MONTREAL — The news spread around the world: Canada had just changed the English version of its national anthem, replacing the line "in all thy sons command" with "in all of us command." Why? To make it gender neutral of course.
Officially, and in order to reduce the significance of this change, they pretend it's a simple return to the original version of "O Canada." But they're not fooling anybody. The people who spent years campaigning for the national anthem to be rewritten did so explicitly as part of the "fight against sexism."
And it's no surprise that their fight should lead to victory now, under the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who hails the reform as a step in the fight for equality between the sexes. Canada thus confirms its reputation as a model country in the pursuit of diversity ideals. Step by step, it seeks to shed its old skin and be reborn as a new nation, free from all discriminations.
But there are also skeptics. For them, the change of lyrics is yet another example of politically correct posturing, one that will only encourage the most radical activists to push their advantage to modify other collective symbols they deem anachronistic. Unchecked, this kind of symbolic reengineering is unstoppable, because there will always be an interest group that feels offended and demands that one word be replaced with another, or that one statue associated with a period of time they no longer identify with be taken down.
The change of lyrics is yet another example of politically correct posturing.
As chance would have it, around the same time as the updated "O Canada" was adopted, Trudeau himself gave an extreme example of what political correctness can be. During a town hall event in Alberta, he corrected a young woman for using the dubious word "mankind." Never mind that it's actually a very common term. The prime minister immediately interrupted the woman and suggested she use the word "peoplekind" instead — because "it's more inclusive."
The video went viral in the English-speaking world, provoking cruel hilarity and an appropriate feeling of exasperation at the same time. Trudeau even had to try and pretend it was a joke, though naturally, nobody believed him.
A logic of purification
So what's next? Should we then erase from the vocabulary all trace of masculinity, as some French ecologists demanded a few months ago when they asked that the word "patrimoine" (patrimony, which also means heritage in French) be replaced with "matrimoine"? The trend isn't new, of course. In the span of a few years, in Quebec, blind people (aveugles) have become visually-impaired (non-voyants, literally non-seeing) and dwarves (nains) have become little people (personnes de petite taille).
Language has lost its descriptive function. Instead it's become a battlefield, where new power struggles take place. Using a word that's been banned or simply deemed old-fashioned can be costly for a male politician, because he would show, even without noticing it, that he belongs to the ancient world, which is unforgivable. This ideological dynamic also complicates things for average citizens, who feel they can't say anything anymore, to reuse the conventional phrasing.
But let's look beyond Canada to think in broader terms. Fundamentally, we are faced with a logic of purification. Its supporters imagine a world that's too white, too masculine, too Western, and make it their mission to deconstruct it, to destroy it even, so that historically marginalized groups are visible in public representations. That is what's at stake, for instance, with "inclusive writing," which caused a stir a few months ago in France and continues to gain ground even if the media has lost interest. In other words, what's left of yesterday's world is a scandal.
The 20th century taught us that the ideologization of language is often a symptom of totalitarian temptation.
One can only imagine what would happen to "La Marseillaise" — France's national anthem — if it was forced through the "inclusive" wringer. We can't accept our place in history, it seems. Instead we denounce everything that came before our time. In this era, emancipation means tearing oneself away from what's already here and banning anything from tradition that doesn't confirm its own prejudice.
Losing touch with reality
The 20th century taught us that the ideologization of language is often a symptom of totalitarian temptation. And in the pro-diversity and neo-feminist orthodoxy currently imposing itself in every corner of the Western world, that temptation clearly exists. It's impossible to reread Orwell's 1984 and not feel dread as you find in the book several of the most distinctive and detestable character traits of our time.
The supporters of this newspeak control the meaning of words, discredit more and more of them, and, more importantly, keep tabs on those who don’t adopt the new vocabulary with ostentatious enthusiasm. The inspectors of the media flow are always on the lookout for any potential verbal misstep, and they hand out ideological tickets to anyone who strays from the corridor of correct thought. The intellectual must always be careful not to hurt the new catechism: just read The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Miloscz, the great Polish thinker.
By reinventing words, by bleaching them, they think they're cleansing the language from the past. But all they're really doing is help construct a new regime. For people in the diversity camp, for example, the newspeak includes terms like "radicalized communities" and "non-mixed workshops." The words are supposed to be inclusive, but instead have the opposite effect: They contribute to a suffocating universe that prevents us from naming reality and censors it by all means possible; a parallel universe that condemns us to living in a fantasy world where changing the meaning of words is enough to give birth to a better world.