The contract of mutual insincerity
When institutions punish honesty, people lie about their beliefs to escape sanction. When people vote to punish institutions, institutions lie about reality to escape accountability.
[This post is mostly about the misuse of language, substantially about the abuse of Jews, and, eventually, about the fall of Claudine Gay. Please allow me apologise to Norm for the title and get some relatively uncontroversial scene-setting out of the way before I get spicy.]
The uncontroversial bit
Because laws are codified in words, by definition, in states ruled by laws, words have consequences. When those laws keep order, the only legitimate domestic conflicts are battles of ideas. Because we also express ideas in words, words are the weapons we use to fight such battles. So reshaping words can become an arms race.
Orwell knew this. If it’s not enough for bad actors to conceal political intent through obscure language, they can go full Ministry Of Truth. But Orwell’s department of propaganda acted for an imaginary totalitarian state, albeit one modelled after real ones.
The UK’s and the US’s 20th-century histories are dominated by their joint wars, hot and cold, against totalitarian states. As well as their commitment to liberal democracy, Britons and Americans share a common language and overlapping cultures. The Very Online refer to this space they share with one another, and with other similar countries, as “the Anglosphere”. Their citizens are supposed to live in places where, and at a time when, their free universities preserve and protect their heritage from ignorance and barbarism. That state-subsidised freedom of thought is supposed to complement their free markets and free presses (and open networks), which, in turn, are supposed to respond to the demands of diverse consumers of concepts and content.
The Anglo ideal is that free citizens are free within their means to choose what they buy; that they’re free without constraint1 to choose how they vote—and to vote secretly, in a space where the message they send to their politicians cannot be judged either by those around them or those with power over them.
But, in both countries, what happens when people exercise those freedoms doesn’t always please those whose duty it is to serve the people.
The voters have spoken, damn them, and they won’t shut up…
In such ostensibly free societies, even established power is open to democratic contest. The pesky voters often refuse to do what their betters believe is best for them. Lately, in both the UK and the US, the voters have been peskier than usual.
One reason that these pesky outcomes have surprised elites is that members of those elites tend not to have too much to do with the bulk of voters—”How could we have lost?! I don’t know anyone who voted Brexit!”.
Another reason they are surprised is that even opinions within their peer groups are not as uniform as they comfort themselves to believe. That is, the people they do know are not always honest about how different their views are from their own. There are no secret police listening, but there are still social and career penalties for thoughtcrimes. The easiest way to avoid paying is not to speak your mind. Revealed preferences are the surprising flipside of preference falsification, the plot twists to establishment narratives.
…so we’ll have to speak over them…
When electorates vote within the rules to deny establishments what they want, members of those establishments are tempted to change those rules.
In the rest of the EU, political elites have had ways of dealing with inconvenient democratic choices: When French and Dutch voters rejected the EU Constitution, they were bypassed; then, pretty much the same changes to the bloc’s governance were repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty. When Irish voters rejected that, they were made to vote again.
Such shenanigans are harder in nations with a bloody-minded popular commitment to fair play and a history of mocking and rejecting totalitarian politics.
But those attitudes didn’t stop, for example, one rich woman from going to court to force the UK Parliament to vote to endorse the result of a referendum that it had already promised voters it would honour. The howling irony was that the outcome of this forced vote then embedded Brexit even more firmly in the UK’s future (because Brexiters could point to a Commons majority vote in addition to a referendum majority), forced a “harder” Brexit (because the votes of hard-Brexit MPs now had to be courted by a soft-Brexit PM), and wasted money and time telling us things we already knew.
And those attitudes didn’t stop many MPs from frustrating the implementation of that same vote to the extent that they tried to set up a banana parliament (with a howlingly ironic name), just down the road from the real one, or continuing to block the country’s departure from the EU with such contemptuous enthusiasm that it eventually triggered a landslide vote against their cause in a General Election fought almost solely on the issue of Getting Brexit Done.
