Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Colloquium

By Hoffmann, Gregg | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Colloquium


Hoffmann, Gregg, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


AN EDUCATION that includes general semantics and critical thinking can help an individual wade through the flood of doublespeak and propaganda that surrounds us.

That seemed to be the consensus among those who participated in the 42nd annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and a colloquium entitled, "Doublespeak and Propaganda," October 22-23, 1993, at the Williams Club in New York.

William Lutz, a professor at Rutgers University, presented the Korzybski lecture, which he entitled "General Semantics, Doublespeak, and Linguistic Survival in the Twentieth Century." Lutz serves as director of the English Graduate Program at Rutgers, has served as the head of the Committee on Public Doublespeak for the National Council of Teachers of English since 1971, and is editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak.

Presenters at the colloquium, held the day after the lecture, included Terence Moran of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, veteran general semanticist and language expert Allan Walker Read, Oleg Pocheptsov, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania and formerly of Kiev University, and Gregg Hoffmann, senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of a new book Media Maps & Myths.

Ralph Wesselmann led participants in a group participation exercise in creating doublespeak. Participating in a panel discussion were Howard Livingston of Pace University and Kenneth Johnson, professor emeritus at UW-Milwaukee.

Lutz emphasized that we must be careful to not trust maps automatically. "Every verbal map must be critically examined and tested against the territory it is supposed to represent," he said. "We must always ask whether this map gets us where we want to go. Moreover, we have to check our verbal maps constantly. The world changes constantly, so our maps have to be continually adjusted.

"Second, we have to ask where we got a particular map. Did someone give us the map? If so, who gave it to us, and for what purpose? Does the map take us where we want to go, or where the map giver wants us to go? Finally, we should heed the advice of Ernest Hemingway, who said that 'a person must have a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.' I would suggest that good map reading and good crap detecting are the essential requisite skills for linguistic survival in the Twentieth Century."

Lutz cited numerous examples of doublespeak from advertising, government, and military sources. "There are a lot of verbal maps offered to us, verbal maps drawn of doublespeak. These maps are also maps deliberately made false, maps that do not help us find our way safely, maps that do not lead but mislead. Whe maps bear a false or inaccurate relationship with their territories, those who try to use those maps to find their way quickly become lost or worse."

A couple examples offered by Lutz included:

* Congressman Newt Gingrich's list of 133 words that can help candidates attack their opponents and praise themselves. Using this list, a candidate coul call his or her opponent, "sick, pathetic, incompetent, liberal traitors whose self-serving permissive attitude promotes a unionized bureaucracy and an anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child, anti-jobs ideology." Using Gingrich's "positive words," the candidate could bill himself or herself, and other member of his or her party, as "humane, confident, caring, hard-working reformers who have a moral vision of peace, freedom, and liberty that we can all build throug a crusade for prosperity and truth."

* From the Persian Gulf War, came terms like "use of force" instead of war, "weapons systems" instead of bombs, "visiting a site" instead of bombing raids, "neutralizing" sites instead of blowing them up, "collateral damage" instead of civilian casualties.

Terence Moran said gathering examples of doublespeak from business and media, from politics and government and other sources has "never been easier, except for the bumper crops during the Vietnam War, the Nixon Watergate affair and the Reagan-Bush-Quayle assault on language and logic.

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