Mulhall column: Orwell’s ominous kangaroo
“‘Who controls the present controls the past,’ said O’Brien, nodding his head with slow approval. ‘Is it your opinion, Winston, that the past has real existence?’”
— George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”
I often hear it said, “Words matter.” As a student of literature, former English teacher and occasional columnist, I sigh at a usage error — audibly when it’s mine. Even more, however, I loathe bad ideas and try to avoid them. To this end, the present federal government helps.
Years ago, I hosted a big party in my backyard. People came from all over. Some hours into the event, a new acquaintance chatted me up about her grandson. She described him as precocious and pointed out the fair-haired lad rollicking about the backyard. Then she beckoned him to come over and asked him to tell me what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“Why Mr. Mulhall,” the boy said, “I’m going to be a kangaroo.”
I nodded solicitously and fought to keep eyebrows off my forehead as the boy hopped off to resume play. Then I turned to his doting grandmother.
“Surely,” I commiserated, “he’ll outgrow this idea in time.”
She recoiled as though I had a third eye and stomped off in a snit.
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell used a mathematical axiom as a benchmark for truth. As Winston Smith explores his thoughts in the privacy of his tiny room, he writes in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.” When O’Brien discovers Winston has his own views, he takes Winston to room 101 of the Ministry of Love for a torturous re-education. Afterward, Winston sits in the Chestnut Tree Café tracing “2+2=5” in the dust on his restaurant table.
Last May the attorney general and Department of Justice mandated access to public school restrooms, locker rooms and showers based on the gender with which an individual identifies, which may not be the sex “assigned” at birth. According to the DOJ, enforcing bathroom access on the basis of birth assignment, or biological sex, violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Now, the Supreme Court will hear G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board on this matter.
Whether you agree with the administration, English words like man and woman connote gender as a matter of physiological reality. This DOJ declaration redefines gender as a psychological groundwork. It’s fair to say this governance may impact many of the gender-specific words we use every day.
In my lifetime, there have been many changes in English framed by this sort of political proposition.
In the mid-1960s, many argued English not only reflected sexual inequality, it encouraged it. Why? For one, men were referred to as Mr. while women were Mrs. or Miss, depending on marital status. To remedy this, Ms. gained acceptance for women of both marital states.
Similarly, the suffix -man, as in fireman and spokesman, gave way to firefighter and spokesperson, even if the original word more accurately reflected reality.
An intense disdain developed for the automatic use of the male pronouns he, his and him when gender was unknown or unimportant. This, I think, at least had the potential to increase linguistic accuracy. Instead what emerged were awkward gender inclusive preposition/pronoun unions like he or she, and the bastardization of the plural pronoun they.
A favorite of mine is the compositional lowering of the initial capital letter when a pronoun refers to God. Before feminism called into question the divine’s gender identity and secularism made it insolent to write about a higher power, capitalizing a male pronoun showed respect.
I don’t know what linguistic changes the DOJ’s pronouncement portends, and I won’t offer any, but while on the surface such changes are a minor annoyance — English adapts nicely to knee-jerk placations without compromising its essential function — these changes go beyond amelioration.
In 1949, George Orwell sent Aldous Huxley a copy of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” accompanied by a letter. In reply Huxley wrote:
“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”
— Aldous Huxley, letter to George Orwell, Oct. 21, 1949
In this excerpt, Huxley predicts a time when conditioning obviates force in achieving government compliance.
Which is more discourteous: to tell a boy who thinks he’s a kangaroo he’s not, or to mandate that everyone accommodate his thinking?
The former may seem harsh, but what of the latter? What purpose does it serve to encourage mass acceptance of an idea that bears an imperceptible resemblance to reality?
When government steers what we think and affects the words we speak and write, the past does not exist — no force needed.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.
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