Now, political enemies of former US President Donald Trump fear that Americans might elect him again, and some of them are trying to block this foolhardiness on the part of The Little People by judicial means. But even some of his most enthusiastic transatlantic opponents fear this will undermine the credibility of opposition to him and lead to a backlash.
…or change what they’re saying
So—unlike in the EU—in the US and the UK, gaming or changing constitutional rules can be conspicuous, difficult, and counterproductive. But, if you can’t find words to persuade voters to vote the way you want, if you can’t change the rules or exploit obscure laws to thwart disagreeable voters’ will, you can still change the words themselves.
Before constitutional changes and policies and laws become electoral issues, they begin as public debates. In free democracies, even if you make a claim in such a debate from a position of power, your power doesn’t include the power to take people who contest that claim to court and lock them up; it doesn’t include the power to delete their dissent from the press or the library or bookshops or the Internet. If you keep losing an argument for a policy in public, you might never even get a chance to lose a vote on it.
What if your claim is false—and you know it’s false? Your only remaining options are to keep lying or redefine the truth. You can tell voters that a political change that leads to the highest legal immigration levels of all time, of which a higher-proportion of immigrants come from majority-non-white countries, is “racist”. You can claim that a implementing the results of a referendum, two parliamentary votes, and a single-issue General Election is “dictatorial”. And, when everything else fails, you can ascend to Peak Chutzpah, and accuse voters of having fallen for the lies of a foreign power and assert that they were really saying anything with their vote to leave the EU other than that they wanted to leave the EU.
Compulsive lying takes a toll…
If you know any compulsive liars, but you aren’t a compulsive liar yourself, you must have asked that timeless question: “How do they do it?”
Staying honest requires no housekeeping, because reality exists independently of us and takes care of its being consistent with itself all on its own. (Of course, material reality throws up anomalies all the time, but finding ways to reconcile those with our own, tidier, mental models of the world is the business of science and art.)
But big lies and frequent lying take mental energy. The definition of a lie requires that the liar is aware of the truth he misrepresents, of the falsity of claim he has made, and of the inconsistency between them.
If you tell more lies to people who still believe you, eventually you have to at least make them consistent with each other. So the best compulsive liars usually hold an entire imaginary version of reality in their heads, one robust enough to avoid obvious self-contradictions. When you hold a fantasy world like this tightly enough that you believe it, psychologists calls it delusion. Such a mismatch between the world and your perception of the world is a foundational pathology of much mental illness.
If you aren’t clinically deluded, you either have to hold your imaginary world at arm’s length—and work twice as hard as everyone else to keep score on the two realms2—or you can try to recruit everyone else to help you build and sustain a parallel reality from its component lies. This socialised or distributed delusion is the foundation of cults, religions, ideologies, and academic Theory-with-a-capital-’T’ (not the lowercase-’t’ theory of physics, subject to the harshest and most exacting tests that radio telescopes and rocket ships and lasers bounced off the Moon can inflict, but the cargo-cult theory needed to provide pseudoscholarly justification for ideologies that voters won’t freely vote for).
…but institutional lying takes a team
So, when compulsive lying scales up to the level of the institution or the state, it’s even more inevitable and important that we find ourselves asking the same question of organisations as we ask of individuals: “How do they do it?”
In a totalitarian society, keeping grand conspiracy theories, like Marxism, alive is easier. If you are a dictator, you control the flow of information to the masses, you imprison your critics, you rewrite history.
In a free society, even your goal is merely to sustain less-grand but still-high-status conspiracy theories, like that Donald Trump planned to buy the NHS, you need to be more devious, more subtle.
If there are free media, you can’t control the flow of information to the masses, so you complain of a “disinformation” crisis and use it to justify making the media less free. Or you subsidize your own conspiracist media outlets.
If there is a preserved canon of falsifiable knowledge, you can’t rewrite history, so you change the meanings of the words in which that knowledge is written.
