Until I was about 23 I never thought about the “meaning” of words. I spoke and I listened to words, but I didn’t assess all of the nuances that they can contain. It was a simpler time (or so it seemed to me during the Great Depression and World War II) and people were simpler. People generally said what they meant unambiguously, and you understood them at that level. When the ads said that “Lucky Strike’s green” (cigarettes) “went to war,” you knew that was the reason that the tin foil covering the cigarettes and the green color on the package were gone. Although their ads said that smoking was part of a good life you never suspected that was a goddamned lie. Simpler times.
About that time I picked up a little booklet by a professor in the university named S.I. Hayakawa entitled “Language in Thought and Action.” I suddenly learned that words were no longer just to read, or speak, or be listened to, but that they could carry multiple meanings depending on the context, the speaker or writer’s intent, etc. There is a big difference between the words Heroin and Heroine. One can become paranoid over insights like that, but in today’s world a healthy paranoia about the real meaning of words and symbols is mandatory if one wishes to keep a bit of sanity in a world gone mad with lies.
What I’m talking about is “semantics.” Definition: The study or science of meaning in language. The study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form.
Unfortunately in our society being curious about words and meaning is looked at as being almost un-American or, at least, unsocial in discourse. If you are curious about how, what, or why things happen in our country you are considered out of the mainstream. Our schools generally do not teach the young in secondary or advanced education to look skeptically at what they read or hear. Too many citizens, very early in life, have an established ideology that limits their curiosity about anything that lies outside of that ideology.
“Teaching for the test” in secondary schools, and getting an education solely to get a job, has made it difficult for citizens to look behind words and symbols. This opens the door for corporations, media, and politicians to inundate them daily with messages that are outright lies or at least grossly misleading. They use words and symbols to manipulate our attitudes toward what is good for them, not us.
I wish that Hayakawa’s* little book on general semantics would be part of every high school’s curriculum and in every freshman college English class, but for now curiosity about words and their meaning is dormant in America. As a result, the deeply cynical manipulation of language remains unchallenged in public discourse. But corruption of public discourse is not just a matter of semantics: it’s a matter of life or death in a democracy allegedly (but no longer) built on the informed consent of the people.
*Unfortunately, Hayakawa became an unreconstructed reactionary later in life as the notorious President of San Francisco State University during the bitter student strike in 1968-69, and later as a Republican U.S. Senator from California. So an understanding of semantics does not necessarily lead to straight talk and a progressive world view. It’s too bad, but it can still help us understand how we are being manipulated.
3 thoughts on “Managed Mystification Redux: The Importance of Semantics”
Sometime during my last year of junior high school (1960-61), an educated friend of my mother’s gave us a copy of Language in Action, first published in 1939. I still have it. In 1949, S. I. Hayakawa updated the title to Language in Thought and Action and I have seveal dog-eared, heavily annotated copies of that book, as well. Hayakawa mentioned his intellectual debt to Alfred Korzybski, so I looked in the bibliography and found Manhood of Humanity (1921) and Science and Sanity (1933) listed. So I read those books — several times each.
As the years passed, I countinued going back to that bibliography searching for other influences on the thinking behind general semantics. I discovered and read How We Think, by John Dewey; The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K Ogden and I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, and Interpretation in Teaching, by I. A. Richards; The Standardization of Error, by Vilhjalmur Stefanson; The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. Each of those books had bibliographies that led to other books which led to … many library shelves filled with books. But I have to give credit to S. I. Hayakawa for first getting me started thinking about human language as psychological behavior, what it might mean, and to whom, and what we might do with it for good or ill.
Eventually, though, I found my way to Charles Sanders Peirce and two of his classic essays, “The Fixation of Belief” (Popular Science Monthly, 12 November 1877) and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” (Popular Science Monthly, 12 January 1878). If I had only started with these back in high school, I wonder what course my life would have followed? But since I eventually found my way to Peirce starting with Hayakawa and Korzybski, I suppose things worked out well enough after all.
As for what happens to men and women as they grow old, I like to think of Pete Seeger and Noam Chomsky. The vigor and flame of inquisitive, exploratory youth does not always burn out with the advance of years. Too often it does, unfortunately, but not always. And the solid achievements of growing maturity do not disappear simply because their author sometimes becomes unworthy of them later in the course of a long life.
