American News

A Master Class in Linguistic Suppression

Attacking the English language in the name of combating racism dangerously diverts attention from the real problem but can help to build academic careers.
Peter Isackson, Kristen Syrett Rutgers, Kristen Syrett slavery, Kristen Syrett language of enslavement, political correctness, French post-structuralist theory, US puritanism, language of oppression, implicit bias, racist language

© ImageFlow / Shutterstock

July 28, 2020 09:45 EDT

Boston’s local National Public Radio news station, WBUR, recently interviewed Rutgers University linguist Kristen Syrett, an advocate for pushing the sacred cause of political correctness beyond its currently accepted boundaries. Presumably in the name of racial justice, Syrett wants to root out every conscious or unconscious reference in the English language to the institution of slavery.

Because plantation slave owners were referred to by slaves as “master,” or “massa” in the black vernacular pronunciation, Syrett believes the expression “master bedroom” should be expunged from the language of real estate. In the program, she and the interviewer, Robin Young, approve of the initiative to change the name of the Augusta Masters golf tournament, doubly culpable because in the past its caddies “had to be black.” It may seem odd that she has nothing to say about chess masters and grandmasters. This oversight seems even odder because chess is a game that pits a black army against a white one, which always has the first move.

Syrett explains why the master bedroom must disappear: “There are people who are part of our population who do associate that practice and that history with that word.” And therein lies the problem because “there are times when language can express implicit bias.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Implicit bias:

1. In contrast with explicit bias, the attribution to another person, by people with a superior moral standing, of an unjustifiable idea, belief or value that merits being condemned even if the accused person does not entertain that idea or belief.

2. A supposed reprehensible mental habit of ordinary people that is discernible only to a class of people skilled at reading meaning that is not there into everyday language.

Contextual Note

What Syrett may not realize in her puritanical Bostonian zeal is that the enemy she’s tilting against isn’t racism — it’s the English language. She is calling into question the legitimacy of metaphor. Impoverishing the language does nothing to combat racism and may even have the effect of sheltering it from criticism. Racism is a worldview, not a vocabulary list.

Syrett and Young appear intent on identifying, listing and banishing from polite discourse any words that might be associated with the slave economy. As she works in the field of children’s language acquisition, she appears to propose establishing a list of words teachers will be instructed never to use in classrooms to protect students’ ears from their vile influence.

Some may suspect that these language detectives are primarily motivated by the personal pleasure gleaned from occupying the high moral ground that empowers them to designate unconscious racists for public opprobrium. Isn’t that part of the great Puritan tradition of New England to find ways of feeling more virtuous than the unwashed masses?

For all her apparent schooling in the fashion of “critical theory,” Syrett’s critical thinking often relies on specious reasoning. Here is how she justifies the need to ban words: “To the extent that language can be a way of expressing who we are and what our values are and to the extent to which that language can either be a way to exclude people from a discourse or include them as key participants, then this is a great opportunity for us to revisit.”

On several occasions in the interview, Syrett builds her reasoning around the phrase “to the extent that,” an expression that introduces a speculative and indeterminate idea. By concatenating two unrelated speculations, she creates the rhetorical illusion of equivalence or even of cause and effect. In this case it allows her to reveal an “opportunity.” But she hasn’t justified either proposition and even less the relationship (non-existent) between them. The opportunity this chopped logic permits is simply the censure she seeks to impose on the language ordinary people use.

At another point, she says: “I think in a lot of cases, people aren’t really thinking that the expression conveys that kind of racism or misogyny.” Her point is clear: She thinks, whereas other “people” don’t think. With a more scientific approach, she might seek to explore why people don’t think what she thinks rather than supposing that they aren’t thinking. She may be right about their ignorance, but it may also emerge that she has misconstrued their and the language’s reality.

Undoubtedly, Syrett starts with a noble intention. She wants to protect the victims of a truly oppressive system, even when the victims may not realize they are being oppressed. She believes language can be more secure by hiding reality. It must rid itself of anything that might, in her words, “marginalize and hurt other people.” The best way to do that is to scold those who fail to conform to the findings of her science.

Historical Note

Syrett’s approach is a perfect example of the decades-long trend in academe of the phenomenon known as critical theory. The first half of the 20th century produced a vibrant intellectual current called structuralism. It originated in the field of linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure) and anthropology (Claude Lévy-Strauss) and offered insight into how societies and the cultures they produced were structured as complex interdependent systems. 

In the mid-20th century, a disparate group of French linguists, philosophers, psychoanalysts and literary critics influenced by structuralism set about “deconstructing” the relationships between ideas, practices, language and modes of thought, from penal systems and sexuality (Michel Foucault) to popular entertainment and advertising (Roland Barthes). The chief deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida, denied the fundamental stability of meaning itself, which could only be a function of context. The ongoing dialogue of these thinkers, all of whom wrote in French, contains subtle and complex reflection on how human knowledge is created, managed and transmitted. 

Alas, when this body of discourse crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 1960s and 1970s, it lost something in translation. A strange mutation took place as academics labelled it “critical theory.” It appealed to humanities departments in the US who felt the need to show their concern with social issues. Because thinkers such as Michel Foucault offered insight into how cultural artifacts could reflect and support dominant worldviews and ideologies, American academics neglected its focus on the structural complexity of cultural and political ecosystems and instead seized on it as of method of assigning criminal intent to those who exercised power and oppressed minorities. 

From the French post-structuralist perspective, this hijacking of the intellectual toolbox contributed little to our understanding of the societies past and present but served to reveal systemic features of US society and culture. If the French took delight in detecting the complex play of influences within a cultural system, American academics turned the method into a polarizing game of blame and victimization. Where the French thinkers saw intricate resonances that supported morally ambiguous social and political hierarchies, American academics saw arbitrary acts of personal abuse.

Embed from Getty Images

A French structuralist or post-structuralist observing this historical trend among intellectuals today might remark on the continuity in American society between the early Puritans’ insistence on dividing the world into the just and the unjust — those predestined by God to be among the virtuous and those condemned to sin. This cultural trend underlies the current obsession with separating society into two groups: innocent victims (any specific minority group) and evil oppressors. An aggressive system of identity politics has become the dominant ideology of the mainstream Democratic Party. It opposes the equally aggressive Republican insistence on defending “the shining city on the hill,” essentially a metaphor for white privilege.

The rise of puritanical linguistic despotism can be traced back to World War I when sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” to protect American ears from German words. The tradition was perpetuated and even aggravated after George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq when the White House punished Jacques Chirac’s disloyal France by renaming French fries “freedom fries.” 

If liberty cabbage had some legitimacy because it was meant to spare people using a word from the enemy’s language, Bush’s initiative went further. France, after all, was not the enemy, except in the sense implied by Bush when he asserted in September 2001 that “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” When France refused to line up behind his government in what President Chirac correctly deemed a deceitful and murderous enterprise, Bush undoubtedly saw France as an ally of the terrorists.

That helps to situate the common thread between Syrett’s assault on “master bedrooms” and US foreign policy. It’s all about identifying, shaming and, when possible, banishing the culprit.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member