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Popular language use and the propaganda of isolation

The past few weeks have provided two excellent examples of how ideology often relies upon the redefinition of words.

First, on April 12, columnist Jessica Valenti published an essay titled What do we mean by "abuse"? - a question one doesn't ordinarily ask about words that already have a popularly understood meaning. The new definition, we learn, includes a new coined category of "author abuse" - which refers to "demeaning and insulting speech targeted at the writer of [an] article" on public internet forums. This, I noted, is curiously identical to elite redefinitions of "harass" to mean the same thing - and both, certainly, are redefinitions of something we would normally just call "heckling" or "trolling". It isn't particularly difficult to see why bourgeois journalists would argue that they and their ideas are intrinsically worthy of respect, and that public ridicule should be necessarily understood as some kind of heinous "abuse"; the only interesting point here is that Valenti is explicitly redefining the word.

Then, on April 14, the Brookings Institute published a paper called The Five Evils: Multidimensional Poverty and Race in America. Arguments about poverty, they note, are "often restricted to a narrow, income-based conception of what it means to be poor". This standard use of the word is apparently a "problem" - but fortunately, since "there are hundreds of ways in which equality (or inequality) can be defined," they propose that we abandon "traditional, narrowly income-based" conceptions in favor of a "richer, multidimensional formulation". Again, it should not be particularly difficult to see what's going on here. There are obvious reasons why bourgeois economists might want to seize the word we use to refer to people who don't have much income and make it refer to other things. 


Language poses an intrinsic challenge to ruling elites: since meaning emerges from popular use, our vocabulary will always be fundamentally democratic. People will tend to use words in ways that they find useful, and will resist counterproductive attempts to change them; if they find it worthwhile to make a distinction between "abuse" and "trolling", for example, they'll keep doing so. And even if elites momentarily succeed in warping language, society will tend to rehabilitate it; for instance, if Brookings manages to co-opt our word for talking about poverty, people with low incomes will obviously just come up with a new one.

The work of propaganda, then, can often be understood as an attempt to overcome a powerful natural sociolinguistic force that fixes language to a democratic regime of meanings. This force is so overwhelming that some linguists have argued that it cannot be overcome at all; for instance, the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, wrote that
The signifier, though to all appearances freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it...No invididual, even if he willed it, could modify in any way at all the choice that has been made...
Other linguists, like Volosinov and Chomsky, have suggested (on different grounds) that semantic democracy can be overcome, at least temporarily - but it is Lacan, I think, who offered one of the most important insights into how this actually works.


Lacan - to egregiously oversimplify a notoriously impenetrable writer - argued that language gets pinned to meaning through a foundationally psychological process, which he occasionally referred to as sealing. At an early age, toddlers are faced with a basic choice: they can express their desires through cries and babbles, and expect the world to understand them and give them what they want - or they can adopt the words that society already uses to communicate. The latter option, Lacan observed, was a profound act of personal submission: we abandon attempts to dictate to everyone else how to communicate and agree to play by their rules.

Crucially, we build our identity around this act of submission. We internalize the way that society talks about the world, and even the way that it talks about us; this language becomes a part of our default, unconscious perspective, and we can only escape it through conscious scrutiny. And when we become emotionally invested in certain ideas about the world, or about ourselves, that investment always takes place in a particular currency of language. In this way, words become sealed to meanings - not because of some fundamental relationship between the two, or because of some ongoing rational decision to participate in social language conventions, but rather because of a deep emotional inertia within every individual.

So it should be obvious why so many linguists regard as impossible on any kind of significant scale the sort of dramatic redefinition so often associated with propaganda. Orwell intuitively recognized what this would actually take, which is why so much of the brainwashing in 1984 turns on a protracted exercise in literal torture carried out on an individual basis through the deliberate infliction of overwhelming physical and psychological trauma. Even when this happens outside of fiction, it is rarely permanent; in Meerlo's classic The Rape of the Mind, he notes that white "It is now technically possible to bring the human mind into a condition of enslavement and submission" through torture, that condition tends to dissipate quickly after the torture ends.


All of this is why, contrary to popular belief (often built on a gross misunderstanding of Orwell), propagandists are typically not in the business of mass indoctrination through redefinition. It's a clunky, hamfisted persuasion strategy, and when writers try it they typically come off as iconoclastic sophists who are torturing the definition of words in lieu of torturing their audience.

As a rule, it is not the particular words that are in play, but rather (as Ellul put it) "the structure of present-day society [that] places the individual where he is most easily reached by propaganda." Since psychological sealing binds us so powerfully to the democratic language of society, propaganda must begin by removing us from society itself. Ellul continues,
If, by chance, propaganda is addressed to an organized group, it can have practically no effect on individuals before that group has been fragmented...Only when very small groups are thus annihilated, when the individual finds no more defenses, no equilibrium, no resistance exercised by the group to which he belongs, does total action by propaganda become possible.
Instead of breaking us psychologically, mass propaganda breaks us socially; it strategically severs our relationship with the linguistic community and locks us into shrinking echo chambers and tribal sociolects. Lacan's sealing mechanism binds our language use to society - so instead of trying to overcome that bind, modern propaganda simply re-engineers society. Isolation, not rational persuasion or clever sophism, is the foundation of the modern propaganda industry.

All of this is just a technical way of describing our scientific/theoretical understanding of ideas that everyone has long appreciated as a matter of common sense. Communities tend to have similar ways of thinking and talking about things, and it's often only by bringing people out of the community that you can get them to think and talk differently.

That's why one of the major challenges of the left is to resist the intellectual fragmentation and atomization of communities into isolated cliques who are vulnerable to elite coercion. First and foremost, this means insisting on dialogue among the working class despite and in defiance of bourgeois etiquette and civility rules.