Orwellian Rules of Writing at The New York Times

Featured image (above): Most ‘Style Guides’ in the US are still obsessed with purity of language, and advice: “…avoid foreign words. Write in English.”

What’s the point in learning Chinese if you’ll never be given the opportunity to use it, as most Western schools, universities, publishers, and even The New York Times practice Orwellian Rules of Writing in order to keep their China reports “Chinese-free” — meaning pure, clean, and unpolluted.

“Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” –George Orwell

The New York Times, a US corporation dressed as global public service, is perhaps the most notorious offender to the world’s diversity of languages, foreign cultures, and non-Western people. All its writers and editors, letting alone outside contributors, are forced to “avoid foreign words” in their “submissions,” especially if it’s about foreign nations, their governments, and their (non-Western) people, wherever they can in order to keep the paper’s sovereignty over the definition of thought. (The NY Times must write from the position of highest authority, like the voice of an overlord and colonial master, which it cannot if the matter is discussed on foreign terms.)

Orwellian Rules of Writing at The New York Times 1It means that 95% of the world’s (non-US) population is effectively censored and/or their cultures and words omitted. Not all words are created equal, of course. Americans can call the Chinese whatever they want. But, still, what an attitude this is. It amounts to saying to our friends the Chinese (but also the Russians, Iranians, Germans, Indians, etc.): “You may express your ideas, but only by using OUR dictionary. You must use OUR vocabularies — forged in OUR culture, pleasant to OUR eyes!”

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Even if it’s bordering on cultural and intellectual property theft: “You must translate foreign ideas and concepts into convenient English words and categories that a Westerner could have said and thought up independently from you. We don’t want to hold a candle to non-Western thinkers and inventors you see.”

As any philosopher, politician, historian, or social-scientist (letting alone linguist) will attest to you: Language is power. Stripping billions of people off their cultural key terminologies so that your publication looks pure and thoroughbred isn’t just some journalist’s cruel joke. It is a form of cultural genocide. The New York Times may think New York as a worldly place. It is not. It is full of Americans.

This dead-serious form of language imperialism is of course an age-old and time-tested strategy: “It is knowledge only if we know it” — meaning that unless (and until) a Westerner also said it, and named it, and took credit for its discovery, as far as our media channels and academics are concerned, your foreign ideas, concepts, and categories remain “fair game.” (This discrimination against foreign words, I claim, is worse than racism.)

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Anyway, here’s a taste of blatant NY Times language imperialism (see this link). It is in the form of a China op-ed (already his second) by China professor Daniel A. Bell who in order to get published in The New York Times prostrates himself not only to “Teaching Western Values,” but also more so to “Teaching China the correct English terms” for all their Chinese thoughts on cultural and ideological matters.

I am all for the inclusion of foreign cultures, not their omission in our media. Foreign names, brands, and inventions must be allowed [and will be allowed some day, I’m sure of it] to show and to compete in US publications. Today, most foreign words are still banned. And almost 7 billion people whose languages are not English are silenced.

Image credit: Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com

Thorsten J. Pattberg, Ph.D., is a German writer and cultural critic. He is the author of The East-West Dichotomy. You may contact him here: pattberg’at’pku.edu.cn

Note: This article about censorship at The New York Times had been posted on New York’s BIG THINK on April 20th, 2015, and was censored a day later:

Orwellian Rules of Writing at The New York Times 2
‘Orwellian Rules of Writing at The New York Times’ might just have hit a nerve.