The Tyranny of Words
The Tyranny of Words
A relatively old book by now, published in 1938 Stuart Chase felt the need write about semantics and the use of words. At a glance it seems like a mundane and boring topic to talk about and for some more educated people it may be. But a lot of the points discussed in this book are not entirely self-evident but make a lot of sense once presented.
Communication is a topic that interest me greatly and one that is very diverse and multifaceted. There is a plethora of books on the subject that date back thousands of years. The topic will likely continue to be discussed and debated for eternity but why? Why can’t we just figure out a way to communicate effectively, teach it to everyone and be done with it? Well needless to say it is not that simple.
There are so many limitations to the languages that we use that make effective communication possible that it would be impossible for me to mention all of them. Also, worth remembering that there are roughly 6,500 different languages spoken around the world. The Tyranny of Words focuses of the subtle dangers that many words carry and how they can be the catalysts of terrible things.
Some words are more dangerous than others. The first kind of words are basically just labels that share the same referent. Words like dog and chair (as given example in the book) are words that carry a lot a value in communication because they transfer the same image from one brain to another. They are not subject to interpretation. Even across languages if you simply learn the words you can communicate effectively (perro, chien, hund etc…) all refer to dogs. Most of the problems happen with words that are much more abstract. Words like Justice, liberty, patriotism, communism, individualism, truth and so on…
The recognition of the weakness of these types of words is a skill that I have noticed grow since reading the book. It is much easier to pick them out in articles, headlines, speeches and talks. They can be a sign to be sceptical and wary about what is being said and helps you focus on what emotion that speech is trying to invoke in its listeners by using these strong abstract words.
Also, if the abstractions cannot be measured in any way and it is not possible to get 2 or more people to agree 100% on the meaning of that word than it is best to just dismiss that word completely. Of course, if you have the chance than it is always best to have them clarify by asking them to define words that don’t have any referent value.
So why is this a problem? Why can’t we just accept that words are fluid and let people interpret words as they would want?
Chase argues that the lack of general knowledge in semantics in the global population is being exploited and that bad language is the most powerful weapon of choice for all aspiring dictators and malevolent leaders.
Using Joseph Goebbels (reich minister of propaganda) as prime example. Here is a part of a speech from Nazi Germany but note that this book was published in 1938 this was before the start of the second world war. Chase was warning us maybe?
‘’The Aryan Fatherland, which has nursed the souls of heroes, calls upon you for the supreme sacrifice which you, in whom flows the heroic blood, will not fail, and which will echo forever down the corridors of history’’
Now after reading this how many of those words actually carry referent value to the listener? What is the concrete value of this speech? It likely provoked a great deal of energy and emotion in the listeners but what if we where to go through it and replace undefined abstracts with blah’s instead? What would it look like to the trained ear?
‘’The blah blah, which has nursed the blahs of blahs, calls upon you for the blah blah which you, in whom flows blah blood, will not fail, and which will echo blah down the blahs of blah.’’
And this is not an attempted to be funny or even to ridicule Goebbels but rather just to point out that all of these blah’s are simply semantic blanks to a trained ear. Someone who can identify abstractions and remove the emotional connection will simply not get any value from those words. They become completely incomprehensible.
The problem here is when people base their value systems around abstractions. People who are not taught the nuances of semantics and are easily fooled into submission by charismatic and well-spoken demagogues. There is a plethora of examples from contemporary history, I would say some of the more well-known ones could be;
Charles Manson who formed a cult known as the Manson Family and coerced its members into committing nine murders.
Vernon Howell (aka. David Koresh) cult leader of the Branch Davidians of Waco Texas, he managed to convince them that he was the messiah and had a long list of prophecies and also a ‘’walkie-talkie’’ connection to god that he used to justify everything from not having to participate in fasting and having the right to consummate all of the women and girls of the branch Davidians including the daughters and wives of members.
And now as a more modern example and one that hits home, David Icke. Started off as a relatively well-known soccer player in the UK, went on to claim to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ was ridiculed from British television and just generally as a public figure but then decided to double down. He had enough of a following that in the mid-late 90’s he started writing books, bringing together all of the worlds conspiracies and combining them into one narrative. He is known for having speeches and talks (lectures) that last up to ten hours and he is a very emotionally driven speaker. His followings today are in the millions and are continuing to grow.
So, what do these examples tell us? Are they solely about poor education to communication? Probably not. There are of course a lot of variables and nuances that need to be considered but generally I think that being aware of these can help one become more aware and less gullible.
The book goes deeper than just politics and talks a lot about the links with the psyche, neuro science etc.. but being that the book was published in 1938 I didn’t want to talk about the scientific parts too much because I felt that many of them may be outdated by now and it is usually a topic that requires a lot of fact checking.
All of these principles can be applied to business life and personal life as well. I have used them myself to question things I read more, and it has helped me in conversations a lot as a reminder to ask more for definitions and clarification. This has made my life a lot easier and also, I feel that I have less unfounded beliefs than before. At least they are pointed out less often then before.
As a key take away, I think it is important to remember that language is not only about communication, but it also shapes the way we think. Keeping this in mind we need to be aware of the consequences that can be a result of bad language. Words are like spells; they transmit thoughts and emotions from people to people this is both the best and the worse thing about language. Being aware of possible exploits is just one way of protecting yourself from being taken advantage of and reading about semantics is a great way to go about it.