Controlled by words


Certain words have an unsuspected "controlling" effect – listen to any media coverage of politics (particularly comments by politicians) and you'll hear a batch:

Freedom, responsibility, security, decency, efficiency, rights, justice, opportunity, success, etc.

Many people feel attached to such words, believing they express "personal values". This is like wearing the same clothes as everyone else in order to express your unique personality.

Social Mechanism v Personal Mind

The social meaning of a given word has less to do with dictionary definition than with common emotional reflexes triggered by the word. For example, consider these quotes (from politicians after 9/11):

"We must defend our freedom"
"We may need to sacrifice some civil liberties"

Most people seem to regard "freedom" and "civil liberties" as two different things – one must be protected while the other can be dissolved (in times of danger, etc).

But what (other than different emotional reflexes to the words) is the difference between your "freedom" and your "civil liberties"? Surely your freedom consists of nothing but your civil liberties?

Media-image trips

Perhaps common reflex reactions to the word "freedom" arise from decades of media images of strong leader types using that word. And perhaps reflex reactions to "civil liberties" derive from images of whiny, politically-correct protesters (as portrayed by the media).

Not all words have such hypnotic associations. No matter how many times the word "orange" is associated (via ads) with the telecoms company Orange, most people aren't reflexively reminded of the company when reading a passage in a novel about an orange sunset.

So what's different about those words which have hypnotically "reflexive" and "controlling" meanings?

Controlling words

Most of the words that have an unsuspected "controlling" effect can be classified as false nouns (also known as "nominalisations"). For example, "freedom", being a noun, implies a thing. But no such thing as "freedom" exists (it can't be located anywhere in space-time).

False nouns such as "freedom" serve as convenient abstractions, but their abstract nature makes them good conditioned-reflex triggers. Why? Perhaps because people find it difficult to override a conditioned social "meaning" if it's nebulous (hard to pin down, out of reach).

For example, government PR exploits the abstract concept of "security" (a false noun). We're supposed to sacrifice some "rights" (another false noun) for the sake of "security". But the reflex associations most people have to the word "security" are probably unrelated to anything a government can provide by dissolving our "rights".

Unless you unravel and override these abstract concepts, they elicit relatively "mindless" associations and reactions.


"Security" and "rights"
Sacrificing a few "rights" for "security" may sound like a good idea in principle – until you start to think about it.

In law, you are protected against some "abuses of state power". Many of the ways you are protected have been legally enshrined since Magna Carta – known as your "rights". Some "rights" exist because of long, hard struggles by people who risked their own "security" to protect people from heavy-handed state authorities. Should any of these "rights" be sacrificed due to the tiny risk (less than one in a million chance of being a victim) to your "security" posed by terrorists?

"Responsibility" and "authority"
The word "responsibility" has a dictionary definition of "morally accountable for actions". But it's not clear whom one is accountable to, or by whose morals. Presumably some moral "authority". The whole idea of "responsibility" depends on an arbitrary notion of "authority". The appeal of "responsibility" is that it makes conformity and obedience to "authority" seem virtuous. (The common emotional reflex triggered by the word "responsibility" seems to be pride and/or respect).

(Contrary to conventional wisdom, abandoning "responsibility" isn't a licence to do harm. Such licences are available only from responsible state authorities. James Bond, licensed to kill).

"Freedom" seems like the main selling point of western "democracy". Most western citizens, however, have no choice but to drastically constrain their "freedom" for most of their waking hours (in the distinctly unfree state known as wage slavery, or "employment").

Most western children aren't free (to not attend state schools). Attempts to escape the shackles of school or wage slavery are generally regarded as "abuses of freedom" by the official protectors of that "freedom".

"Efficiency" is a persuasive word – who would oppose it? Who'd be in favour of "inefficiency"?

It helps to distinguish between two types of "efficiency":
i) "Efficiency" as understood in everyday language.
ii) "Efficiency" as understood in economics/political PR.

In economics there's a type of "efficiency" which increases profit. No other type counts. Economic "efficiency" is sometimes equivalent to "inefficiency" as understood in everyday language. The corporate "downsizing" phenomenon is a good example – very "efficient" at increasing profits, but very "inefficient" in terms of the "externalised" costs to society (public spending on welfare, medical costs, etc).

Although economic "efficiency" means something very different from everyday "efficiency", most people have the same emotional reflex to the word, regardless of the context. "Efficiency" triggers an approving reflex.

In the name of "efficiency", publicly funded infrastructure and decades of publicly funded research/development (in computing, aerospace, biotechnology, etc) is sold cheap to private companies who couldn't survive without the "inefficiency" of this public funding.

Test for Impressive-sounding horseshit

"We are a broad-based movement for progress and social justice"
(Labour Party manifesto, 2001)

"[We aim] to provide truly personalized services, meeting the needs and aspirations of today's generation for choice, quality and opportunity"
(Tony Blair, June 2004 speech)

A common ingredient in impressive-sounding horseshit (see above examples) is false nouns – words which sound impressively solid, but whose meaning seems (on closer scrutiny) highly abstract.

Two tests for false nouns:
i) See if the word will fit into the phrase "an ongoing...". True nouns will not (eg "an ongoing door"), but false nouns will ("an ongoing opportunity").

ii) The word apparently refers to something. But can you imagine putting this something into a wheelbarrow. True nouns pass the test. False nouns don't.

(False nouns don't always signify horseshit – they may function as relatively harmless abstractions, especially in trivial matters).

"In principle"

When government plans (eg for compulsory ID cards) are unpopular, PR "strategies for popularisation" often start by getting people to agree "in principle" to innocent-sounding abstractions.

For example, ID-card PR might claim overwhelming public support in principle for tight "security" against ID-related fraud.

The next step is to associate this "in principle" support for "security" with ID cards.

If the PR is effective, opposition to ID-cards will seem like opposition in principle to the idea of "security".

Watch out for the phrase "in principle" – it may signify the presence of abstract controlling horseshit.