Speaking of Managed Mystification, Glenn Greenwald has a hair-raising example at his new site, The Intercept. The twin piles of Orwellian horse shit — otherwise known as the U. S. and U. K. governments — just keep getting higher. As the general semanticists say: “meaning exists in people, not in words.” So now, more than ever, one needs to know just who says what to whom before one can even begin figuring out what behavior a certain “communicator” wishes to inculcate in his or her chosen “targets” through Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystifcation.
I ran across this reader response to an article on how the Obama administration has mislead the SCOTUS on the illegality of their NSA program. Maybe in a better time we could learn from the Ukrainians on how to keep our leaders adhering to more rigorous semantics.
27 Feb 2014 at 12:45 pm
While tooling around on my errands yday..I heard a news item about Ukraine that blew my mind…because I’ve been advocating the EXACT same thing for years;
The ‘Rebels’ now in control of the Country…were ‘Blockading’ the Entrances to “Official Buildings” like Ukrainian Legislative/Government Buildings..and part of their ‘Blockade’ consists of PEOPLE MANNING LIE DETECTORS. These were REAL “POLYGRAPH” Machines being manned by REAL Polygraph Operators who knew their business. And when Interviewed these individuals were quite clear what the INTENT was;
(paraphrasing here) ‘We’re Going To Ask EVERY Government Official Or Bureaucrat Who TRIES To Enter These Buildings Some Questions..Like “Have You Ever Taken A Bribe” or “Are You Working For Ukraine And The People Or Someone Else?” And They Will Not Enter Until They Answer These Questions…’
One of the most STAGGERINGLY CORRUPT “Elements” in the “Techno Fascist” era here in “America” is how literally and I mean “Literally”..no figure of speech no “hyperbole”..Literally..NONE of this “Technology” is EVER “POINTED” at the people who are now proving to be the most MURDEROUS and CORRUPT….the Bureaucratic Class.
I mean can you IMAGINE the INSTANT “Changes” that would take place if EVERY “Political Campaign” or “Debate” were accompanied by Polygraph Sessions OR “Voice Stress Analysis”?
I mean think about it…what would happen if Clapper had KNOWN that In That Room..the “Committee” Hearing his “Testimony” was ALSO Equipped with Voice Stress Analysis technology so that his lies about Mass Surveillance would’ve been Caught Right Then…can you imagine?
Or if along with a “Teleprompter” for EVERY “State of the Union” there was also VSA?
But the fact that “Hearings” are still “Without” any such technology…is truly almost at this time a kind of “DIRECT ADMISSION OF UNTRUTHFULNESS” by the Government.
I think one of the “Symptoms” we’re dealing with here..is this very thing…that the People In Charge..from the Supreme Court Judges to the Local Building Inspector..have come to not only..not MERELY..”Accept” that they..THEY…are NEVER to be Subjected to the Invasive Technology the rest of us are..but they now “BELIEVE” it En Total..”We Are Above The Law, Or At Least Beyond The Reach Of The Surveillance State Because We Are A Part Of It.”
I will gladly Bet a Body Part..that “If”…or “Were”…such technology implemented at every level of “Government”…Lie Detection on a Regular Basis..Especially at the Federal Level and of course with Anything having to do with The Military Industrial Complex..FDA..DHS..IRS..oh and Of Course the most Corrupt for decades the FBI and DEA (can you IMAGINE the DEA being subjected to Lie Detection in Hearings..Wow!!)..that Every Form of Lie Detection be present….I Bet, hell..I KNOW.. that Real Substantive CHANGE would be almost Immediate. Because the LIES are now so Prevalent and so “Total”…literally “Daily”..the Revolving Door so overwhelmingly CORRUPT..corruption and Deceit now literally “Foundational” to daily “Operations” of the Bureaucratic Class…that until or unless this kind of thing is actually implemented..we’re simply not going to make it.
And of course also..once the “Technology” was aimed at its users…they will be MUCH less likely to continue their Cheerleading and Rah-Rah-ing for the now pretty obvious “Policy Agenda” of;“Coercion, Control and Mass Surveillance FOR PROFIT”.
Point their “Tools” at them and then do what the Ukraine is doing..EXPOSE THE LIES..Publicly..Emphatically..and Immediately…and watch as “Change” is almost Instantly achieved.