Sapir-Whorf In The Saddle

     If you’re unfamiliar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, it’s time to get acquainted with it:

     Linguistic relativity, sometimes called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism, is a hypothesis in linguistics and cognitive science that holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. The strong version claims that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. The weak version claims that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and decisions.

     The hypothesis evolved from work by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The hypothesis has influenced disciplines beyond linguistics, including philosophy, neurobiology, anthropology, psychology and sociology. The hypothesis’ origin, definition and applicability have been controversial since first outlined. It has come in and out of favor and remains contested as research continues across these domains.

     An early allusion to this thesis, albeit not by any of the above names, appears in 1984:

     “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

     At this time, one of the Left’s major tactics for attaining its sociopolitical goals is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

     A professional education consultant and teacher trainer argued at the White Privilege Conference (WPC) in Philadelphia that great teachers must also be liberal activists, and described in detail her goal for destroying the “white supremacist” nature of modern education.

     Heather Hackman operates Hackman Consulting Group and was formerly a professor of multicultural education at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, where she taught future teachers. On Friday, Hackman was given a platform at WPC to deliver a workshop with the lengthy title “No Freedom Unless We Call Out the Wizard Behind The Curtain: Critically Addressing the Corrosive Effects of Whiteness in Teacher Education and Professional Development.” The long title masked a simple thesis on Hackman’s part: Modern education is hopelessly tainted by white supremacy and the “white imperial gaze,” and the solution is to train prospective teachers in college to be activists as well as pedagogues.

     In fact, Hackman argued teachers shouldn’t even bother teaching if they aren’t committed to promoting social justice in school.

     Isn’t the connection clear? By associating the behaviors required to learn what is being taught with ugly concepts – “white supremacism,” “the white imperial gaze,” and so forth – Miss Hackman hopes to render actual examination of minorities’ relative lack of scholastic accomplishment impossible. A bit like Orwell’s Newspeak, in which serious discussion of the rights Thomas Jefferson enumerated in the Declaration of Independence is impossible because it’s been labeled crimethink.

     Sapir-Whorf linguistic tactics are important for another reason as well: if the perversion of language is directed toward rendering particular concepts immoral, it sanctifies the use of violence to suppress those who would dare to speak of them, much less act on them. And as we have seen in recent years, leftists are growing ever more ready to use violence to prevent the discussion of concepts unfriendly to their aims.

     There is, however, a fly in the ointment: Reality is not shaped by the terms we use to describe or discuss it. No matter what anyone says about it, it remains what it is. Only attitudes can be molded linguistically – and only the attitudes of the stupid, ignorant, or easily led.

     The prevailing attitude on the Left, regardless of whether we speak of the stratgists, the activists, or the unthinking sheep, is one of moral superiority toward the rest of us. Thomas Sowell has called this “an assumption of differential rectitude.” Its circularity should immediately be apparent: “We are morally superior because we are left-liberals; we are left-liberals because we are morally superior.” They have no other argument for their self-flattering stance.

     That stance is impossible to separate from Leftist linguistic practices. It was first necessary to define certain attitudes as inherently virtuous, entirely apart from their conformance or nonconformance with reality. That made it possible to condemn anyone who holds such attitudes. That automatically ennobles those who condemn and work against them.

     In a tangentially related essay, Andrew Klavan makes an interesting observation:

     In a veiled reference to Trump at a recent lunch on Capitol Hill, President Obama declared he was “dismayed” at the “vulgar and divisive rhetoric” being heard on the campaign trail. “In America, there is no law that says we have to be nice to each other, or courteous, or treat each other with respect,” the president said. “But there are norms. There are customs.”

     Are there? When I hear this sort of thing from Obama and his fellow leftists, what I wonder is: Have they not listened to themselves for the past 50 years? Do they really have no idea how vicious, how low, how cruel, and how dishonest their attacks on the Right have been?

     No, they haven’t; and, no, they don’t. The Democrat-monopolized media, which explodes with rage at any minor unmannerliness on the right, falls so silent at the Left’s almost ceaseless acrimony that leftists are never forced to confront what despicable little Trumps they often are. [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     The emphasized evaluation is correct 95% of the time or more. It takes more self-awareness than most left-liberals can muster to reflect on the contradiction between their behavior and their “assumption of differential rectitude.” Moreover, were they compelled to confront the facts – i.e., that their practice is the opposite of what they preach – they would thrust it all away as dangerous, not to be entertained lest it taint the purity of their Cause.

