A certain fantasy has plagued the modern American conservative movement. In this fantasy, a society of civic-minded gentlemen meet in an open forum, have debates in the purest good faith, and allow the strength of their arguments to win on any question. It is a true marketplace of ideas, and even if disagreements arise, mutual respect and civility would ensure that all perspectives were validated in some form.
As Michael Knowles makes clear in his recent book “Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds,” this fantasy has crippled conservatives again and again. In the real world, arguments are often won on the basis of the volume and force behind them, rather than on facts and logic. And no amount of free speech advocacy and appeals to classical liberalism are going to change this.
From the outset of his book, Knowles recognizes that today’s speech is less a matter of semantics and etymology and more a matter of who holds the power. He begins his descent into this war of words by quoting Humpty Dumpty from “Through the Looking Glass,” “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.” Although conservatives look at words as a means to express and hear ideas, leftists see them as tools for domination. They are not merely a reflection of reality; in many ways, they create reality.
Knowles argues that language is an assertion of standards, which is why leftists fight over it. They know if they win the game of semantics, they can set the terms and premises of any debate and thereby win every time. This is the idea behind political correctness, which “contorts language in an attempt to remake reality along leftist lines.”
Many unsuspecting conservatives see evolutions in word meanings as natural or accidental, but Knowles shows the long history and deliberation that can guide this progression. He traces this all the way back to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Unlike most Marxists of his time, who viewed the revolution in terms of overthrowing the government or seizing the economic means of production, Gramsci used the lens of culture: “The revolution he sought could never take place without cultural upheaval.”
Gramsci laid the foundation for the left’s slow takeover of the culture. This meant infiltrating schools, art, entertainment, religion, the family, and, beyond all this, the language. The people had to be disconnected from their traditions and mores so that they could overcome their “false consciousness.” This became the main objective of postmodern philosophers of the Frankfurt school who sought to criticize and deconstruct everything.
This history is key because it verifies the existence of cultural Marxism. While the left pretends this is a conspiracy theory that haunts paranoid conservatives, Knowles demonstrates that there is a history of leftist intellectuals attacking the culture for the purpose of spreading Marxist ideology. He quotes from them generously to leave little doubt about what they were trying to do.
To offer some perspective, Knowles discusses the two great prophets of leftist totalitarianism: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. In Orwell’s 1984, the ruling regime, “Big Brother,” erases and rewrites history as well as deliberately reduces the language as a means of reducing thought. Traces of this are obviously present in the today’s cancel culture and the 1619 Project.
However, Knowles gives the award of prophecy to Huxley, who understood how moral standards could control behavior. In his novel “Brave New World,” society is enslaved to vice and lacks the free will to challenge authority. Seeing this play out in the licentiousness that accompanies American leftist radicalism, Knowles notes, “Though the opponents of political correctness invoke Orwell more often than they do any other author, Huxley understood more clearly the subtle method by which revolutionaries would overthrow traditional society.” Political correctness is more than speech, it is morality.
After discussing the origins of political correctness, Knowles illustrates how cultural upheaval morphs into what is commonly understood as “political correctness.” Although various writers and thinkers bring up the term, Knowles credits history’s most genocidal dictator Mao Zedong, who through his Little Red Book specifically defined what was politically correct.
Because Maoists in the West couldn’t immediately enact a cultural revolution in liberal democracies, they began a similar effort by their “long march through the institutions.” Knowles attributes this phrase to the German scholar Rudi Dutschke, “who read Gramsci’s ideology through Mao’s tactics” and “shaped a generation of leftist activists.”
What started as academic squabbles over semantics and critical theory eventually turned into aggressive censorship of dissenting views. For this, Knowles cites Herbert Marcuse, who asserted that certain ideas and arguments “constitute violence that must not be tolerated.” This attitude is political correctness at its core: It wins through silence, not speech.
Because conservatives have been slow on the uptake and continue to tolerate insanity from their opponents, they find themselves overwhelmed on every important question: “The radicals have gained ground in our society by making substantive claims to advance an amoral agenda and then whipping their followers into a frenzy to defend them.” Whatever merits conservatives might have in their arguments, they cannot rebut the fury of leftists who have been conditioned to see their opponents as monsters.
Knowles then transitions his discussion into various leftist movements that have adopted the tactics of the cultural left, starting with feminism, where “the political becomes personal.” Prominent figures in second-wave feminism, like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, deconstructed women’s liberation and reversed its very meaning. Knowles quotes de Beauvoir saying, “[Women’s liberation] is a way of forcing women in a certain direction,” that is, away from having children and making a home. Without this personal realm, all that’s left for women and everyone else is the public life where political correctness rules.
Knowles moves on to the university, which has been thoroughly vitiated by political correctness. What started as efforts to diversify the curricula and provide academic freedom to alternative forms of scholarship eventually degenerated into leftist ideology that demands intellectual conformity—the very opposite of a liberal education. All subjects must become politically correct and objective truth must fall before subjective truth of oppressed minorities. Ironically, it is the most privileged who speak for these supposedly silenced voices, as Knowles notes that “progressive activists are the whitest, richest, most highly educated groups in the country.”
Far from rectifying the matter, the push for diversity and helping the oppressed only fueled more grievance mongering. Instead of being bastions of higher learning and free thought, Knowles details how college campuses have now become centers for leftist indoctrination while in the classroom as well as hotbeds for race and rape hoaxes outside the classroom. Tragically, the most privileged people on the planet choose to work overtime to give the illusion that they are the least privileged people, leaving little time for an actual education.
Meanwhile, Republican politicians mostly dithered as radical leftism continued to ferment on the campuses. Rather, they turned their attention outward with globalist neoconservative agenda, like President George H. W. Bush, and took no real action against political correctness and the cultural battles it represented.
