont InstituteHillsdale College, and Governor Ron DeSantis’s ugly seizure and transformation of the administration of the New College of Florida.

NEPC’s scholars quote Christopher Rufo describing his ability to co-opt and redefine the meaning of the phrase, “critical race theory”: “On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—-into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’”

Rufo is today’s linguistic master of the political perversion of English. He is being hired by seemingly every radical-right organization precisely because he utterly lacks ethical principles and because he is consummately skilled in manipulating language to accommodate the political purpose of whoever hires him.  Politically twisted language has become a feature of today’s far-right.

We know that as people use language, the meaning of particular words evolves over time. Lexicographers trace the shifts in the usage of particular words. Dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive; for example, the Oxford English Dictionary records the history of changes in the meaning of particular words. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755 does not describe today’s word usage.

But today Rufo exemplifies another kind of conscious and intentional political manipulation of English explained by George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language: “The concrete melts into the abstract… prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning….”  Orwell’s first example is the dying metaphor: “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image…. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact.”  Orwell continues: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Last week the Plain Dealer published Black Voters Are ‘Woke’ to What Ron DeSantis Is Doing by Appropriating that Word, in which the Rev. Marvin A McMickle explores the political manipulation of an old, if not entirely dead, metaphor which today has been revived and utterly transformed as far-right politicians have redefined it. Rev. McMickle, one of Cleveland’s long respected civic leaders and the pastor emeritus of the Antioch Baptist Church, explains:  “I have heard more references to the word ‘woke’ in the last few months than I have heard over the course of my entire life… The term has long existed within African American communities as a reminder to ‘wake up’ or ‘stay alert’ or to ‘pay attention’ to the public policies and trends developing in society that might have a negative impact on our lives. The term began to be heard within the broader American public after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2021. In both of those instances, the term meant to pay attention to instances of police brutality. It was almost a synonym for ‘If you see something, say something.'”

Originally, writes McMickle, “woke” had nothing to do with college admissions policies or national immigration policies or undocumented workers seeking health care:  “To the extent that the word ‘woke’ is even used by the people who coined the phrase, the meaning is simple: Pay attention to the world around you and look out for any dangers coming your way.” McMickle is describing a simple metaphor for “Beware!” and “Don’t go to sleep. Pay attention!” He explains further: “The truth is, African Americans rarely, if ever, even use that phrase in conversation. I am 74 years old, and I travel across the country on a regular basis. I have never once heard anyone with whom I speak talk about ‘ being woke.'”

McMickle points to the way Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has co-opted the old metaphor, “woke”, for political purposes: “According to him, ‘wokeness’ is one of the great dangers facing our nation. In a failed attempt to sound like Winston Churchill… DeSantis asserts that, ‘We will fight the woke in the legislature. We will fight the woke in education. We will fight the woke in the businesses. We will never, ever surrender to the woke mob.'”

McMickle concludes by exploring what far-right politicians mean when they toss around the word “woke” in their political speeches: “I wonder if those Republican politicians are actually using the word ‘woke’ as code language for an agenda they dare not say out loud. I wonder if it is how they are responding to demographic changes in the United States that are challenging their preferred version of who is a real American.”

McMickle reminds DeSantis that his co-opting the word “woke” may ultimately have political implications for DeSantis’ political future as a candidate for President of the United States: “People in the African American community are paying attention…. We are staying alert to the ways in which a term we coined for one purpose has been appropriated for use in an entirely different and extremely dangerous way. Dare l say it; we are ‘woke’ about this sociopolitical agenda masquerading as being ‘woke.’ Ron DeSantis should get his own terms. He clearly has no idea what our term means.”

Over the past couple of years, radical, far-right politicians have imported another Orwellian phrase—“diversity, equity, and inclusion”—into bills about K-12 and higher education in the state legislatures of majority-Republican states. The phrase is also a feature of Ron DeSantis’s campaign for president of the United States. This phrase, like “critical race theory” and “woke”, seems to have moved north from the state of Florida, after Ron DeSantis banned any “diversity, equity, and inclusion” at the New College of Florida and later by law in all of that state’s public universities. Right now the term is at the center of the proposed Ohio Senate Bill 83, which bans “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in all of our state’s public colleges and universities. Senate Bill 83 passed the Ohio Senate, but it was never taken up by the Ohio House. To ensure that it becomes law, the Ohio Republican Senate leadership logrolled the bill into the Senate’s budget, where it might well become law if members of the House/Senate conference committee don’t pull it out in the next couple of weeks

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion” was, I think, originally a phrase used to describe training programs for staff in all sorts of agencies and institutions to help medical personnel, police, teachers, workers in jails and prisons, staff at nonprofits, librarians, and others be aware of their own racial, ethnic, or religious biases.  Such programs are commonly described as anti-racism training.  But, of course, by banning “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” state legislatures don’t define precisely what is being banned. Maybe politicians want to ban this sort of training for people who work with the public. Maybe the new laws also mean that states’ higher education institutions cannot explicitly look for new staff who would make their faculties more diverse.  Or, as in Ohio’s proposed Senate Bill 83, a law may also mean that faculty members are prohibited from leading class discussions which might make some students feel guilty or uncomfortable about their biases.  Notice that the phrase is imprecise enough that it can be used by politicians who want to pass laws that impose their own political biases.

We ought to take some time linguistically to reflect on the meaning of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as  Orwellian language.  When our lawmakers ban “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” are they endorsing separation and segregation, inequality, and exclusion? Or are politicians simply employing the phrase to fan the fears of voters who are uncomfortable in our multicultural society?

We need to demand that our politicians be precise in their choice of words. When they try to ban “diversity, equity and inclusion,” what is it about our society that our politicians are rejecting, what kind of bigotry are they appealing to in an effort to get elected, and what sort of barriers are they trying to impose?


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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...