Manipulating public opinion – by Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD
The temptation to impose ones will on others is one that has been there for as long as humans have had language. It as the spectacle of fascist and totalitarian regimes in the 1930s and 1940s that led to a spate of writings after the second world on the tools and contexts likely to favour control of the masses. One was Theodor Adorno’s work ‘The authoritarian personality’ (1950) in which he identified a type that favoured control from an external authority; another was Edward Bernays, credited with extending the work of political propaganda into the post-war civilian sphere through what he called ‘The engineering of consent’ (1947). A third was of course George Orwell who explored in 1984, (published in 1949), the way that language was used to shut down questioning and dissent.
With the British government imposing physical restrictions on people’s freedoms using a piece of Public Health legislation passed in 1984 of all years, it is opportune to reflect on the extent to which the language of Covid19 mirrors that in Orwell’s novel. Before doing that, a word on the power of language to influence the way that people think.
Language and thought
There is a widely held view that language influences perception and emotions with even Charlemagne voicing the fact that ‘To have a second language is to have a second soul’. Psycholinguisticians have now shown that Russian speakers’ ability to distinguish light and dark blue faster than other peoples may be related to the fact that there are separate words for these colours (‘galiboy’ and ‘siniy’ respectively). The gender of a noun has also been shown to influence perception with the feminine bridge in the German language (‘Die brücke) evoking descriptions from Germans that place greater emphasis on the beauty of this object than in Spain where the noun has a masculine gender (‘El puente’) and speakers are more likely to emphasis its strength and length. In a similar way, agency is more easily expressed in English than in Spanish (the first able to voice the belief ‘He broke the vase’ as against ‘the vase broke’ in Spanish) and watching identical testimony, English speakers are more likely to remember the identity of the person who caused the vase to break than the Spanish speaker.
So, in a world with around 7,000 languages, we could expect substantial cognitive diversity where the imposition of a single language – such as we find in the world of corporate marketing – would shepherd people into a single mode of response. In the case of business, the marketing industry has finessed its messages through punchy brevity (Think different, Apple, 1997), alliteration (Fly the friendly skies, United Airlines, 1966), and the ever popular ‘rule of three’ (Just do it, Vorsprung Durch Technik, Beanz Meanz Heinz; Diamonds are forever). Of course, the selling of political ideas produces equally well-known phrases including; ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ (Julius Caesar); ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (French revolution); ‘Location, location, location’ (Harold Samuel); ‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair).
Given the power of language to shape thought, it is interesting to find Orwell analysing the way that the fictional language of Oceania, ‘Newspeak’, diminished rather than extended the range of people’ thinking. With a new lexicon of Covid-19 making a rapid appearance across the globe in the last few months, how does this compare with Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’?
Newspeak and the lexicon of Covid19
In a spine-chilling appendix to 1984 (https://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/english/en_app), Orwell explains the way that ‘Newspeak’ was designed to make ‘all forms of thought, other than that of Ingsoc impossible’, with the complete version allegedly appearing in the 11th edition (sic!) of the Newspeak dictionary. Orwell deconstructs this fictional language, revealing the three categories of language, A.B and C underpinning it.
So-called A-type vocabulary is said to cover everyday ‘purposive thoughts’ evoked by words such as ‘hit’, ‘run’, ‘dog’, ‘tree’, ‘sugar’, ‘house’, ‘field’ which ‘leave no room for nuance, or degrees of meaning’. By contrast, ‘B-type words are those with political or ideological significance tailored to engender blind acceptance of the Party’s doctrines. These are composite words that eradicate the associations that would attach to the separate presentation of the words, with the contraction of the words ‘Communist International’ to Cominternshowing how an image of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune can give way to a tightly-knit organisation with a well-defined body of doctrine. Other examples include the word ‘thinkpol’ in place of ‘thought police’ and Orwell shrewdly observes that a further effect is ‘to make speech, and especially speech…. as nearly as possible independent of consciousness’.
The third type of vocabulary, type C, includes words that specifically relate to science and technical fields and disciplines but so expressed that the language would not allow an individual to ‘gain access to too much knowledge’. As a consequence, scientific processes and the word ‘science’ do not feature in Newspeak.
Understanding these three basic elements, how does the language of Covid-19 compare to Newspeak? And what stylistic devices, if any, underpin the Covid-19 lexicon?
