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Perspective: Brave new words

We’re not yet the ‘Brave New World’ that Aldous Huxley described in 1932, but we’re getting closer if we allow words like ‘mother’ and ‘family’ to be erased

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

The classic novel “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley depicts a dystopian society with a tyrannical government that controls people through biological, psychological and social conditioning. Thankfully, most of the government’s methods are impossible, but one keeps coming to mind because it’s disturbingly familiar. In the novel, published in 1932, they loathed and shunned words like mother, father and family.

The government didn’t simply ban these words, but considered them obscene, or at best, ridiculous, which is even more effective than a ban. The people were socially conditioned to hate and fear the past, in which intact biological families, loving family relationships and meaningful monogamous sex prevented individuals from being totally selfish and totally controlled. Any mention of mothers and fathers, babies and birth, families and love repulsed and horrified them.

We don’t have anything like that degree of aversion today, but I’m alarmed at how determinedly we’re being pushed in that direction. Equally troubling, we’re allowing ourselves to be led in that direction because we mistakenly think a noble goal of “inclusion” requires it.

A subtle but distressing example is the recent controversy over Roald Dahl’s books, stemming from a publisher’s decision to posthumously edit racist material from his books. While I don’t agree with editing an author’s work after they’ve died, it’s at least understandable why a publisher would want to remove certain racial stereotypes from his works. But it’s less understandable why the publisher’s edits go beyond instances of race and cruelty.

The edits deemphasized families, parenthood and sex differences. Some examples:

  • “Get your mother or father” was changed to “get your family.”
  • “We eat little boys and girls” changed to “we eat little children.”
  • “Mrs. Weasel and six kids” was changed to “his family.”
  • “Dashed into his father’s toolshed” was changed to “dashed into the toolshed.”
  • “They must be Cloud-Men!” was changed to “They must be Cloud-People!” and a description of “Cloud-Men’s wives” was deleted.
  • “Fully grown women” was changed to “fully grown people.” 

Even if some of those changes can be defended with the argument that it wasn’t necessary to specify one sex or another, is that really such a pressing problem to justify editing peoples’ e-books? Does anyone really think children’s tender minds will be harmed by a reference to “fully grown women” because it leaves out the men?

Certainly not, and the real goal here is becoming more and more obvious. Take a step, though it be small, down the road to a “Brave New World.” Make “mother or father” verboten when the vaguer “family” will do, because you don’t want young minds thinking a man-woman couple is normal or best. Avoid highlighting the “gender binary” with the words “boys and girls” because you want children to be open to the existence of other genders. Don’t give anyone ideas about a man having a wife and six kids, because that’s heteronormative and bad for the environment. Don’t let books, even books written in the past, describe a world full of traditional families and men and women, without any other options.

Dahl’s publisher responded to criticism of the edits that “taking care for the imaginations and fast-developing minds of young readers is both a privilege and a responsibility.” I agree. Which is why their evident desire to guard children’s minds and imaginations against descriptions of normal families and normal binary sex differences is so distressing.

There are plenty of similar examples of manipulating language to influence societal beliefs, and it’s no surprise women bear the brunt of the changes. Women are growing used to wading through dehumanizing terms like “people with a uterus” when looking up medical information. News articles on transgender issues avoid using terms like “mother” or even “biological women” as distinct from “transwomen.” There are numerous accounts of teachers being told to avoid calling their students “boys and girls.” An NBA team posted a video tribute to women with players admiring how women “run the world” because they “procreate” and “birthed everybody,” then took it down and apologized.

A recent extreme example strikes me as all too possible within just a few years if we continue down this Brave New Road.

A transgender activist delivered a sermon in 2021 about gender on Mother’s Day, stating: “One of my contentions is that many of our labels or terms of endearment, like ‘mother,’ build walls instead of bridges … (terms like mother) serve no purpose in the 21st century; in fact, they do a lot of harm, because we lose that intersectionality. … How much better would the world be, if we could drop some of those labels, labels that don’t serve us, and say ‘you’re just my sibling, you’re just my neighbor, you’re just a human.’”

Could we get to the point that calling someone “mother” would be considered not just divisive, but offensive like a slur? I certainly hope not, but I wouldn’t rule it out. A few years ago, I never would have dreamed anyone would justify editing “mother and father” out of a children’s book because it’s “damaging” and “harmful.” If our society is deciding that “inclusion” means “removing and condemning any reference to previous norms,” making “mother” verboten is a logical next step.

In 1981, a prominent religious leader made the following observation: “One cannot degrade marriage without tarnishing other words as well, such words as boy, girl, manhood, womanhood, husband, wife, father, mother, baby, children, family, home.” We didn’t listen, and now we’re seeing the fulfillment of those words.

Cassandra Hedelius has a law degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder. She is a volunteer for FAIR (Faithful Answers, Informed Response) and raises and homeschools her four children.