The Obfuscation Is the Point | Samuel Rubinstein
A debating society at my university, with which I have previously enjoyed a passing involvement, annually holds a competition exclusively for women. Those who balk at this instance of sex-based segregation have clearly never suffered the company of male undergraduate debaters. For the last few years, however, the name of this competition has itself been subject to intense debate. As recently as 2019, it was known simply and unpretentiously as the ‘Women’s Open’ – but then, in the spirit of inclusivity, it was transformed into the ‘Wom*n’s and Gender Minorities’ Open’. I am unsure of the function of the asterisk, and what it achieves that the clunky phrase ‘gender minorities’ does not; likewise, I find it peculiar that those who rail against the ‘gender binary’ have erected a new binary in its place, of ‘cis men’ and ‘not cis men’, wherein ‘women’ (or ‘wom*n’) are shoved into what is, in effect, a miscellaneous category. It is especially perplexing that this development has arisen in the debating community which, at least notionally, prizes clear language above all else. But the name of a debating competition is a rather trivial matter, and if it does make its participants happier and more comfortable – which it might – then I shall expend no energy in resisting it.
Yet this shift in nomenclature arose after a period of intense discussion, and the fruits of that discussion are hardly set in stone. I suspect that the discussion will continue, and that the current name will become outmoded in a few years. Such is the course of nature. All it will take is a single (marginalised) individual to express dissatisfaction, or to expose its implications as ‘problematic’ or ‘exclusionary’ in some way, and then the name will be replaced by something newer, better, and probably even more of a mouthful. In the same vein, it is surely only a matter of time before the term ‘people of colour’ will go the way of the rather similarly-sounding ‘coloured people’. I always abstain from using it precisely because I know it has a limited shelf-life; I am anxious not to let it become habit, lest I accidentally blurt it out when it is no longer the mot-du-jour. Indeed, ‘PoC’ is already commonly criticised on reasonable grounds, in arguments enunciated in the same sort of language that once gave rise to its hegemony – that it bunches together disparate ‘lived experiences’, that it presumes ‘whiteness’ as a normative default, et cetera. It is the nature of language to change and evolve, but it is a peculiarity of our modern times that we are so sensitive to how our use of language makes people feel, and so willing to change it to cater to the whims and preferences of others.
To outsiders, these changes in language can seem arbitrary and alienating: the concept of ‘gender minorities’, to return to our earlier example, is not very familiar to most people beyond the cultural milieu that dominates elite university debating, and I doubt I am alone in associating asterisks with swear words and offensiveness. Advocates for this sort of linguistic evolution will happily concede as much, arguing that clarity ought to be sacrificed for the sake of inclusivity – that it matters more to be ‘inclusive’ than it does for language to be immediately comprehensible to ordinary people. The irony, I hope, is not lost on you. But the fact that ‘inclusive’ language happens to often be, well, exclusionary, plays a greater role in its attraction to many on the left than they would care to admit. If this ‘wokeabulary’ at times seems incomprehensible, that’s because it’s supposed to be. The point isn’t clarity, and nor is it inclusivity. The obfuscation is the point.
When attempting to decipher the political cants of the day, it helps to always bear that in mind. Obscure jargon is the beating heart of ‘wokery’. Obfuscation, as debaters know well, can be a very potent tool. Let us consider, for example, one of the defining slogans of our age, embraced by hundreds of corporations and adorning T-Shirts everywhere: ‘trans rights are human rights’. What exactly does this mean? Its genius, and thus its ubiquity, owes to the fact that it is ambiguous by design. It is a motte-and-bailey device, mischievously distilled into five simple words. It has one easily defensible meaning, the ‘motte’, which even the most egregious TERF on Mumsnet – even J.K. Rowling herself – wouldn’t attack: that people who identify as transgender, since they are human, are entitled to ‘human rights’, and thus shouldn’t be disenfranchised, say, or subjected to torture. That ought to sound rather innocuous and banal. But then there’s the ‘bailey’, the more contentious interpretation, which defines ‘trans rights’ with reference to something controversial, like gender self-identification, in order to smuggle that into a new definition of ‘human rights’. One cannot help but begrudgingly respect the sleight-of-hand. If the bailey is attacked, one can simply retreat to the motte. And since anyone who attacks the motte can reasonably be written off as a terrible person, we ought to expect everyone to utter the slogan without hesitation, bolstering the bailey all the while.
