How Progressivism Has Evolved by Redefining Words
One of the hallmarks of the new religion (Progressivism) that is the focus of this article is how it redefines words. It has created a new dictionary. John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview puts it this way: “We use the same words, but different dictionaries.”
Some of the most important words in the English language have been redefined over the past 50 years. Words like marriage, freedom, love, compassion, and justice have taken on a new, culturally accepted meaning. According to Os Guinness, “there has been a subtle shift in the meaning of many Western ideas, so that once-strong Jewish and Christian (words) are now used in different ways that decisively change their meaning.”
Why is this important? Because words matter. Words have the power to convey truth and help us rightly understand reality. Words and language are the basic building blocks of culture, and healthy, flourishing cultures are built on the truth. Vacating words of their meaning turns out to be incredibly destructive.
We can look, for example, at the word “violence” that was briefly discussed in previous chapters. According to the older dictionary, violence involves physical attack or abuse. The new dictionary defines violence as speech or language that is taken by a member of a self-described victim group to be hurtful or offensive. Paradoxically, this new definition has become a justification for acting out violently, as defined by the old dictionary.
So, violence is justified when it “ensures safety.” Safety from what? From the “violence” of being exposed to offensive speech and language. This is free speech madness and a most un-sapient point of view.
Calling the speech and language of your opponents, not merely offensive, but “violent” is a way of appealing to emotions in order to prevail. Most people intuitively know that violence against innocent people is profoundly wrong, unjust, and even criminal.
The proponents of the new religion cleverly leverage this sentiment, and then twist it. Claiming that your opponent’s speech is “violent” becomes an effective way of silencing them.
The problem is that the word “violence” is perverted in the process. People slowly lose a sense of its true meaning. Where does this perversion of language lead? What happens to a society when its people cavalierly redefine words in an effort to accrue power and silence opponents?
If offensive speech is now described as “violent,” and violent acts have historically been illegal and criminal, it begs the question: Will certain speech now become illegal and speakers criminalized as well? Yes, it’s already happening!
Postmodernist View of Words
Postmodernism, which holds that there is no objective, transcendent truth, or reality. Reality is “constructed” though words and language. Words have no objective meaning, but only a meaning that individuals or groups bring to them. According to Guinness, “Postmodern philosophies have untethered words from any clear content, let alone objective meaning, and can be used in any way the speaker likes.”
This is sometimes referred to as “deconstructionism,” a postmodern view of language championed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and concisely described in the ramblings of Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Winston Churchill observed: “words, which are on proper occasions the most powerful engines, lose their weight and power and value when they are not backed by fact or winged by truth.”
Add to this postmodern view of language an overlay of Marxist social analysis, which sees the world as a zero-sum competition between “victims” and “oppressors.” The “oppressors” use language to create a “reality” that is imposed upon so-called victims– often without them being aware of it– as a means of maintaining power and privilege. The “victims” can liberate themselves by “unmasking” these socially constructed realities.
Today, this form of Marxist thought is widely taught on college campuses under the rubric of Critical Theory. Critical Theory studies have mushroomed in the English, history, and social science departments of Western universities since the 1960s, completely replacing the older study of Western Civilization.
Words Are No Longer About Truth
Add to this the Nietzschean will to power, which seeks to manipulate or coerce others into using new definitions—even leveraging the power of the state as a means of attaining cultural supremacy. Now you begin to see the approach of the new religious orthodoxy towards language. Words are no longer a means of communicating truth. They are tools to control others, and ultimately to become master.
What kind of society emerges from the student’s worldview assumption about group identity? Is it any surprise that we are experiencing ever-increasing social fragmentation, racial tension, and even hostility? Can there be any basis for unity—for America’s founding creed, “E Pluribus Unum” –if the new religion fully replaces Judeo-Christian assumptions at the core of the culture?
We are already seeing troubling signs. On college campuses, black students are self-segregating. Other identity groups are following suit. In the past, our schools and universities taught “American history,” but increasingly, this is being replaced with “black history” or “female history,” or “gay and lesbian history.” There is no single history we share. Any attempt to teach one is an act of cultural imperialism. Cultural madness!