     I’m moved to recount an episode from 2005, after the Christmas Tsunami devastated many Pacific populations:

     Today, during an afternoon conference that wrapped up my project of the last 18 months, one of my Euro colleagues tossed this little smart-comment out to no one in particular:
     “See, this is why George Bush is so dumb, there’s a disaster in the world and he sends an Aircraft Carrier…
     After which he and many of my Euro colleagues laughed out loud, and then they looked at me. I wasn’t laughing, and neither was my Hindi friend sitting next to me, who has lost family in the disaster.
     I’m afraid I was “unprofessional”, I let it loose -“Hmmm, let’s see, what would be the ideal ship to send to a disaster? Now what kind of ship would we want? Something with its own inexhaustible power supply? Something that can produce 900,000 gallons of fresh water a day from sea water?”
     “Something with its own airfield? So that after producing the fresh water, it could help distribute it? Something with 4 hospitals and lots of open space for emergency supplies? Something with a global communications facility to make the coordination of disaster relief in the region easier? Well ‘Franz’, we peasants in America call that kind of ship an ‘Aircraft Carrier’.”
     “We have 12 of them. How many do you have? Oh that’s right, NONE. Lucky for you and the rest of the world, we are the kind of people who share. Even with people we don’t like.”
     “In fact, if memory serves, once upon a time we peasants spent a ton of money and lives rescuing people who we had once tried to kill and who tried to kill us. Do you know who those people were? That’s right Franz, Europeans.”
     “There is a French Aircraft carrier? Where is it? Oh.. Right where it belongs! In France of course! Oh, why should the French Navy dirty their uniforms helping people on the other side of the globe. How Simplesse… The day an American has to move a European out of the way to help in some part of the world it will be a great day in the world, you sniggering little snob…”
     The room fell silent. My Hindi friend then said quietly to the Euros:
     “Can you let your hatred of George Bush end for just one minute? There are people dying! And what are your countries doing? has helped more than France has. You all have a role to play in the world, why can’t you see that? Thank God for the US Navy, they don’t have to come and help, but they are. They helped you once and you should all thank God they did. They didn’t have to, and no one but them would have done so. I’m ashamed of you all…”
     He left the room, shaking and in tears. The frustration of being on the other side of the globe, unable to do anything to assist and faced with people who could not set aside their asininity long enough to reach out and help was too much for him to bear. I just shook my head and left. The Euros stood speechless. Later in the break room, one of the laughing Euros caught me and extended his hand in an apology. I asked him where he was from, he said “a town outside of Berlin”. He is a young man, in his early 20’s. I asked him if he knew of a man named Gail Halverson. He said no. I said “that’s a shame” and walked away to find my Hindi friend.

     The first-person narrator of the above encounter “reared up on his hind legs” and poured unassailable facts upon those who had demeaned President Bush and the American response to the tsunami. The reaction from the left-leaning Europeans was virtually nonexistent. They couldn’t deal with the reality. They didn’t dare to confront the facts laid out so plainly because the consequences would be fatal to their “assumption of differential rectitude.” So they kept silent, with one honorable exception, and waited for the man who had threatened their worldview to go away.

     When Sapir and Whorf desert him, the typical left-liberal is entirely without weapons or arms. He must stand naked before reality – and reality, as history declaims most eloquently, has not been a friend to the Left.

     The Klavan essay is significant not merely for its stark delineation of Leftist rhetorical hypocrisy, but for the appropriate sort of response – the sort offered to his European colleagues by the narrator of the episode above:

     …the Left has felt blithely justified in sneering at opposing opinions it deems racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful. But it just doesn’t work. The eyes see what they see; the heart knows what it knows. Bottle up the human experience in silence, and it will ultimately break forth in rage. Thus, the result of these last 50 years of ceaseless left-wing incivility has been not a rainbow-striped paradise of social justice, but the utter collapse of our civic dialogue as the Right now responds with vulgar cruelty of its own. “Those to whom evil is done,” as the poet Auden wrote, “do evil in return.”

     You might say to me, as my mother used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” But I say to you, as I used to say to my mother, “They started it.”

     Klavan’s mother’s statement has a particle of justice…but to give true and vocal coloration to the combined viciousness and sanctimony of the Left is not unjust. It’s merely something we’ve found unpleasant and so have tried to avoid…up to now. Now, however, is when the disciples of Sapir and Whorf – whether they’re consciously or unconsciously so – must get what’s coming to them.