The golden bonus of this last tactic is that you can pretend that arguments about words aren’t serious politics. Every time your enemies point out your attempts to manipulate reality by manipulating meanings, you can accuse them of ignoring the substance of an issue to obsess about symbols; you can accuse them of indulging in “culture wars”.
“Culture wars” are wars of words
But culture wars are politics by other means. If you are losing the fight by the existing rules and you are involved in the business of rule-making, you may try to bend the rules to get your way, and rules are made of words. The bigger the gulf in belief between rule-makers and the ruled on an issue, the more likely a controversy is to revolve around disagreements about the definitions of those words, the more likely it is for contentious policy to be justified by claims that contradict their longstanding and popular meanings:
“Trans women are women.”
“Israel is an ‘apartheid state’, committing ‘genocide’.”
“That isn’t ‘plagiarism’; it’s ‘duplicative language without appropriate attribution’.”
As with so many such strategies on the political battlefield, this one is popular in academia, the theatre of war where so many speeches to the troops open: “Let us begin by defining our terms…”.
The purest form of this martial art is waged in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. This is how the default Wikipedia entry for “Cultural Marxism looked in 2014:
This is how it looked in 2021:
If you’re a nerd about such things, this example illustrates well the decline from a global academy that accommodated quite a few Marxists, who were often at least superficially rigorous and would be comfortable with the longstanding textbook definition of the phrase, to a global academy that accommodates many more vulgar-Left activists (including post-modernists), who are anything but and who prioritize activism over its opposite: scholarship. Even if you accept that “cultural Marxism” is a conspiracy theory, why a supposedly serious reference work would present that definition of the phrase before the far more longstanding and better-supported one is not a question to which the answer is purely logical.
This was Merriam-Webster’s secondary definition of “racism” in 2020:
2a: a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
This is what it changed to in 2020:
2a: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another
specifically : WHITE SUPREMACY sense 2
You can read about how Merriam-Webster redefined “racism” here. But while that commentary rightly warns of the danger of the new definition embedding unevidenced claims about “systemic racism”, it skips over another danger: This new definition overlaps with the widely held reframing that holds that racism is only racism when prejudice is accompanied by power.
The attraction of this definition for the political partisan is that all one has to do to protect one’s hatred of another tribe of humans from accusations of racism is to demonstrate that one’s enemies are in some way “powerful” or “privileged”—a gambit grimly recognisable to Tutsis, and Igbos, and Jews, but a gambit so long endorsed by the professoriat that you question it in polite company at your peril.
The Gay Affair
Which brings us to Claudine Gay and to the preference falsification we began with.
“Preference falsification refers to misrepresenting private beliefs and thoughts in public. It is universal and occurs in many contexts.
“This behavior can be due to people's discomfort holding a minority opinion and the social pressure to conform in a group setting.
”Classic experiments by Solomon Asch demonstrate the tendency to yield to the majority, even when the majority is wrong.”
There are few institutions where the sanctioning of wrongthought is more likely to lead to such self-censorship than our universities. Few university leaders pursued wrongthinkers with more zeal than Claudine Gay.
But it wasn’t for contributing to a climate that threatened free inquiry that Gay became prominent globally. This is the air academics breathe now. It was for refusing to say unequivocally that scholars’ calling for the genocide of Jews on campus was against Harvard’s rules:
One of the other elite-university presidents who testified similarly had to resign for doing so at the start of December. But Gay hung on to her position, even when new pressure mounted on her as more and more examples of her copying the content of other researchers’ published work into her own were uncovered.
