Can language limit thought?
If a dogmatic belief system can narrow the kind of vocabulary used, can language itself limit the kind of thinking that is going on? How free are people to think their own thoughts independently of language? My answer in this article is that language can trap thought. In his book The New Doublespeak, William Lutz points out that instead of being an instrument for expressing thought, language became a means for concealing or even preventing thought. We will examine how language doublespeak applies through propaganda in the fields of economy, politics and advertising.
What is propaganda?
In my article of almost two years ago Socialist Rhetorical and Dialectical Communication: Overcoming Brainwashing, Propaganda and Entertainment,
I defined propaganda as the deliberate, systematic and often covert attempt by institutional elites to control: a) perceptions; b) cognitions; c) emotions; and d) behavior while: a) censoring; b) hiding; c) restricting; d) distorting; or e) exaggerating the claims of their opposition. Propaganda can be found in economic textbooks, political campaigns, religious recruiting, news reporting, advertising campaigns, movies and sports.
In this article we will be discussing how propaganda is used in print through verbal language. Propaganda is also used in other mediums like television, the internet and film. Furthermore, it is also used in how space is organized, in architecture, monuments and even street names. Propaganda through print is not nearly as dramatic or powerful as some of the other mediums and because of this it is more easily overlooked that are part of the motive for this article.
The Six Functions of Language
At its most naïve and superficial, the purpose of language is to communicate information in everyday life. For example could be going to the grocery store and declaring to the cashier “it is pouring out there”. These are statements that to which the answers can be true or false. But this declarative statement is only one of many types.
For example, there are interrogative questions such as “did you do the reading?”. In this case there may be some power going on depending if the question is coming from a teacher or another student. Another function of language is performative, that is when you promise or commit to doing something. If I say “I promise never to leave the front door unlocked again” the response is not true or false or the answer to a question. It is performative – or what is called a commissive.
The function of language can also be expressive such as criticism, praise, condolences or matters of taste. In power positions, we can tell someone what to do. “Either punch that time-card now or leave the building”. Lastly, as will be the topic of this article, language can be used to persuade. If during a debate on abortion, you define abortion in a loaded way as murder you will be persuading the audience to be on your side before the argumentations even begin.
Manipulation Through Mixing the Functions of Language
Why bother naming the six functions of language? What does this have to do with powerplays and possibly propaganda? With the exception of a military order, most bosses or parents would prefer to get their employers or children to do something without giving them an order. Why? Because it is easier to control people by making it appear that there are no powerplays going on. In most communications, power struggles are muffled by mixing some functions with other functions. What is happening in these situations is inseparable from: a) the roles being played; b) the time; c) place; and d) circumstance.
For example, when a teacher asks a student “did you do the reading” They are not just asking a question. They are also implying a threat – what will happen if you don’t do the reading. The same process is at work when a parent asks a child if they have completed a chore. How about this: two brothers are going out to lunch. One said “shit, I don’t have any cash and I don’t have any credit cards on me”. This is an expressive. Instead of just being explicit and saying “can you pay for me”? This brother said nothing intentionally, hoping his brother would offer to pay without having to ask. Lastly, a mother says to her son, “you have a lot of video games in your room. How do you find the time to play them?”. This is an interrogative question. She wanted her son to have fewer games so he would spend more time on homework. She was leading up to giving him an order to play fewer video games. But she turned it into a question to manipulate him into buying fewer games by making it seem as if the son came to this of his own accord.
The Power of Labels as Tools for Clarification
Suppose I am feeling under the weather. My nose is running, I have a cough, I a head-arche and am low energy. I am bothered by this because I don’t know what the trouble is. I make an appointment with my doctor and tell her my symptoms. She says to me that I have a “cold”. I am immediately relieved. Why is this? It’s because having a label for something means a) that other people have had it or it wouldn’t have a name; b) there is probably a diagnosis for it and she will tell me why I have it and what are the developmental symptoms; and c) there is probably a prognosis as to what to do about it. Labels for physical problems don’t come out of thin air. First there are a fragmented set of symptoms which are unconnected with many people having these symptoms . After the symptoms are studied, relationships between the symptoms are formed. If enough people have the same symptoms a label is used to categorize the phenomenon as a whole.
Labels are vitally important for identifying the basic features of something, where it came from and how it might progress. The same value comes about when it comes to mental illness. Suppose I find myself nervous when it is time to go to a birthday party. I have sweaty palms, dry mouth and my heart is racing. Then I notice similar symptoms before I go to work. I am nervous about being around the other workers. Then I notice the same symptoms when I am with my children. I go to a physician and she refers me to a psychiatrist. I tell the psychiatrist what my symptoms are she says I have general anxiety. Now I feel relieved for the same reasons I did when I was diagnosed with a cold. However, I am also uncomfortable because with the label comes somewhat of a stigma. But “anxiety” helps me to feel I do not have some rare problem I may die from and there is something I can do about it.
