Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
Photo Courtesy of the Lake Oswego Library

Monday, March 14, 2016

Silencing the opposition

This is for all the "loud ones," -  the ones who speak up when others wish they'd shut up.  

This is for all those who take the hits and keep on standing. 

When you hear the phrases, "vocal minority," "the loud ones," "anti-progress," and "NIMBY," or when someone poses an either-or proposition like "you either want strict tree codes to preserve a natural environment OR you are anti-environment and want to clear-cut your property,"  you are hearing propaganda disguised as hyperbole.  Maybe you have heard an innocuous word or phrase  like "economic justice" or "sustainable" and knew it meant something other than its dictionary meaning and it seemed more like a secret code for something else.

How can the public learn the truth when people manipulate the way they use words and define others?  What is the deeper message the speaker is trying to send?  Perhaps this article will explain what is really going on.

USC NOTE: The examples in the article may be politically charged for some readers, but the argument is worth reading.

The Ways of Silencing
The New York Times.  June 25, 2011
By Jason Stanley

We might wish politicians and pundits from opposing parties to engage in reasoned debate about the truth, but as we know, this is not the reality of our political discourse. 

Instead we often encounter bizarre and improbable claims about public figures. Words are misappropriated and meanings twisted. I believe that these tactics are not really about making substantive claims, but rather play the role of silencing. They are, if you will, linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of others. These strategies have always been part of the arsenal of politics. But since they are so widely used today, it is worth examining their underlying mechanisms, to make apparent their special dangers.

As Klemperer writes in “The Language of the Third Reich,” propaganda “changes the value of words and the frequency of their occurrence … it commandeers for the party that which was previously common property and in the process steeps words and groups of words and sentence structures in its poison.” When writing these words, Klemperer was thinking of the incessant use of the term “heroisch” (“heroic”) to justify the military adventures of the National Socialist state. Obviously, the mechanism described by Klemperer is not used for such odious purposes today. Nevertheless, there has been a similar appropriation of the term “freedom” in American political discourse.

It is difficult to have a reasoned debate about the costs and benefits of a policy when one side has seized control of the linguistic means to express all the positive claims. It is easy to say “a tax cut is not always good policy,” but considerably more difficult to say “tax relief is not always good policy,” even though “tax relief” is just a phrase invented to mean the same as “tax cut.”

Silencing is only one kind of propaganda. In silencing, one removes the ability of a target person or group to communicate. As a philosopher of language I am less qualified to make a judgment about the wisdom of Plato, Machiavelli, and Leo Strauss than I am to comment about their favored political tool.  However, I do think that given our current environment — of oppression, revolution, intervention, war, pseudo-war and ever-present human power relations — it is worthwhile bearing in mind the dangers of the manipulation of language. What may begin as a temporary method to circumvent reasoned discussion and debate for the sake of a prized political goal may very well end up permanently undermining the trust required for its existence.

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