The Meaning of Semantics

phone booth

To discover meaning it is sometimes sufficient to discover what is meaningless. In public debate the careless usage of words is as popular as it is problematic, rendering words meaningless. Linguist Noam Chomsky (1928) said that any leader looking to exert power will first want to limit debate. This is primarily accomplished through semantics and the promotion of erroneous and vague vocabulary. Language can be used to bring us closer to reality but it can also lead away from it. The information war heightens this risk, but warnings from the past can help us reduce it.

In 1985, American writer William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) published an essay entitled “Who Did What Where and When?” Speaking or writing words without being specific, he argued, is not only meaningless but harmful, because it creates illusions, misunderstandings, needless arguments and distorts perceptions of the world.

“I have had reporters ask me whether I thought the American people were moving toward the right. What people? Farmers? Book-of-the-Month-Club ladies on the East Coast? College students? Ghetto residents?”

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), “Who Did What Where and When?” in: The Adding Machine, Seaver Books, New York, 1985.

Burroughs agreed with Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), founder of the field of General Semantics, that any word that is slightly less straight-foward must be used with utmost care. Korzybski’s 1933 book Science and Sanity explains this in detail, and Burroughs wrote that it should be required reading especially for journalists and scientists.

While Burroughs and Korzybski warned us 40 and 90 years ago respectively, we are in much bigger trouble now, not only because we were too stubborn to listen but also because of modern technology. Today, the owners of online dictionaries and search engines are changing definitions whenever they desire. Tablet Magazine described that the information war is an attempt to change reality. Changing reality starts with changing perception, which starts with changing definitions. In order to change definitions, carelessness and relativism are promoted. While the head of NPR and former head of Wikipedia, Katherine Maher, preaches that truth and reality are relative and that we shouldn’t care too much about striving for it, political propagandists are scrambling to reappropriate definitions, as Jacob Siegel showed, for ‘deep state’ and ‘ruling class’.

Unspecific, abstract wordings are sabotaging public debate, and the topic of ideology is a particularly slippery slope. Social media posts are filled with many “isms” for which almost every individual will provide a different definition. Writer William Pfaff, for instance, wrote his 2005 book The Bullet’s Song around Futurism, Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Fascism and Utopianism, and therefore he needed to address precisely to whom, when and what he was referring for each term, without fearing to burst his reader’s bubbles of perception:

“It is unfashionable to point out today, but Fascism, to Fascists, was a progressive cause.”

William Pfaff, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2005.

Pfaff’s book shows that the history of ideology is not at all an easy history to write. Who Did What Where and When?

For semantics, technology provides lots of downside risk and relatively little upside. Careless use of words creates powerful distortions through the effect of Matroyskha dolls: Words are a symbolic layer on top of observable reality, these are then put onto the computer’s Internet, another reality, and then into a social network, a third layer. Social networks are therefore no place for public debate and Burroughs and Korzybski explained why long before Big Tech monopolies were forced down the public’s throat.

It is by not-so-intelligent design that public debate is leading us away from reality and this, in turn, is partially fuelled, Burroughs argued, by the egotistical need to win arguments, to be right:

“My contention is that evil is quite literally a virus parasite occupying a certain brain area which we term the RIGHT center. The mark of a basic shit is that he has to be right. (…) From the Inquisition to the Conquistadores, from the American Indian Wars to Hiroshima they are RIGHT RIGHT RIGHT.”

William S. Burroughs, “My Own Business” in: The Adding Machine, Seaver Books, New York, 1985.

In this funny short clip Jordan Peterson confronts the problem of egomaniacs abusing language. While he takes it to the extreme in demanding an agreed upon definition of the verb ‘to do’, his point is exactly the same as that of Burroughs and Korzybski: We need to know what we are talking about, before we talk about it.

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