It’s been more than three weeks since the city of Berkeley announced its now infamous word ban, causing a media frenzy that took days to calm down. In today’s climate, where the lifespan of outrage news is measured in hours, it’s quite an achievement.
The authors of the new ordinance explained that eliminating gendered language from the city’s municipal code would “promote equality.” The city’s laws are for everyone, City Council member Rigel Robinson said, and should accurately represent women and non-binary individuals as well.
Unsurprisingly, the media reaction that ensued could only be described as berserk. Both left and right media outlets gave the matter serious coverage – the former to celebrate its importance for social justice, and the latter to mock its absurdity.
It’s clear that the goal of the ban was to incite a powerful reaction and cause division among political parties, which is why many moderates and apolitical people dismissed it as just another insignificant social justice fad. But, something sinister lies beneath, and it’s time it got called by its real name.
Blinded by the short bursts of power they get when they claim wins like this, many people on the far left fail to see the historical connection between the social justice movement and the early years of communism. Both were created to fight the inequalities they thought were rampant in society and give more power to the oppressed and underrepresented.
While these are good intentions, history has shown that, more often than not, they pave the road to hell.
In 1958, Edward Táborský, the former Czechoslovak Ambassador to Sweden, wrote a pamphlet titled “Conformity Under Communism: A Study of Indoctrination Techniques.” In the pamphlet, Táborský recalls how the Soviet Communist Party began a campaign of canceling out all residues of western influence from the freshly occupied Czechoslovakia.
Content broadcast on local radio stations was carefully edited to mock pro-western stations such as the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Religious stories told on Christmas and Easter were banned from being told at schools. Then, after these meticulously planned, nuanced changes, came the big blow – word bans.
Táborský said that even the banalest and quotidian aspects of life had to be restructured to fit the new communist order. Words like ‘Chateaubriand,’ ‘rump steak Jackson’, and even ‘ham-and-eggs’ had been chastised as “relics of feudalistic times” and banned from menus across the country. The communists believed that culinary delicacies named after statesmen and artists were created for and used by a generation that had no place in their new, progressive system.
All around Europe, the newly socialist countries were also implementing bans of their own. The moderately communist Yugoslavia was the poster child for a utopian federation, one where differences in gender, race, nationality, and cultural identity were also being removed with the introduction of a progressive new vocabulary.
Words like director, officer, professor, and entrepreneur were replaced by a more inclusive “comrade” everywhere from radio broadcasts and news articles to federal laws. Those words, the communist party argued, described a hierarchy that deliberately excluded and discriminated against the working class.
Carefully replacing words with their more inclusive and progressive variations was only the first step. In Czechoslovakia, it was followed by the creation of a police force focused on censoring literature and arts. In the Soviet Union, it enabled the interior ministry to imprison and murder millions of people for their anti-communist ideas and protests.
While mass arrests of those insisting on saying “sorority” instead of “Collegiate Greek system residence” are unlikely to happen, even in a place like Berkeley, censoring words will open a Pandora’s box of disasters.
The gender-neutral language initiative in Berkeley is dangerously similar to the class-neutral language initiative Europe saw in the 1950s. While it ‘s still too early to say the Berkeley initiative is “brainwashing,” it has the potential to get there. Saying certain words are discriminatory or derogatory creates artificial problems that an ideologically-possessed mind will automatically accept. The Soviets did the same thing in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. Táborský called this “weakening the mental resistance of the victim.”
The only defense from an ideological infestation is language, and stripping people of their power to use certain words prevents them from fighting back. And while few will fight for their right to say the word “manhole” instead of the mandated “maintenance hole,” it’s the microscopic changes like these that have the potential to strip them of their freedom to fight at all.