The Power of Language as a Weapon: Reification
On one hand, labels simplify processes and help us to live. Without labels we couldn’t get much done because we would be buried in events. Labels are short-cuts, generalizations which help us to rise above everyday life and predict what people are like and what people will do. However, real life is always more than any combination of labels. As individuals we are always more complicated than any group of labels. A problem with too closely identifying with a label is that you start acting like the label and lose track of the fact that you are more complex than the label. For example, a person diagnosed with anxiety might then explains all the behavior they don’t like as due to anxiety. They stop using skills to solve problems by simply falling back to the label – “I’m an anxious person”.
When people use a tool of labeling against themselves they may reify the label. Reifying the label means you take a process and turn it into a thing which then oppresses you. The term “anxiety” becomes a prison from which there appears to be no escape. Here is an extreme case of this. Years ago, I worked as a relief counselor in a half-way house. When I first came on my shift after being away for a couple of months the new patients would introduce themselves, not by their first name but by their diagnosis. I also remember how bitterly some of them fought when the house psychiatrist gave them a different diagnostic label. They were so attached to the label that the label meant more to them than getting a better diagnosis, with better treatment plans and better medications.
Loading and Boiling the Language
When the Republicans and Democrats run for state offices, they hire consultants who suggest the language they use describe both their candidates as well as their opponents. Both of them are encouraged to use the following words: common sense courage; crusade dream; duty; family values; freedom; democracy; hard work; liberty, morality; pioneer, pride; prosperity; independency; patriotic; free enterprise and ambitious.
What do these words have in common? These are called “virtue” words. Virtue words are one-sidedly good words in which there are no conditions under which they can be opposed. For example, it is not possible to only be moderately for democracy. Neither could you be against freedom. How could anyone be against “free enterprise”? Surely everyone wants to be enterprising. How can you not be ambitious. Only slackers wouldn’t want to move up in the class hierarchy.
The same advertising firms had some suggestions for choice words that Republicans should call Democrats. They include communist, socialist, terrorists, anti-flag, corruption, traitors, treasonous, welfare; liberal, radical, taxes; bureaucratic and red tape. These are words the advertising agencies have identified that will trigger the citizens of Mordor to look unfavorably at those politicians.
The larger picture: teaching people to think in mutually exclusive dualities
What both Republicans and Democrats have in common is a hope that the population does not think critically. Among other things, thinking critically means that no person or institution can be seen as all good or all bad. All people and their institutions have their pro and cons. In addition, seemingly opposites actually have much in common. Therefore, the Republicans and Democrats have more in common than they have differences. They are both for capitalism, demonize Russia and China, are against communism and socialism and ignore class stratification in their own society. It is in the interests of both parties to portray their candidates as goodie-goodies and the opposition in bad-guy hats which infantilizes their populations.
Very often slanting is held to be a bias against objectivity in the news. As an example, Fox news is presented as biased while CNN is looked at as more objective. But slanting is much deeper than giving a one-sided view. Two-sided views can be biased. Slanting is when the process of objectivity is limited to two views, as in virtue and vice words. Or when it is limited to the positions of conservatives and liberals. What slanting ignores is what the two sides have in common and what points of view are objective but censored by both sides. For example, most citizens of Mordor agree that the minimum wage is too low. But this issue is never a regular part of any major news station in an ongoing group discussion. At the same time, close to 70% of Mordor’s citizens say that third parties should be allowed in the debates. Though many feel this way, you will never see ongoing coverage of this. Lastly, over half the people between 25-34 in Mordor are sympathetic to a socialist system. Are real socialists (not Bernie Sanders) given any air time to present a transition program of how a socialist would address current social problem? There are many people who are respectable professionals who think that the events in Mordor on September 11th were an inside job. Yet for over 20 years these folks have been denounced as conspiracy nuts.
Euphemisms Freezing the Language
The opposite of loading the language is freezing the language. If loading the language is getting people riled up with inflammatory words, using euphemisms is masking the emotional nature of some institution or practice by stripping it of all emotions, meaning and sanitizing it. For example, instead of calling enemy troops prisoners of war they are called “detainees”. Death of civilians during war is sanitized and called “collateral damage”. It’s hard to get worked up about that. Instead of rousing and beating the homeless off the streets “police officers” conduct “street sweeps”. Sweeps implies cleaning up, implying no broken bones or crushed arteries. Sweeping also implies the homeless are dirt.
