Language can have "propagandistic"
or "hypnotic" effects. But with the right knowledge,
one can resist. This article uses Bush and Blair
quotes as examples of propagandistic language.
If we regard language as a map of the territory
of reality, it follows that the more distortions in language,
the more inaccurately the map represents the territory.
Cognitive-semantic distortions (CSD) occur "naturally"
in everyday communication (often causing misinterpretations,
communication jams, arguments, etc), but propaganda
intentionally loads language with CSD for specific effects.
This normally works by the "map" so inadequately
representing the "territory", that the listeners
have to "fill in the gaps" in their own minds
a process known as "induction".
For example, a professional rabble-rouser might talk of "defending
our deeply-held values", and each listener experiences
a different personal interpretation of "deeply-held values"
according to their own inner maps. This is just one type of
CSD, known as "simple deletion" (specifics
about "values" are deleted from the communication)
there are several others, which we list below.
Propaganda or politics-as-usual?
Most successful propaganda is subtle. In fact, it
sounds indistinguishable from "respectable" political
speech. Probably the only difference is that propaganda
(according to our definition) is designed, whereas
most political speech contains CSD due to an institutionalised
habit (going back decades/centuries) of minimising
content likely to alienate voters or offend power interests.
(This results in extremely banal communication, which nevertheless
has propagandistic and hypnotic qualities.) The higher the
level of political speech, the more likely that the speech-writers
design the speech to have a propagandistic effect.
When Tony Blair says: own conception of "extreme"
onto their map of the campaigners. "Extreme", to
most people, undoubtedly means lunacy and/or destructive tendencies.
We undo this propaganda simply by asking for specifics: "Which
views does Blair consider as extreme?"
, most people (probably unconciously) fill in the gap
by projecting their
Or, when Blair says:own understanding
of what "necessary" means. Alternatively, we can
resist this "hypnotism" by asking: "According
to whose criteria is it necessary? By what standard
is it necessary?" We'd then be attempting to obtain
a more accurate map of the territory, rather than "lazily"
falling back on our preconceived maps.
, most people
probably fill in the gap by projecting their
(Many people naively think that by disliking or disagreeing
with someone like Blair, they are immune to his propaganda.
But effective propaganda already takes "disagreement"
into account. To negate a frame is to evoke
that frame see our section
on frame semantics for more details).
Types of semantic Propaganda
The Meta-Model of Language* provides a useful terminology
of distortions in language. The main categories it uses are:
Deletions, Generalisations and Distortions,
with subcategories as described below.
For example, consider the following "Blairisms"
(Tony Blair quoted or paraphrased
1. Simple Deletion
"People" refers to whom exactly? We don't know
it's deleted/excluded. Used in the context of criticising
anti-war campaigners, the effect of this deletion was to associate
campaigners in general with anti-Americanism.
2. Unspecified Adjective (sub-category of Deletion)
Extreme in what way? The speaker's definition of the adjective
"extreme" is deleted/excluded.
3. Simple Generalisation
Never? Does all progress depend on threat of force?
4. Modal Operator (sub-category of Generalisation)
Terms like "have to" and "must" express
internal rules of the speaker's modus operandi for
functioning in the world. The speaker generalises that these
rules apply to everyone.
5. Simple Distortion
A basic cause-effect distortion. A war is averted by
the aggressors deciding not to attack. Such a decision can
be caused by many things eg a preference for
avoiding mass slaughter.
6. Complex Equivalence (sub-category of Distortion)
How does criticism of a President equate with hatred of a
country? The equivalence of the two statements appears complex
and is unstated by the speaker.
7. Lost Performative (sub-category of Distortion)
These phrases assert a type of judgement (eg "necessary",
"inevitable", "unavoidable") without
taking responsibility for that judgement. Who evaluates
it as unavoidable? According to whose criteria is it
According to what standard is it necessary?
These questions identify the "performative" (performer
or source) of the evaluations, thereby exposing the
statements as someone's opinion rather than
A presupposition is a silent assumption or unspoken paradigm
(either a sub-category of Distortion, or a category
in its own right). Such "paradigmatic" assumptions
need to be questioned: "How do you know that
knowledge of Saddam's brutality would cause people to stop
[Another major type of distortion is known as a nominalisation
or "false noun" for more details of
this, see our separate article, Controlled
Propaganda is like Cognitive Therapy in
reverse. Cognitive Therapy is a psychological technique for
curing irrational fear, hatred, anger, etc. It dissolves cognitive
distortions by restructuring the language that led to those
Propaganda works in the reverse way: it uses language to
induce cognitive distortions, often leading to irrational
fear, hatred and anger, which is then used to justify an action
(eg bombing a country).
The following is a list of cognitive distortions identified
by Cognitive Therapy. Examples of corresponding propaganda
are given ( ):
(George W Bush).
on a newsgroup).
2. All-or-Nothing Thinking (eg black-and-white,
either/or thinking; polarising at extremes).
(George W Bush).
(Jonathan Alter, Newsweek).
3. Labelling (eg repetitive name-calling; dismissing
something via label, or emotional trigger-word).
4. Mind-reading (eg projections/assumptions
about someone's thoughts).
(George W Bush).
(Michael Kelly, Washington Post).
5. Emotionalising (eg valuing emotions over objective
(George W Bush).
6. Should-ing (eg Putting pressure on people to conform
to "divine" rules. Statements containing "should",
"must", "need to", "have to").
(George W Bush).
(two examples in one sentence,
heard on a BBC Radio 4 interview).
7. Filtering (Over-focusing on one aspect of something
to the exclusion of everything else).
Eg: focus on military solutions / exclusion of non-military
8. Can't-ing (Imposing linguistic and semantic limits
on oneself and others using the "can't" or "cannot"
There is some overlap between the cognitive
distortions listed by Cognitive Therapy (CT) and the
Meta-Model categories (MM):
Over-Generalising (CT) overlaps
Should-ing (CT) overlaps Modal
Can't-ing (CT) overlaps Modal
Filtering (CT) overlaps some forms
of Deletion (MM)
Labelling (CT) overlaps some forms
of Complex Equivalence (MM)
*Acknowledgement/source for terminology:
L. Michael Hall, on the "Meta-model of Language",
in "The Secrets Of Magic", Crown House Publishing,