I’m going to pull an Ophelia Benson and just do a block text dump, add a line or two and pretend I’m a huge intellectual.
Loading the Language
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliche. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis. In thought reform, for instance, the phrase “bourgeois mentality” is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments. And in addition to their function as interpretive shortcuts, these cliches become what Richard Weaver has called “ultimate terms”: either “god terms,” representative of ultimate good; or “devil terms,” representative of ultimate evil. In thought reform, “progress,” “progressive,” “liberation,” “proletarian standpoints” and “the dialectic of history” fall into the former category; “capitalist,” “imperialist,” “exploiting classes,” and “bourgeois” (mentality, liberalism, morality, superstition, greed) of course fall into the latter. Totalist language, then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling’s phrase, “the language of nonthought.”
To be sure, this kind of language exists to some degree within any cultural or organizational group, and all systems of belief depend upon it. It is in part an expression of unity and exclusiveness: as Edward Sapir put it, “‘He talks like us’ is equivalent to saying ‘He is one of us’.” The loading is much more extreme in ideological totalism, however, since the jargon expresses the claimed certitudes of the sacred science. Also involved is an underlying assumption that language—like all other human products—can be owned and operated by the Movement. No compunctions are felt about manipulating or loading it in any fashion; the only consideration is its usefulness to the cause.
For an individual person, the effect of the language of ideological totalism can be summed up in one word: constriction. He is, so to speak, linguistically deprived; and since language is so central to all human experience, his capacities for thinking and feeling are immensely narrowed. This is what Hu meant when he said, “using the same pattern of words for so long . . . you feel chained.” Actually, not everyone exposed feels chained, but in effect everyone is profoundly confined by these verbal fetters. As in other aspects of totalism, this loading may provide an initial sense of insight and security, eventually followed by uneasiness. This uneasiness may result in a retreat into a rigid orthodoxy in which an individual shouts the ideological jargon all the louder in order to demonstrate his conformity, hide his own dilemma and his despair, and protect himself from the fear and guilt he would feel should he attempt to use words and phrases other than the correct ones. Or else he may adopt a complex pattern of inner division, and dutifully produce the expected cliches in public performances while in his private moments he searches for more meaningful avenues of expression. Either way, his imagination becomes increasingly dissociated from his actual life experiences and may even tend to atrophy from disuse.
“Check your privilege” anyone? Or “your MRA groups are listed as hate groups by the SPLC“. Etc. Ad nauseam, ad infinitum.