In one of the best analyses of the book, Knowles likens this situation to David Mamet’s play “Oleanna.” In it, a failing student Carol is given a second chance by her professor. At the behest of her activist friends, Carol files a complaint about her professor the next day. Tensions escalate as she blackmails the professor into changing his curriculum, with him refusing to comply. Finally, he loses his tenure and faces battery charges, causing him to snap and beat Carol, who succeeds in turning him into an actual abuser.
As Knowles explains, the play shows the “trap set by political correctness. John saw only two options: betray his life’s work or become a brute.” Sure enough, most conservatives today either compromise with their opponents and cede ground to inferior ideas, or they try to “own the libs” by degrading themselves with childish antics and cultural chauvinism.
In the following chapter, Knowles then turns to the subject of profanity. He observes that profanity has become normalized while references to race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are highly policed. This is no accident: “Ironically profanity, not politeness marks the rise of political correctness.” Politeness connotes tradition and moral standards, both of which political correctness abhors.
Nowhere is this deliberate reversal of values of taboos more apparent than in wishing people a “Merry Christmas.” What seems like a somewhat minor culture squabble illustrates how this game works: Leftists try to change a popular expression to discourage Christian practice; major institutions comply; normal people notice and express irritation; leftists and major institutions deny they changed anything, and that it shouldn’t matter if they did; the popular expression is quietly restored while leftists and major institutions take to the courts against Christians.
Knowles devotes a whole chapter to this, for two reasons. As a good Catholic, he really likes Christmas, and he wants to challenge the conservatives who treat these debates as trivial.
Of course, no discussion about political correctness would be complete without discussing the sudden rise of transgenderism. From being a mental pathology afflicting a tiny portion of the population, identifying as the opposite gender has somehow become a mainstream phenomenon—all in the face of obvious evidence that human beings cannot change their sex at will.
As with the war on Christmas, Knowles shows how the transgender issue exposes how the left sets the terms and wins the culture. They exploit conservative indifference by taking a seemingly obscure question and use it to redefine the culture at large, making the exception the rule. Thus, by allowing people to use the bathroom of opposite sex, they could effectively “abolish the most fundamental distinction in human nature.” With this issue won, they essentially transform common sense into prejudice and traditional notions of morality into systems of oppression.
Just as sex becomes malleable, science too becomes malleable, as the recent COVID-19 restrictions illustrated. Knowles treads lightly but firmly into the web of contradictions that were all sanctioned by supposed experts. What started as politics following science seemed to morph into science following politics. This was apparent with the lockdowns, which were curiously suspended to accommodate the George Floyd riots, and mask mandates, which were originally deemed useless before they were deemed essential for preventing the spread of the virus.
The same flip-flopping is apparent in the ever-changing discipline of climate science. Fifty years ago, the planet was cooling and overpopulation threatened disaster. Thirty years later, the planet was warming and underpopulation threatened disaster. Today, the planet’s temperature has remained the same, and underpopulation still threatens disaster. Accompanying each pronouncement from scientists, governments around the world have responded by spending billions of dollars on “green” programs, sterilizing their populations, and murdering millions of babies in the womb. None of this seems particularly scientific, but it coincidentally follows the tenets of Marxism.
Taking Back Reality
Finally, Knowles gets to Big Tech, the main enforcer of political correctness by far. Citing recent history, he details how every large social media platform removed Donald Trump and other conservatives for spurious reasons and hyped up the Jan. 6 protesters as they covered for leftist radicals burning up the whole country the summer before. In reaction to these monopolies gaslighting whole populations, politicians largely do nothing and go on taking these companies’ money.
Knowles takes issue with conservatives who glibly respond these are private companies that can do whatever they please: “Conservatives failed to protect their place in the public square because they remained wedded to an abstract understanding of ‘free speech’ and failed to acknowledge the inevitability of standards in society.” These companies have far too much power over their users and are acting like tyrants. No organization, private or public, should have this right.
So, where does this leave Americans who want to take back their country and their language? Knowles’s response is surprisingly tepid here: Don’t be free speech absolutists and articulate a “substantive conservative vision,” which begins “with an acknowledgement of moral conscience.” He evidently sides with common good conservatives like Sohrab Ahmari and disagrees with libertarian conservatives like David French. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really mean much for the reader, who has followed Knowles up to this point and is ready to take specific action.
Besides being anti-climactic and somewhat vague, Knowles’s conclusion exposes the main weaknesses in this book, which is that he overextended himself. He tries to cover every hot topic and group them all together under the heading of political correctness. Indeed, political correctness comes to mean so many things that it simply becomes a synonym for leftism. The far-ranging subject matter coupled with an occasionally loose logical structure make it sometimes difficult to follow his argument or understand his purpose.
That said, Knowles’s book contains many important insights on how the left has won the culture war and the need for conservatives to fight back. Although relatively young, he has a mature understanding of politics and culture. He continually strives to reach the heart of each issue and consider what is really at work, but also maintains a broad view of the world. This causes him to occasionally challenge orthodox views, but it also makes him more original and interesting than most conservative commentators.
Additionally, Knowles is a surprisingly fine writer. He is witty, well-spoken, clear, and funny, especially in his “Glossary of Jargon” at the end of the book. He does not dumb down his language, nor does he retreat into pretentious academic prose. He practices what he preaches, using language the right way in an appropriate style.
Most importantly, Knowles highlights how the left’s war on words and ideas has rendered Americans practically speechless and powerless. He rightly understands that if conservatives continue to ignore this phenomenon, they will continue to lose their country. If they hope to take everything back, including reality, they need to start with the words they use.