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Censorship by Language Reform

If the word "Mankind" is objectionable because of its masculinity, "Humankind" is no better.

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

April 5, 2010 - 12:05 am

In his essay on the liberty of the press, the great philosopher David Hume wrote what has been many times quoted, but has never achieved the status of a cliché:

It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.

I think this is borne out pretty well by our current experience. Freedom is being nibbled away in the name of justice, security, well-being, and even of freedom itself, that is to say true freedom, not the merely apparent kind — for nothing is easier for power-hungry intellectuals to justify than the coercion that they favor to bring about true freedom.

However, Hume goes on to say something that seems to me not to be quite true:

But if the liberty of the press ever be lost, it must be lost at once.

He says this because he assumes that the only serious threat to freedom of the press comes from a despotic government desirous of imposing centralized censorship of what appears in print, and which it is be able to do by fiat. This is not so; there are other, subtler threats to press freedom.

I have noticed that whenever I used the word “Mankind” in an article, it emerges in the printed version, without my permission, as “Humankind,” a word I despise as both ugly and sanctimonious. (In the Oxfam shop round the corner from where I live there is a poster with a slogan that nauseates me: “Thankyou for Being Humankind.”) The change is made with such regularity, and in so many publications, that the government might as well have decreed it, though in fact it has not. There is, presumably, a monstrous regiment of sub-editors at work, all of like mind.

Of course the change lacks logic. If Mankind is objectionable because of its masculinity, Humankind is no better. It still contains the dread word, or should I say syllable, “man.” Nor would “Hupersonkind” be better, because of the masculinity of the syllable “son.” To eradicate all sexism from the word, it should be “Huperoffspringkind.” This is clearly ridiculous. But censorship by language reform is not a matter of logic, it is a matter of power. As Humpty Dumpty said, it is a question of who is to be master (if one may still be allowed the word), that’s all.

I am not alone the victim of the monstrous regiment of sub-editors. I get to review quite a number of books published by academic presses, British and American, and I have found that the use of the impersonal “she” is now almost universal, even when the writer is aged and is most unlikely to have chosen this locution for himself (or herself). It is therefore an imposed locution, and as such sinister.

I cannot say my role in resisting this tiny tyranny has been or is an heroic one. On the contrary: I now simply avoid the use of certain ways of putting things so that the question does not arise. I do not want to have a blazing argument with editors or sub-editors each time I use the word “Mankind” and it is changed without my permission, nor do I not want to stop writing altogether; and the matter, after all, is a very small one. How petty one would look to argue about it, how foolish to cut one’s nose off to spite one’s face if one refused to write any more because of it!

And so the censors have achieved a small victory. They will seek out new locutions to conquer.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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