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