Understanding Propaganda from a General Semantics Perspective

Article excerpt

Although the editors of Propaganda Analysis, the journal of the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, Inc., didn't cite Korzybski's work in their 1937 article that includes a list of "the seven common propaganda devices," (1) Korzybski and the Institute were talking about related matters. The Institute's seven propaganda devices (name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonials, plain folks, card stacking, and band wagon) are classic examples of the violation of the principles of general semantics.

But, that stands to reason. As Neil Postman points out, "propaganda" refers to a use of language designed to evoke a particular kind of response. (2)

Korzybski and his associates intended that general semantics formulations and methods would help us communicate more clearly and immunize us against distorted communication. But propagandists exploit such techniques to influence thinking in whatever direction they want.

Examining basic propaganda techniques in terms of the principles of general semantics makes it clear what propagandists are trying to do, and why their techniques work.

The "Big Six" Basic Principles of General Semantics

While Korzybski developed the basic formulations and terms, Wendell Johnson gave Korzybski's ideas a somewhat different structure and identified "three basic notions" as well as "three main principles." (3) The six fundamental ideas are:

* Non-identity. The word is not the thing.

* Non-allness. One can never know or say all about anything.

* Self-reflexiveness. People make abstractions of abstractions.

* Probability principle. Where everything changes, probability - not certainty - is the basic idea.

* Symbol-signal reactions. Symbol reactions involve thinking before reacting; signal reactions are stereotypical and automatic.

* Extensionalization. Extensionalization is the scientific method - questioning, observing, evaluating, and revising. It refers also to non-verbal definitions.

Propaganda's "Basic Seven" are the Abuse of General Semantics' "Basic Six"

The Institute of Propaganda Analysis' seven basic propaganda techniques are really the abuse or exploitation of the six basic ideas of general semantics.

NAME CALLING

Name Calling. Here the propagandist gives a negative label to whatever the propagandist wants others to view negatively. The propagandist wants reactions to the negative label, not to evidence. An example would be to inappropriately label a group as "terrorists."

A General Semantics Interpretation

* Non-identity. The label "terrorist" evokes negative feelings, and the propagandist hopes the audience will respond the same way to the group. But the label is not the group.

* Non-allness. The name is not all there is to say about the group. The propagandist hopes the label "terrorist" is sufficient for the audience to form opinions without realizing there is more to be said about the group.

* Self-reflexiveness. The propagandist hopes the audience won't see the label "terrorist" as an abstraction of some behavior. But the label is an abstract, and as such is incomplete and inaccurate.

* Probability principle. Things change. Even if the name had some basis once, it may no longer fit. The propagandist hopes the audience will assume that if the label fit once, it always will be accurate.

* Symbol-signal reaction. The propagandist wants people to react automatically and negatively to the label "terrorist" without questioning the evidence.

* Extensionalization. Here the propagandist hopes the audience will not ask whether the terrorist label has any basis in fact, and will not seek non-verbal evidence.

GLITTERING GENERALITIES

Glittering Generalities. Propagandists use vague, abstract, positive terms - "virtue" words the institute called them - to win approval. They want reactions to the positive label, not to evidence. …