George Orwell wrote in 1944 that the term “fascist”—which properly describes a political and economic system—had become little more than a swearword, to be applied to any group a particular speaker didn’t like.
Trotskyites called Stalinists fascists and Stalinists called Trotskyites fascists and everyone who wasn’t a Catholic called the Pope a fascist.
“I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else”, he wrote.
What is not always remembered is that he went on to say that when an English person calls someone a fascist, it is pretty clear what they mean. They are generally saying that that person is a bully. The word may have been abused, but it was not completely meaningless.
No, I have no idea who Chiang Kai-Shek was, either.
Clearly, in the last decade, the word woke has taken on the same function as the word fascist in a lot of people’s vocabulary: a catch all swearword to apply to everything that the speaker happens not to like. I have heard it applied to cubicles in men’s public toilets; the Last Jedi; the European Court of Human Rights; non-dairy milk, and I know not what else. [*]
But—like the word fascist—it is not entirely devoid of meaning. Tony Blair (PBUH) was correct to say that ordinary people know what they mean by it.
If a schoolboy calls his PE teacher a fascist, we get that he thinks the teacher is mean and authoritarian. If he thought the teacher was weedy and effeminate, he would call him something else. If he draws a cartoon in the school paper in which a man wearing an SS uniform is saying “Ve haff vays of making you fit: ze cold showers and ze cross country run in your UNDERWEAR” we would understand the target of the satire. We don’t really think that he really thinks that compulsory rugger lessons are part of a wider plot to annex the Sudetenland.
The problem comes when PE Nazi becomes part of our mental toolkit: when we can’t think of gym classes without thinking of Swastikas. When people start to say “Sports lessons should be abolished because paramilitary groups who believe in the superiority of the Aryan race meet in secret bunkers to invent new ways of giving fat kids a hard time” then rational discourse has come to an end.
But it may still be true that Mr Hicks was a rotten teacher. And, indeed, a bully.
Someone put a little cartoon on Twitter. In the olden days, it said, on the first day of term, teacher said “I hope you enjoyed your summer vacation. Let’s do some maths.” Now, it asserted, on the first day of term, teacher says “Communism good. Capitalism bad. There are seventeen genders.” A very wise man retweeted the cartoon, adding that most American parents do not understand that this is the literal truth.
Fascist, communist and woke are often merely figures of speech; and that’s fine. The problem comes when the figure of speech becomes the thing you actually believe. You call Mr Hicks a fascist because you don’t like him: you don’t like Mr Hicks because he is a fascist. You call Keir Starmer a communist because he wants to tax high pollution vehicles; you don’t agree with a pollution tax because Keir Starmer is a communist.
You might, I suppose, declare that from now on the word communist refers to any system of taxation, so anyone who believes in increased taxation is a communist by definition. You might announce that the word fascist is defined as “the belief that fourth-former’s should run three laps of the playing field on Tuesday afternoons, even if it is raining”. But that’s merely a kind of lexical inflation. If you declare that infinite means big then mathematicians will need a new word when they actually want to talk about infinity.
If a 1980s student union politician had called Margaret Thatcher a Nazi, we would understand them to be saying that she was “very right wing” and that being very right wing was very bad.
Since we knew that left wing student union politicians thought that right wing people were bad, this didn’t convey a whole lot of information. And that particular rhetorical tick never became mainstream: it was the province of Neil on the Young Ones as opposed to Guardian leader writers.
There would have been no point, in the 1980s, in saying that Michael Foot was left wing because he supported the Trades Unions. Everyone knew he supported the Trades Unions. And everyone knew that he was left wing. If you thought that Michael Foot was a wrong ‘un, you would have had to at least go through the motions of explaining why you thought organised labour was a Bad Thing.
But the vast incantatory power of the w-word is that it yokes the two concepts, left-ness and wrong-ness together. The logic goes like this:
*All left wing opinions are woke.
*All woke opinions are left wing.
*All woke opinions are wrong.
*Therefore all left wing opinions are wrong
*And more excitingly: therefore all wrong opinions are left wing.
Ironically, George Orwell’s name is one of the words which has been reduced to a swear which can be applied to anyone you don’t like. But if it hadn’t been, I should be incline to describe the incantatory use of the W-word as Owellian.
[*] This week it was "woke" that the makes of the Simpsons lampshaded the fact that they had stopped using the visual gag about Homer strangling Bart
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