Where Did Speech Police Come From?

August 1st, 2018 | Liberty 5-3000
speech police

In reflecting on the origins of the modern Speech Police, we often think its origins lie in Mao’s Political Correctness. Mao, who saw himself as the arbiter of what was appropriate Marxist thought, would have people arrested, sent to work camps or killed for uttering speech that strayed from party-lines. While Canada, surprisingly, has no work camps as of the writing of this article, everyday people find themselves banned from social media, unable to hold rallies and public events, find themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs, or worse, are dragged through the Human Rights’ complaint process.


The emergence of the quasi Marxist-Postmodernist movement, and the subsequent justifications for the policing of politically incorrect thought grew out of more than just Mao’s Political Correctness. These justifications have their origins, unsurprisingly, in the left-wing dominated fields of linguistics and anthropology. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and J.L. Austin’s Speech Act Theory (still being peddled in North American universities today despite the growing cannon of criticisms made against them), both play a key role in what undergirds the current mindset of today’s Speech Police.


The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


Anyone who’s anyone with an undergrad has heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Its originator, Edward Sapir, put forth the idea that the language we speak actually holds a psychological influence over our cognition and how we view the world. He was the first to postulate that our mother-tongues are the basis for our cultural worldviews.


Benjamin Lee Whorf, Sapir’s student, expanded upon his ideas, telling us the following:


Users of markedly different grammars are pointed by the grammars towards different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world.

We cut nature up, organize it into concepts and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.


Whorf gave us the famed example of working men, who, because gasoline drums were labelled “empty”, understood this to mean that they posed no hazard. As a result of the effect the word “empty” had on their cognition, they ultimately started fires on the work-site by throwing their cigarette butts into the containers which, despite being labelled empty, still contained the fumes from the gasoline they once held.


From the Sapir-Whorf theory emerges the belief, for example, that because the English language contains only the terms “male” and “female” to describe our genders, we have been unable to properly recognize the endless possibilities of genders that other cultures have been able to recognize as a result of their more "enlightened" mother-tongues. You’ll often encounter the idea of cultures containing a word for “two-spirited” genders, or the glory of gender-neutral pronouns in other languages that can be used to describe people without boxing them into a gender stereotype, when you’re confronted by proponents of the ‘strong’ linguistic determinism as put forth by both Sapir and Whorf.

Given the myriad of critiques levelled against the Sapir-Whorf, many proponents of the theory had to finally concede that the structure of our language doesn’t have as strong a determination on our behaviours as once thought, and hence, the emergence of another camp arose- the ‘weak’ linguistic-determinist crowd. The weak determinists put forth the view that while our languages aren’t fully responsible for our cognition and our worldviews, they still play a large role in the way we see the world.


For a salient critique of the strong linguistic determinism professed by Sapir and Whorf (and many professors still teaching today), read John McWhorter’s 2014 work, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. This book is an excellent read, but unfortunately, is not available for free online.


The key take-away for the left from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been that language shapes our worldview in a significant way. From this belief, we see the push from activists to include newly devised PC terms for race and gender, and the furtherance of cultural relativism (the belief that there are no ‘high’ or ‘low’ cultures, instead all cultures are the result of the ‘lenses’ in which they see the world. These cultures should be embraced, as they have something new and exciting to teach us about the world that our own languages fall short of doing.)


What the left gets wrong about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, however, is the fact that changes in our language do little to shape real-world material realities. Take for example, the ever-evolving use of PC terms to denote First Nation individuals. We morphed from “Indian” to “Aboriginal” to “Indigenous” to “First Nations”, and now maybe even, “First Peoples”. But have these evolving terms helped to ameliorate First Nation’s conditions in Canada, or held any sway over our actions when dealing with them? Sadly, no. It would appear that it doesn’t matter what term we use for First Nations people, given enough time, that new PC term also becomes a pejorative, as the word itself, has done nothing to deal with the underlying ‘problems’ between First Nations and non-First Nations people.


J.L. Austin’s Speech Act Theory


J. L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, published in 1962, is a compilation of several lectures he delivered at Harvard University. (This work is available free online and can be found here.)


In this work, Austin draws several distinctions between different types of phrases and their functions. He tells us that a Constative is, and aPerformative does. The key take-away for the political hard-left is the concept of a performative, which Austin advises goes beyond just conveying information that can be verified as true or false. Instead, performatives:


[B]ring about, or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say surprising or misleading.”


The oft-given example of a performative is uttering “I do” at a marriage ceremony, after which, the participants find their worldly circumstances changed through the uttering of a phrase that ‘did something’. 


The often-abused adage that grows out of a simplistic reading of Austin’s theory is “we do things with words”. It’s from here that we encounter the belief that words actually translate into action in real life, and that ‘hateful’ speech is the actual equivalent to a violent act.


Too often your university professor forgets to include the segment in Austin’s work that confirms perlocutionary phrases or utterances only hold a bearing over our consciences if these phrases or utterances are met with an environmental confirmation. In order for perlocutionary phrases to even stand a chance of equating to real-world action, they need to be uttered alongside certain truths and realities in the context in which they are said, something Austin describes in his work as “felicity conditions”.

With this in mind, one might wonder if referring to a transgender person by a made-up pronoun actually does anything, as our surrounding environment clearly confirms to us that there are in fact only two ‘genders’- male and female. Infelicity conditions, the opposite of felicity conditions, occur when the utterances fall on deaf ears due to their inability to correspond with the real world, or in the alternative, are flat-out rejected by listeners. The infelicity of our biological conditions is perhaps the reason why the gender-activist crowd is finding their words do very little to manifest in any sort of tangible action in attempting to shape reality.


In any event, this section of Austin’s work is never properly examined or expanded upon by university lecturers. They’d much rather impart on students the simple take-away of “We do things with words”, so that these students can then go out into the world and commit acts of social justice by stopping other’s ‘violent’ acts of hate speech.


Understanding precedes criticism. Both understanding and criticism precede action. If we hope to stand a chance in defeating the political far-left and defeat the modern-day Speech Police, we need to trace the origins of the influential thinkers and theories that have informed the far-left’s worldview. It’s only from this starting place (a proper examination of the origins of their thought) that we’ll have any hope in defeating them, either by pre-empting, or by dismantling the foundations that inform their worldview.