And consider another staple of Twitter discourse: ‘freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences’. It is eerily reminiscent of a chilling Idi Amin quotation: ‘you have freedom of speech, but freedom after speech I cannot guarantee you’. But the woke version is delicately repackaged as another motte-and-bailey. As a free speech zealot, I find the motte of this slogan thoroughly inoffensive, and indeed would go even further, by saying that freedom of speech entails consequences: just as I have the freedom to say something offensive, others have the freedom to denounce me, and to refuse to associate with me altogether. To dispute this is to attack the freedom of speech at its foundations. Yet, quite commonly, those who utter this asinine phrase are – like Idi Amin – thinking of legal consequences (wherein the bailey): they believe, as many young people in the UK do, that more speech ought to be legally prohibited. But legally-prohibited speech is, by definition, not free. Of course, we technically have the freedom – that is, the ability – to say whatever we like: people in Stalinist Russia were capable of condemning their regime; Iranians can, if they so wish, use their tongue and their vocal cords to insult the Ayatollah. But they are not free, precisely because of the ‘consequences’ that they risk incurring in their speech, just as you are not really ‘free’ to stab someone with a kitchen knife, or mow them down with your car, even if you have the physical capacity to commit those crimes. If speech has legal consequences, it is not free in any meaningful sense. But when this contradiction is pointed out, those who subscribe to the ‘bailey’ interpretation – those who crave for the government to be a more assertive arbiter of what speech is and isn’t acceptable – can simply scurry off to their motte by saying, as I do, that freedom of speech entails a range of social and personal consequences. It is true that the online left has a penchant for ambiguous language. Yet, as these two examples show, that ambiguity is not a weakness, but an asset.
And obfuscation enables the more sanctimonious and petulant denizens of the online left to do what they most enjoy – that is, to play power games with one another. One of the reasons that ‘wokeabulary’ is so volatile, and seems to change so frequently, is that it offers an opportunity for its participants to catch each other out, trip each other up, and thereby prove their moral superiority over others. Every hackneyed commonplace of woke discourse is a shibboleth which enables individuals to assert their membership of an in-group – the ‘educated’ – at the expense of an out-group of bigoted dinosaurs. I do not doubt that many who employ this lexicon are wholeheartedly committed to social justice. But, like everyone else, they relish the sensation of being better than others, and their language gives them the power to prove exactly that. There is nothing more thrilling to the woke mind than pointing out that your peer got someone’s pronouns wrong, or didn’t capitalise the b in Black, or called it the ‘Women’s Open’ instead of the ‘Wom*n’s and Gender Minorities’ Open’, however that is supposed to be pronounced. As with high fashion, or anything deemed to be ‘cool’, it derives its potency from its fluctuating nature: the fact that fads come and go is what separates those who can keep up (and then get to feel smug about it) from those who can’t. It is not in their interests for their language to have a fixed or clear meaning. The fact that it is constantly and arbitrarily shifting is what gives it value.
You are not stupid, or uneducated, for thinking that a lot of ‘woke’ jargon is utterly meaningless. The problem isn’t that you haven’t read enough Judith Butler, or spent enough time analysing Instagram infographics. The problem isn’t that you aren’t sufficiently thoughtful or compassionate. It’s not that you’re too old or callous or sluggish. The language doesn’t make sense because it isn’t supposed to. And it’s ascendant because it doesn’t make sense.