How are workers likely to feel if they received a letter telling them there will be a mass firing of 2,000 of them? They might just get angry and want to do something collectively. They are much less likely to be angry if they received individual letters telling them they were “downsized”. What the hell does that mean? Workers don’t know but it buys capitalists time while they try to figure it out.
If Democrats want to raise taxes, do they call it that? Chances are not likely given how the Mordor public feels about taxes. Better to call it “revenue enhancements”. Instead of calling Democratic deficits due to support of a fascist Ukraine war, the deficits we have, lo and behold, are “shortfalls of revenue”. An insurance broker wants you to buy insurance. As you know, when you are being sold “life’ insurance, you are really betting against your own longevity. Why doesn’t the insurance agent call you up and say “Yo, wanna buy some death insurance”? Not very appealing, is it?
The capitalist system is full of euphemisms to explain why a horrible system is really perfectly normal. In fact, Michael Hudson wrote an entire book exposing capitalist euphemisms in J is For Junk Economics. The following are a couple of examples. “Business cycles” is the term capitalist use to avoid coming to terms with crisis in the system that is irreversible and the downward spiraling – and “recoveries” never return to the level they once were. In the 19th century, economic crisis were called “panics”. That was a little too scary for capitalists, so in the 20th century economic crisis were called ‘depressions”. Not so bad – right? Wrong! “Depressions” became too scary after the ten-year depression of the 1930s. Now any economic crisis no matter how bad will be called a “recession”.
Do capitalists take responsibility for extreme weather and ecological pollution? Not on your life! For capitalists, the biophysical world crisis are called “externalities”. Translation? “This has nothing to do with us”. Lastly, capitalists never want to call their system “capitalist”. Why? Because calling capitalism a system means it has laws, a history and origin in time and a termination point, as so all systema. Instead, capitalists call their system “the market”. This sounds tame enough. It sounds nebulous. It makes it sound as if it has always existed and that there isn’t anything else. Capitalists also call their system “business” another meek term which hides processes like class struggle, exploitation or imperialism.
We met with this term earlier when we discussed the out-of-control use of labels. But reification is more than about labels. Reification is the transformation of processes into things. What we call entities are only processes that are temporarily frozen. We reify processes when we turn entities into things. Another part of reification is when we treat these things as if they have a life independent of processes and a life of their own. The third characteristic of reification is that these things oppress us. We pay homage to them as if they created us rather than that we created them.
Good examples of reification are gods. We create gods to give our life meaning and purpose and yet we wind up being enslaved to our own creations. We do the same thing with capitalism. Marx talked about the reification of commodities in the first volume of Capital. People make commodities on the assembly line and their purpose is to use them. But under capitalism, commodities acquire a life of their own and people become enslaved to their own creations. When we say the economy is “growing” that is a reification. The economy is not a separate thing from people working. The people working is the real thing, the economy is not independent of that. If enough people went out on strike, there would be no economy. Neither is there such a thing as “smart money”. There are only individual people making smart or dumb choices about investing money. Money doesn’t do anything by itself. A vital part of all propaganda is the turning of people into things, processes into things, and abstractions into concrete entities.
All professions have a specialized language which are shortcuts to describe processes that would otherwise take too long to describe if they were used in every-day terminology. There is nothing wrong with this and it’s inevitable. It occurs in mathematics and in the hard sciences. Specialized language turns into jargon when professionals use technical terms outside their profession to confuse or intimidate the public. For example, a someone who is a lawyer may use technical terms to keep a neighbor from suing him for damage to his property. Another use of jargon is the fine print at the end of a document used on a kind of property class. The reader must hire a lawyer to translate what the document means. Lastly, free market fundamentalists use mathematics in their beginning economic textbooks in order to hide their questionable assumptions and their lack of scientific rigor predicting the direction of the economy.
Muddying the Language
Loading the language, reifying the language and using jargon are all dramatic or overly dramatic uses of language. Muddying the language makes words intentionally imprecise in order to get away with manipulating without being found out.
These words are most consistently used in advertising. They combine a lot of razzle-dazzle virtue words with key non-committal words that avoid taking a clear stand. For example, mouthwash that claims to “fight” bad breath, but makes no attempt to cure it. Another ad claims to “control” dandruff but does not promise to eliminate it. A car dealer claims that “no one sells for less” makes it seem as if the car is selling for the lowest prices. Sounds pretty good, right? But it could very well be that the competition is selling for the same price. It is not such a good bargain after all! Why do weasel words exist? Advertisers are legally bound. If they promise a product would cure bad breath or eliminate dandruff and it doesn’t, the advertisers can be sued. If someone finds an ad in the paper promising the lowest prices in town and another car dealer undersells the first car dealer who put in the original ad, they also may run into legal problems.
