Semantic propaganda


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: "The extreme views of many of the anti-war campaigners", most people (probably unconciously) fill in the gap by projecting their 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?"

Or, when Blair says: "The bombing is unfortunate, but it's necessary", most people probably fill in the gap by projecting their 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.

(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 in blue):

1. Simple Deletion
"People say that America is the real evil"
"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)
"The extreme views of many of the campaigners..."
Extreme in what way? The speaker's definition of the adjective "extreme" is deleted/excluded.

3. Simple Generalisation
"Without continued threat of force we will never make any progress..."
Never? Does all progress depend on threat of force?

4. Modal Operator (sub-category of Generalisation)
"We have to act now..."
"We must not allow this to continue..."

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
"Only Saddam can avert this war..."
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)
"They're always criticising the President – they hate America..."
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)
"The bombing is unfortunate, but it's necessary"
"We don't like doing it, but it's inevitable"
"We don't want to kill civilians, but it's unavoidable"
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 inevitable?
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 unquestionable fact.

8. Presupposition
"If people knew the true extent of Saddam's brutality they would not question our decision..."
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 asking questions?"

[Another major type of distortion is known as a nominalisation or "false noun" – for more details of this, see our separate article, Controlled by words].

Cognitive Propaganda

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 distortions.

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 (in blue):

1. Over-Generalising
"This is the world's fight, this is civilization's fight"
(George W Bush).
"Killing is a way of life for Afghans – it's a barbaric culture" (seen on a newsgroup).

2. All-or-Nothing Thinking (eg black-and-white, either/or thinking; polarising at extremes).
"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"
(George W Bush).
"It's kill or be killed" (Jonathan Alter, Newsweek).

3. Labelling (eg repetitive name-calling; dismissing something via label, or emotional trigger-word).
"Terrorist", "anti-American", "appeaser", etc.

4. Mind-reading (eg projections/assumptions about someone's thoughts).
"They hate our freedoms" (George W Bush).
"American pacifists... are on the side of future mass murders of Americans" (Michael Kelly, Washington Post).

5. Emotionalising (eg valuing emotions over objective information).
"In our grief and anger we have found our mission"
(George W Bush).

6. Should-ing (eg Putting pressure on people to conform to "divine" rules. Statements containing "should", "must", "need to", "have to").
"We must be vigilant" (George W Bush).
"Now that we've started the bombing, we should see it through to the end – we need to have strong stomachs" (two examples in one sentence, heard on a BBC Radio 4 interview).
"We have to show our patriotism".

7. Filtering (Over-focusing on one aspect of something to the exclusion of everything else).
Eg: focus on military solutions / exclusion of non-military solutions.

8. Can't-ing (Imposing linguistic and semantic limits on oneself and others using the "can't" or "cannot" word).
"It's unfortunate, but we can't avoid causing civilian casualties".
"We can't just sit back and hope diplomacy will work".
"We cannot tolerate anti-American sentiments".

Overlapping Models

There is some overlap between the cognitive distortions listed by Cognitive Therapy (CT) and the Meta-Model categories (MM):

Over-Generalising (CT) overlaps Generalisations (MM)

Should-ing (CT) overlaps Modal Operators (MM)

Can't-ing (CT) overlaps Modal Operators (MM)

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, 1998.