Language Termites Prepare the Way for Totalitarianism

Language Termites Prepare the Way for Totalitarianism
Books damaged by termites are displayed on a shelf of the museum at the Central Institute for the Conservation and Restoration of Damaged Books in Rome on Dec. 20, 2011 in Rome. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)
Theodore Dalrymple

The mills of political correctness grind exceeding fine: Nothing is too unimportant to escape their grinding action.

The New York Times recently reported the death of the journalist Jim Dwyer. He was 63, which seemed to me, from my present perspective, a young age to die and therefore a reason for sadness, though I neither knew him nor anything of him.

The newspaper quoted from his last column for that august publication, which was about the pandemic of COVID-19: “In times to come, when we are all gone, people not yet born will walk in the sunshine of their own days, because of what women and men did at this hour to feed the sick, to heal and to comfort.”

I don't wish to speak ill of the dead—Dwyer had cancer when he wrote these words and I suspect suffered much—but somehow, this passage grates on me. Its attempted uplift strikes me as false, or at least forced, full of attempted emotion rather than emotion itself, and hardly rises above the level of greeting-card sentiment.

I particularly disliked the words "because of what women and men did," because the natural rhythm of our language requires it should be "because of what men and women did," the former being awkward and inelegant.

The reversal of the order is a symptom of the ideological mania that is gripping our intelligentsia. It examines everything in the light of its obsessions and desire to impose an orthodoxy, so that the term ‘men and women’ isn't simply necessitated by the desire for euphony, but becomes in their minds a symptom of the so-called “patriarchy,” the ideological oxygen, ubiquitous but unseen, that has oppressed women, and done nothing but oppressed women, since time immemorial.

The fact that we say "Ladies and gentlemen," rather than "Gentlemen and ladies," is likewise a symptom of the patriarchy, insofar as it's symptomatic of the false chivalry that maintains the dominance of men over women by implying that they are the weaker sex due more consideration, in the same way as does the custom of men opening doors for women.

If men were true egalitarians, they would either open doors for each other with as much ceremony as they do so for women, or slam doors in women’s faces.


Quite often, I review academic books that increasingly use "she" rather than "he" as the impersonal pronoun, or when meaning both he and she.

The default pronoun for God has become "She," and these changes from tradition are made even when the author is of an age in which it's extremely unlikely that they emanate from him, or, for that matter, from her (eminent women philosophers such as Philippa Foot, for example, who were at least the equal of any women philosophers today, had no difficulty with the traditional usage).

Publishers seem to be employing a monstrous regiment of sub-editors whose job is like that of the sub-editors of Pravda or Izvestia, whose job was to ensure that no departures from the party line or correct wording slipped through.

This is all the more sinister because there's no dictatorial government compelling present-day publishers to do this. They do it from sheer pusillanimity in the face of monomania.

The fact that the change is deliberate or ideologically imposed, rather than the kind of spontaneous change that all living languages undergo, is demonstrated by those academic books (of which I have read quite a few) in which the impersonal pronouns alternate between the masculine and feminine forms, presumably from some sort of commitment to sexual equality.

No one would alternate the pronouns in this way naturally or unselfconsciously; it has to be done with considerable care and deliberation.

I have had my own articles altered in this way, but so far have been able to resist. One day, though, I will be able to do so no longer, at least if I want to be published at all; at this point, I shall probably self-censor, and after a while, the new usage will become second nature to me. This is the way totalitarianism triumphs.

Eagle and Termite

Another example is in the replacement of B.C. (Before Christ) by BCE (Before the Common Era) and A.D. (Anno Domini, or In the Year of Our Lord) by CE (the Common Era). It must be many decades since the use of B.C. and A.D. implied any religious belief in those who employed them; and 300 B.C. has become 300 BCE, as A.D. 1900 has become 1900 CE.

But what does the Common Era mean? Common to what or common to whom? Certainly not to Muslims, Jews, or Confucians. The change is a simply an exercise of power, all the more insidious for being so petty.

As the Marquis de Custine said of Czar Nicholas I, he was both eagle and insect, soaring over society to gain a clear overall view of it, but also boring through it like a termite, so that nothing was too small to escape either his notice, surveillance, or control.

Imposed language reform is at the termite end of the eagle-insect spectrum of the present day’s incipient totalitarianism.

But to return briefly to Dwyer’s last column. It strikes me as not very sensitive to current cultural developments. Ours is not exactly an age of filial piety towards the achievements of the past, to put it mildly.

We demand of the great figures of the past that they share our current moral outlook completely before we honor them, it never occurring to us that, since today is tomorrow’s yesterday, we might ourselves one day be despised for our moral failings and narrowmindedness—for example, what might someday be termed our "necrophobia," or our "irrational" refusal to allow necrophiliacs to fulfill themselves sexually despite the fact that they pose no hazard to society.

Why should anyone honor us when we are prepared to honor no one? The reason, of course, is that we consider ourselves to be the first generation in the history of the world without feet of clay, whose moral outlook is so perfect and finalized that no one will ever be able to find fault with us. Let us, then, put up statues to ourselves, the only statues that should be allowed to stand.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”