Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that “words are loaded pistols.”
I read Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” while trying to earn one of my masters degrees, after which I wrote a seminar paper on Sprachregelungen, the language rules of Nazi Germany. Foremost among these rules was that the campaign of ethnic cleansing conducted against the Jewish community should never be referred to as extermination, execution or killing. Rather, it was to be called “die Endlösung der Judenfrage,” best translated as “the final solution to the Jewish question.”
Solutions, after all, are good—are they not? And every question deserves to be answered.
When I was first assigned to read Arendt I wasn’t sure of her relevance in the postmodern world. Hadn’t civilized society once and forever solved the problem of totalitarianism? However, since writing that paper I have always resisted attempts by those in authority to impose language rules. For example, my university wants me to call the dorm I line in a “residence hall.” I don’t. Swig Hall, where I live, is a dorm, and I’m proud to be part of the residential learning community that lives in this particular dorm. Euphemisms be damned.
Over the weekend I’ve read half a dozen news articles about the new language rules being imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In short, the CDC has been forbidden from using seven deadly words, including: “science-based,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “diversity,” and “vulnerable.”
Those words are indeed loaded pistols. They have power. So does this word: totalitarianism. We’d better start reading about it. I suggest you begin with Hannah Arendt.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature