Managed Mystification: The Carefully Crafted Destruction of Intellectual Meaning

Party On, Shiny Happy People!

Party On, Shiny Happy People!

Michael Murry.  Introduction by William Astore.

Robert Plant in “Stairway to Heaven” sang that “you know sometimes words have two meanings.” As Michael Murry powerfully shows in his first essay for The Contrary Perspective, nowadays words have innumerable meanings, or simply no meaning at all. And it’s by design. We live, as he memorably suggests, in a world of managed mystification, manipulated by symbols and images that are disconnected from the real, from the vibrant, from the true. W.J. Astore.   

Managed Mystification

Michael Murry

Long-time BBC commentator John Humphrys did the cause of communication a distinct favor when he published Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004).  An entertaining critique of sloppy and inaccurate language in general, the author truly hits the mark with his focus on deliberate meaninglessness designed and deployed as a corporate-management or political-propaganda tool – what I like to call Managed Mystification.

For example, in his chapter entitled “Words Without Thought,” under the subheading “Bewitching Gobbledegook,” he writes of a university lecturer in English who says:

“You don’t just acquire a reputation by snuffling out a topic that no one has ever heard of, you must also make it hard for your reader to know what you are talking about. There’s no greater way to win the respect of your peers than to write in gobbledegook. The less they understand the more clever they think you are.”

To which the author adds:

“They do it for much the same reason that priests enjoyed speaking Latin to congregations who could not understand a word of it. If people do not understand what you’re saying, they cannot prove it to be nonsense.”

Which reminds me of something F. C. S. Schiller once wrote about the Formal Logic that was taught for centuries at European universities:

“The history of education proves that nothing has a greater hold on the human mind than nonsense fortified by technicality, because the more nonsensical it is the more impervious it becomes to rational objection, the more impossible it is to amend it, and so the better it lasts …”

Or, as the late great historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly:

People tend to accept a successfully dramatized self-estimation.”

Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (not to mention Toto) discover the wrinkled, shrunken fraud who had managed to intimidate them and everyone else with loud noises from behind a screen. Original drawing by W. W. Denslow

Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (not to mention Toto) discover the wrinkled, shrunken fraud who had managed to intimidate them and everyone else with loud noises from behind a screen. Original drawing by W. W. Denslow

“Exactly so!  I am a humbug,” said the Wizard of Oz.  If only our “wizards” were so honest.

In his chapter entitled, “Who are they kidding?” Mr Humphrys gets further into the distinction between traditional rhetoric (spoken and written) which at least nominally appealed to the intellect versus what former U.S. Vice President Al Gore (in his book The Assault on Reason, 2007) called “visual rhetoric,” or “body language”:

Rhetoric is about using language to influence and manipulate … The rhetoric the ancients learned includes the great skill of covering up you’re really saying but getting the message across none the less. It accommodates that precious thing politicians crave: deniability.”

But in these post-modern (or post-literate) times:

“We have moved from the skillful rhetoric of Greece and wartime Britain to the language of the marketing men. They, too, use language to manipulate, but it has nothing to do with argument. Words are used – if they are used at all – to conjure up moods, images and subconscious associations in order to sell. The intention is not to persuade us through convincing argument, or even to appeal to our passions. It is to subvert our emotions so that we submit to the message, only half aware that we have done so. And it works – which is why the politicians have adopted some of the techniques.”

Which leads us to the point where:

A lot of television and cinema advertising – especially cinema – now uses no language at all. It is not even stated explicitly what links the products with the mini films advertising them. The art of using language to persuade has given way to an entirely different skill: combining visual images of beautiful young people doing highly improbable things together in a very sexy way. Words, which give rise to argument, or at least an element of thought, have given way to images which are passively absorbed.”

So we seem to have entered a subliminal rhetorical environment where those who seek to “communicate” with us plan to do so without our knowledge or consent, either through trying to impress us with choreographed physical posturing accompanied by a phony fog of impenetrable jargon or else “entertaining” us into subconsciously identifying with commercial products and brands (including celebrity personalities) whose purchase will ostensibly transform our lives into the fantasy narratives we see moving across glowing movie or television screens.

In other words, Managed Mystification: the carefully crafted destruction of intellectual meaning as a sales and/or propaganda technique – something quite the opposite of what most people think they mean by “communication.” Our educated and literate society — painfully evolved over the course of human history – would appear on the verge of coming unhinged because of this pernicious influence.

Finally, a caution from John Humphrys:

“If we use words without a direct link to our own thought, what we end up with is mere words – just noise – rather than the communication of one mind with another.”

Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran, writer and poet, occupies the Asian Desk for The Contrary Perspective.

8 thoughts on “Managed Mystification: The Carefully Crafted Destruction of Intellectual Meaning

  1. “If people do not understand what you’re saying, they cannot prove it to be nonsense.” So true. Hey, reminded me of a line in the movie “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” The son was asking his father if he was on the right track searching for something.
    Oskar Schell: But if you don’t tell me, how can I ever be right?
    Thomas Schell: Well, another way of looking at it is…how can you ever be wrong?
    That always stayed with me. Yes, Robert Plant, sometimes words have two meanings, and there are always two ways of looking at things. I think I’d like to show my dad this great article as well. The intellectual wordsmith that he is.

    • Politicians have freely borrowed from marketing and advertising, using words to obscure rather than to communicate. This is hardly new; it’s just become more prevalent and blatant. Think of “hope” and “change” or “forward.” The Obama team was extremely successful at using slogans that meant absolutely nothing — or that meant whatever the voter wanted them to mean. Cynicism in place of communication — the only problem is that it’s yet another blow to active and informed democracy, which is exactly the goal of those in power — to stay in power while smothering the thoughts of the people.

  2. The Two-Minute Hate (escalated to Five Minutes for special occasions) of Orwell’s NINETEEN-EIGHTY-FOUR was a classic (and prophetic–hard to think of a more prophetic novel) example of visual propaganda (marketing). The mere appearance of The Enemy’s face on the video screens sent viewers into a hissing rage. (Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden unwittingly played this role for the lucky American recipients of Cheney/Bush’s marketing campaign to sell their wars.) When that image dissolved and was replaced by a depiction of Big Brother’s mug, all was right with the world again. Never mind that “history” was being revised daily to keep it in line with The Party’s changing line and definition of who was The Enemy. “War is Peace” and the other perverse slogans of the world depicted in that novel say it all. Personally, I knew the perversion of language had gone too far when extreme rightwing groups started adopting the word “family” into their titles. “The Family Research Council” and others whose names escape me are simply organs of hate propaganda against homosexuals. But I must take exception to the statement that passions or emotions are being suppressed. Women have been successfully recruited to anti-woman campaigns by protesters standing outside abortion clinics screaming “They’re KILLING BABIES in there!!” And every member of the working class who’s been persuaded to vote Republican has been recruited to work against his/her own economic interests. (After first accepting the false notion that “I’m a member of the MIDDLE class.”) Have you seen Hitler’s radio address, before a receptive audience at a Nazi rally, depicted in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL? Good lord, the man was a tremendous ACTOR!! This is nothing if not passion and emotion as he speaks of the suffering inflicted on the German people in the wake of World War I. He held enough of the populace in the palm of his hand that they signed on enthusiastically, at worst, to his program, or at the least were willing to look the other way in silence. Yes, propaganda is very powerful indeed. Today it is all about passion and emotion, certainly not intellect.

    • Excellent points, Greg. As you know, our government’s Newspeak is also meant to suppress emotion, mainly by euphemism and obfuscation. Thus torture becomes enhanced interrogation techniques; kidnapping becomes extraordinary rendition; war becomes overseas contingency operations; and murdered civilians become collateral damage. Our government- and corporate-owned media loves to use Newspeak except when we’re talking about “the enemy”: then torture becomes torture, murder becomes murder, etc.

      • Just a note on semantics here, but John Humphrys wrote of “subverting” emotions, not “suppressing” them. In fact, image-based “visual rhetoric,” “body-language,” or wordless-propaganda seeks to exploit or harness emotions, but subliminally, so that the unaware target of the “message” feels strongly about something but doesn’t actually think about it in any consciously cognitive manner.

        As an illustration of this, I read Lost for Words here in Taiwan in December of 2005, and no sooner had I processed Humphrys’ phrase “visual images of beautiful young people doing highly improbable things together in a very sexy way,” than I saw a commercial on local television featuring an attractive young Chinese couple, tastefully dressed, rolling around suggestivley on a bed while enthusiastically admiring their brand new — and prominently displayed — wristwatches. Not long afterwards, I found myself composing Boobie Infotainment, another episode in the ever-unfolding verse epic, Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-lterate retreat to Plato’s Cave, from which I will excerpt here only the following threee stanzas:

        As Hayakawa wrote, we have
        This thing, the Empty Eye:
        A Technicolor campfire on
        Which Boobies now rely
        To dull the pain with images
        That pass too swiftly by.

        The Eye emitted “content” both
        Innocuous and bland
        And pushed it past the limits of
        What Boobie brains could stand,
        Inducing thought rejection all
        Across the Boobies’ land.

        The pictures came and went too fast
        To process on the fly,
        So Boobies felt upset but they
        Could find no reason why.
        The only thing they knew is that
        They felt compelled to buy.

        I never thought that I’d find myself explaining prose through poetry. Usually we do the opposite. But in this case, I think the two genres can complement each other satisfactorily. Whatever gets the meaning across.

      • Yes, that’s a great point. I can see cases where the intent is to suppress emotion; other cases where the intent is to subvert it, or co-opt it, or hijack it. Euphemism, in the Orwellian sense, is often meant to suppress emotion. For example, we’re against torture, which is barbarous and uncivilized, partly because “torture” as a word generates an intense emotional response. But “enhanced interrogation techniques”: well, that sounds OK. It’s somnolent bureaucratese.– it’s meant both to mislead us and to put us to sleep.

        Subverting emotions — Yes, I see lots of commercials like that, where the commodity is associated with money or sex or attractiveness etc. And we certainly see it in politics as well, with words and images associated with a candidate (American flags, parades, happy children playing, babies smiling, all the rest).

        Maybe the most important course every student should take is one on rhetoric and marketing/advertising and political manipulation — together with a course on logic and ethics.

      • Oops, in my haste to respond I thought the word used was “suppress,” not “subvert.” However, if one aims to subvert something one aims to undo it, not enhance it. Thus to subvert emotions is quite unlike an effort to EXPLOIT them, like the anti-choice screamers outside the abortion clinic I cited are doing. (And speaking of perversion of language, how could I not have raised the matter of flag-waving “pro-lifers” cheering for the deaths of whatever “enemy” has been designated, opposing any effort to control firearms proliferation, craving the next execution in Texas, not giving the least damn about the suffering of the poorest members of society, etc. ad nauseam? Shame on me!) By the way, Mr. Astore, I understand that our neighbors in Canada ARE educated in public schools about the tricks marketers employ to try to separate them from their wages. But we can’t tolerate that kind of “socialistic” activity here, can we?

    • Greg,

      Excellent observations regarding Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” and George Orwell’s 1984. I plan on addressing these works in a future article, featuring some examples from Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Incorporated, Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold, together with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and One Market Under God.

      Also, if you haven’t already seen it, PBS Frontline has an excellent program on-line called The Persuaders featuring hired-gun word-magicians like Dr Frank Luntz proudly explaining and proclaiming their expertise in exploiting subconscious emotion — what they call the reptilian, or “lizard,” part of the older primitive brain — in order to overwhelm the more-recently-evolved thinking, or “mammal,” cortex so as to re-direct human behavior towards their desired goals. And just to restate the semantic point at issue here, John Humprhys wrote of “subverting” emotions and not “suppressing” them. I don’t think he would argue with your understanding of passion and emotion versus intellect.

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