Travel, trade and learning created a market for bi-lingual dictionaries over five hundred years ago. It took an early 17th century teacher to see the need for a ‘hard-words’ dictionary and it wasn’t until the 18th century that general purpose dictionaries – as we now know them – came into being. In the 19th century, the editor of what became the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED), established a reading programme to gather quotations. This reading programme approach continues to be used today as the principal method of assembling revision material for dictionaries.
In 2020, the reading programmes led OED and Merriman-Webster to each add approximately 500 new words to their dictionaries, while Dictionary.com added 650 words. More strikingly however this latter dictionary revised around 11,000 existing word definitions! That is a lot of definitional change especially when one considers that the average English speaker knows about 40,000 words and only uses around half of these.
A great many of the definitional changes address topics such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, health and wellness, reflecting a cultural change that is taking place before our very eyes. Within days of prominent US figures adopting woke stances, Dictionary.com’s reading programme had revised definitions to hand. The dictionary even advertises that it can provide weekly LGBQTIA language updates. It says that the recent definitional changes are intended to eliminate language that implies moral judgment or that incorporates historical prejudice.
And so, an instrument which was designed to report change as viewed through language usage is now in the process of effecting cultural change, by telling us what we should mean when we say something.
Even our capacity to say meaningful somethings is under threat. Social media has its own thought-police correcting platform postings in the name of fact-checking, with penalties such as demonetising or delisting for perceived offenders.
Cancel culture; no-platforming; PC language; the demonising of opposition; book-burning; micro-aggressions; safe spaces; trigger warnings; hate speech laws; abuse of terminology such as racist, homophobe, fascist, and far-right; persons of privilege; reverse racism; diversity training and unconscious bias are all new terms or actions associated with limiting the ordinary person’s capacity to comment freely on the changing culture. Cries that the new cultural emperor may not have any clothes are not to be tolerated, and certainly won’t be amplified.
Western society has reached a stage where ‘liberals’ talk about placing limitations on free speech as a way of enhancing peoples’ freedom!
How could such a turnaround happen in a liberal democracy? How could free capitalist societies begin to eerily look like a return to the old Pravda days of the Soviet Union where truth was unknown and the lie was all-pervasive?
Flashback to the fall of the wall
Western self-satisfaction knew no bounds when a variety of political, cultural and religious circumstances led to the 1989-fall of the Berlin Wall, the drawing back of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent melting away of the Marxist grip on Europe and the USSR. American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, was soon proclaiming the ‘end of history’ with the dissolution of communism and the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy – the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution.
Pope John Paul II, a major protagonist of that historical change, showed that he did not fully share in the satisfaction. In 1991, he wrote in Centesimus Annus that a fundamental flaw of Marxism lay in its concept of the human person and the ‘spiritual void’ that communism created in seeking to ‘uproot the need for God from the human heart.’
He also roundly criticised capitalism. While speaking favourably of market economies, he criticised the materialist consumer culture of capitalism. For him, democracy and the free economy were not machines that can properly function left to themselves. The absence of an underlying moral culture was their Achilles’ heel.
The heart of the matter
Modern, capitalist, secular societies are not all that different than the communism they once loudly decried. The mechanisms of politics and economics function differently in each system but they both share in a materialistic culture. Both systems believe in the myth of progress, that we are on an unstoppable march to a better world, and that Utopia is possible. Both accept the technological mindset of self-sufficiency and both reject the need for an outside God to help set moral standards. Modern secular society – the first home of capitalism – much like communism, has cut God adrift, not realising that for society and the market to function effectively actually requires God.
What we most admire and appreciate in our western politics and economics we owe to Christian society, the cradle from which democracy and the free market economy have emerged. The equal dignity of all humans lies at the heart of democratic structures. The freedoms which derive from our dignity as human persons are usually acknowledged as fundamental inalienable freedoms and are fully recognised in a democratic society. These include freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, religious freedom, and freedom of the press. The right to hold private property forms a foundation for the free market economy and is directly associated with the prosperity achieved in liberal democracies. The rule of law, which has its roots in Christian morality and the existence of objective right and wrong, applies equally to all, thus helping to ensure that justice prevails.
These freedoms derive meaning from their Christian origins. Without such pre-political foundations, democracy becomes a machine functioning along strictly materialist and rational lines. It becomes a hollowed-out version of what it was meant to be, reduced to formal rules, absent of an allegiance to any principles. It is reduced to a straightforward deal between individual citizens and the state. The state will deliver peace, with democracy and freedoms secured by majority voting. Any constitution which forms part of the deal will be totally subject to the will of the judicial interpreters. In the absence of God, a modern positivist view dominates: only objectively measurable realities are true – thus human dependency on God is unacceptable – and the myth of constant human progress holds sway.
Western liberal society’s flight from God over the past seventy years is now clearly bearing fruit. The machinery of politics and economics, shorn of Christian culture, expose the limitations of the materialism that remains, displaying symptoms which were believed only to be hallmarks of a communist past.
Liberal control of free speech begins to look like what was known in the past as Pravda. The alterations in language echo Orwell’s 1984 totalitarian critique. The left-leaning billionaires at the heart of the incoming US government, make it look uncannily like the billionaire families who control China under the guise of the Chinese Communist Party. Western workplaces match those of communist societies, closely identifying themselves with specific politico-social causes and requiring staff to suppress their own religious and moral convictions. The morality police of the Mao-Chinese villages now patrol the corridors of multinational giants. In their haste to put a tempestuous era behind, the disregard within mainstream American media for the niceties of democratic elections suggest that when it comes to choosing political leaders it is the result that counts, not the mechanisms used to achieve it.
What can one do?
Liberal democracy and the market economy need to overcome their practical denial of God and their elevation of matter over spirit. These urgently need to acknowledge their Christian cultural underpinnings if western society’s traditional understanding of freedom is to prevail.
As the left and the right now merge into one, is there anything that the individual Christian can do? The pressure to go with the flow, and not rock the boat – in a direction with which one disagrees – can be enormous. Is there really a choice?
Apart from respecting one’s own integrity, the higher stakes that are involved require that one always be ready to resist the lie.
For Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose writings played a major role in ending communist hegemony in USSR/Russia, it was important that one did not acquiesce to a lie, nor give the impression that one did. For him, only in this way was the power of the lie diminished. In the 1970s, Solzhenitsyn believed that ‘In our country, the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.’ And for him, the antidote lay in resistance: ‘and the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. Though lies conceal everything, though lies embrace everything, but not with any help from me.’
As dictionary editors know, the lie can also now be easily embedded in the word. So, as we look to 2021, let us resolve to eschew the lie and seek to be true men and women of our word.