The political system in Mordor is so rotten that politicians can say anything they want and they cannot be sued by citizens for breaking their promises. This is one of many reasons why the political system in Mordor is held in such contempt by most citizens of its citizens.
Ambiguity and Vagueness
Words can be ambiguous when a word has a number of meanings and there isn’t enough context to allow you to figure out which of the meanings are appropriate.
For example, the word bank can mean an institution for investing money or someone of something you can bank on. Bank can also mean a part of a river. Lastly, bank can mean the utilization of a strategy for making a pool shot (eight-ball banked and into the side pocket). There is usually no linguistic manipulation here, just a matter of confusion.
Ambiguous words are many, but all the word definitions are clear. With words that are vague, the meaning of the word itself is foggy and this fogginess can be used for manipulative purposes whether political, economic or personal. I don’t know of a phase that has been used more manipulatively in Mordor than the words “I love you”. Especially in romantic encounters it can send one swooning or tightening up their defense mechanisms. Erich Fromm famously defined many kinds of love – parental love, sibling love, friendship love in addition to romantic love and they all mean different things. A famous use of love in a manipulative way by parents towards their children is to say “I am doing this because I love you” just before punishing them. Whether the punishment is just or unjust, the parent is attempting to escape the wrath of his child by trotting this out. When a female hears her date say, “I love you” she would be right to say, “What do you mean”? Is this a ploy to get her into bed? As the Shirelles sang, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” Or is it something that is said after sex by way of reassurance. The word love is thrown out for various types of manipulation far more than it is simply an expression of affection. We are told that radio stations love their listeners and football teams love their fans.
Another emotional word that people can be taken to the cleaners about is the term “support”. Many years ago, when I was teaching night school, I watched the sad devolution of many of my female students’ romantic relationships. By the time they were in the last quarter or two, their relationships were on the rocks or in trouble. Because the classes I was teaching were about adult psychological development, they spoke of their relationships in writing and in discussion. A common theme was their partner’s manipulative use of the term “support”. They said to their partner “I support you” going to school. But in retrospect my students said they should have responded with “What do you mean by support? Does support mean you will do the laundry on the weekends so I can do reading? Are you willing to make dinners on the weekend so I can write papers? Does support mean you can accept not going out on day trips on the weekend because I will be in class? That is what I mean by support”. Support is a practical down-to-earth series of active commitments a person does. It isn’t just an emotional word meaning you are sympathetic about my going to school.
The last of our muddy words is equivocation. This means changing the meaning of the same word as we proceed from the beginning or end of a written piece or a lecture. A very simple and funny one is when I tell my students that when Marx and Engels defined the class structure as between capitalists and workers, he forgot to talk about the class struggle between students and teachers. In a serious vein, the word “class” in an institutional setting means a setting in which college courses take place. I was making a joke by suggesting that the battles between teachers and students over doing the reading, turning in papers and turning off their cell phones resembles a class struggle between workers and capitalists.
How about this statement from the body of an international economic organization: “The developed countries have it all over the undeveloped countries. It’s just a matter of developmental maturation”. In the first place, the word “development” comes from either biology or psychology. In these fields the word development points to a predictable sequence from neonate, to adolescence, to adulthood, meaning maturity. Can nation-states be categorized as children, adolescents or mature adults? If they are, whose interest do they serve?
Anthropologists claim that it is the essence of European racism to categorize
political/economic nation-states as immature and mature. Given that the mature, developed countries are in the West and the immature countries are in the capitalist periphery we have the following:
Western Core – like adults – US, Western Europe – capitalist
Semi periphery – adolescence – China, India, Latin America – capitalist, socialist
Southern periphery – children – Africa – socialist
This political use of the term development helps justify the dispensing or refusing of loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to peripheral countries. If the World Bank wants to support “mature” development they will give peripherical countries money to develop a tourist industry. But if a country in the periphery asks for a loan to develop science and technology, which might compete with the oil industry present in a mature country, that loan will be refused and the name of the country will be classified as immature.
This article began with raising the question of the relationship between language and thought. If your vocabulary is intentionally shrunken, distorted or exaggerated how free are you to think your own thoughts? I am most interested in showing why you are not free when it comes to a propaganda setting. After defining what propaganda is, I described the six functions of language and how they can be manipulated. Then I described the use and misuse of labels as tools on the one hand and weapons on the other. With that as a foundation I described three ways language can be manipulated, by boiling the language, freezing the language and muddying the language. Boiling the language includes the use of virtue and vice words. Freezing the language is what happens when euphemisms are used. Lastly there are four kinds of ways language can be muddied. The first two are using language ambiguously or vaguely. Other sneaky ways to use language are by using weasel words or equivocation. Jargon and reification are two other forms of manipulation that are important that we covered but don’t fit into loading, freezing muddying language.