Even other progressive academics were shocked by the response of many of Gay’s peers to this self-inflicted crisis of credibility. [If you aren’t a subscriber to The Atlantic, I recommend you enjoy this piece as your one free article. I found it all the more devastating because I disagreed with much of it.] This academic in particular was shocked because so much of the response was simply to change the meaning of words that everyone had long agreed the meaning of:
‘The true scandal of the Claudine Gay affair is not a Harvard president and her plagiarism. The true scandal is that so many journalists and academics were willing, are still willing, to redefine plagiarism to suit their politics. Gay’s boosters have consistently resorted to Orwellian doublespeak—“duplicative language” and academic “sloppiness” and “technical attribution issues”—in a desperate effort to insist that lifting entire paragraphs of another scholar’s work, nearly word for word, without quotation or citation, isn’t plagiarism. Or that if it is plagiarism, it’s merely a technicality. Or that we all do it. (Soon after Rufo and Brunet made their initial accusations last month, Gay issued a statement saying, “I stand by the integrity of my scholarship.” She did not address those or subsequent plagiarism allegations in her resignation letter.)
‘[conservative activist Christopher ]Rufo won this round of the academic culture war because he exposed so many progressive scholars and journalists to be hypocrites and political actors who were willing to throw their ideals overboard. I suspect that, not the tenure of a Harvard president, was the prize he sought all along. The tragedy is that we didn’t have to give it to him.’
Canaries in the coalmine again
Gay didn’t mention plagiarism in her resignation letter; she also didn’t mention Jews. A common complaint from Gay’s supporters has been that media attention to her plagiarism is disproportionate. But the reason this lesser issue is being elevated is because of the earlier relegation of the greater moral question of why universities so keen on policing other prejudices are more relaxed about the longest hatred.
At first it seems like another example of a perennial “progressive” reflex that continues to repel me: the elevation of matters of etiquette over matters of morality. In this case, however, it was conservatives who resorted to “bringing down Capone for tax evasion”. They couldn’t get her over the question of racial hatred, so they got on her for copying her homework.
As so often with “culture wars”, our war correspondents only paid serious attention to the conflict long after it had started, when the chronically losing side finally hit back. Open hostility on campus to most other minorities would have triggered swifter and stronger action by university administrators—even unintended-but-perceived hostility would have brought on the same; but, for too many “progressives” there’s something different about Jews.
Antisemitism on university campuses inspired by the recent Hamas/Israel conflict led US lawmakers to call university leaders in for questioning. Their answers were not convincing. Everything that followed followed from that.
It’s sad that the Jews were, once again, written out of their own story—another recent example: no mention of the word here in the National Portrait Gallery’s new page about the Kindertransport3—but at least the reason Gay went was directly relevant to her professional competence. The output of the working scholar is original thought expressed in original words. Despite failing to do her job according to her employer’s own standards, Gay won’t be removed from Harvard’s faculty, be made to admit fault, or suffer a significant reduction in her large salary4. So, while the vast diminution of in her power within the university was well justified, by comparison with the treatment of those deemed to have offended other minorities, Jews on campus haven’t received justice.
The price of freedom
A lesson we can learn from Jews who survived persecution to tell their own stories, from Jews who fled totalitarian states to the UK and US to speak to us through their scholarship and musicianship and friendship, and through so much more—from Jews who survived to recreate their own language—is literally to watch our words, to be vigilant against our own thoughts being turned against us.
When a public debate turns on matters of fact, but one side tries to turn it toward matters of meaning, hear a klaxon. When an authority or a peer tries to shame you for using particular words with particular meanings, fear your own reluctance to offend. When you yourself are tempted to cheat with definitions in the hope of an easier win in argument, resist.
Yes, we may feel limited to party candidates, but there’s nothing to stop voters from registering their objection to this (literally) nominal constraint by spoiling their ballots in ways that must, by law, be recorded.
One of my favourite true-crime facts is that police investigators are more suspicious of suspects whose respective accounts of their actions at the time of a crime match so well with each other that they sound like they have been practised together in advance.
UPDATE, 5th January 2023: Since I linked to that page on the National Portrait Gallery’s website, the words “predominantly Jewish” have been stealth-edited into its text.