In fact, there is no shortage of cases of Category A- type words and phrases. These include:
‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ (the UK) and its replacement on 10 May of ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’. Note the ‘rule of three’ here – always at the ready – and the nominalisation of the word ‘virus’ which removes all dispute concerning the presence of a biological form that some doctors (eg Drs Kaufman and Cowan) dispute has been appropriately isolated and tested. Note also the phrases ‘Feeding the nation’; ‘Clap for carers’ (brownie points for alliteration and rule of three); ‘Wash your hands’; ‘Quarantine’; ‘Essential shopping’ and ‘Essential travel’.
In terms of category B type words, we have the ubiquitous ‘lockdown’, a word normally reserved for prisoners confined to their cells but extended to civilians – ominously – in a 2010 Rockefeller document that details an imagined pandemic scenario in 2012, necessitating what the document describes as a ‘Lock step’ policy (see http://www.nommeraadio.ee/meedia/pdf/RRS/Rockefeller%20Foundation.pdf). In addition, there are words that although not physically joined, are viewed as inseparable such as ‘New normal’, ‘Contact App’, ‘Social-distancing’ and ‘Second wave’.
Where C-type words are concerned these might be thought to include ‘Covid-19’; ‘Test positive’; and ‘Fighting coronavirus’. The justification for considering these to be category C words? According to Orwell, such words leave the science presumed and explained where in fact, such clarity and consensus may be absence. In fact, one recent commentator has summarised the scientific evidence as ‘junk’ (see https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/05/20/why-the-government-should-not-always-follow-the-science/) and questions could be posed of all three of the concepts set down at the beginning of this paragraph.
What type of questions? Well, the word ‘Covid-19’, coined by the UN’s WHO in February 2020, implies a virus-originated illness where many scientists dispute that this is the only or real cause of the listed symptoms. By analogy, the phrase ‘Test positive’ presumes the accuracy of a PCR test created by Novel Laureate biochemist Dr Cary Mullis that was never intended for diagnostic purposes and that is alleged by some doctors to deliver 80% false positives. Finally, the phrases ‘Fighting coronavirus’ and ‘The invisible enemy’ presume that there is a virus to fight, and with this as well as germ theory now questioned by many scientists, these phrases become contentious. In fact, as Frank Furedi has suggested (see link above) they may simply be part of a tendency to present politics as evidence-based when the evidence for this belief is not presented in a form that permits public debate.
Reason for grave concern
It would appear that elements of Newspeak are being used in the linguistic presentation of the lockdown, a disturbing finding given that this form of speech is designed to shut down thought. Also concerning is the apparent roll-out of these concepts on a global scale. A cursory search revealed, for example the appearance of the ‘lockdown’ concept in France as ‘le confinement’, a word suggestive of being kept somewhere by force while in Germany it features as ‘Ausgangsperre’, translating as ‘an embargo on going outside’. Then, the notion of ‘Social distancing’ features in Germany as ‘Soziale Distanzierung’ and the ‘Stay home. Stay safe’ motto used until 10 May in the UK, is still used in Ireland.
The snapshot of an international lexicon continues with ‘contact tracing’ appearing in Germany as ‘Kontaktverfolgung’, ‘Quarantine’ in Iran and daily clapping for the health services at 8.00pm in France. Of course, the full panoply of Covid-19 words cited in this article are likely to feature in one form or another in English-speaking countries across the world.
The global lingua franca that is the Covid-19 lexicon underpins the modification of marketing straplines globally. So, Coca-Cola has changed the form that its advert takes in Times Square so that, instead of showing the usual connected Coca-Cola script, it displays the letters spread apart and a new tag line ‘Staying apart is the best way to stay connected’. Likewise, Nike released a new advert with the words: ‘If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.” These adverts have meaning for millions only because the concepts underpinning them have a global reach. They also show the way in which commercial interests have joined forces with the political, a move that some might see as nudging society closer to fascism.
Reacting to Newspeak
With politics locking arms with Big Business in the creation of a Newspeak lexicon, people need to ask themselves whether they want to use this vocabulary. The words ‘Lock step’ appeared as early as 2010 in a Rockefeller document describing a fictional pandemic that would give rise to authoritarian leadership and would limit the scope for citizen innovation. If you do not wish to see this scenario unfold, it is maybe time to consider whether to create and use an alternative lexicon.
Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially ‘fascist’ because it forces us to think and say certain things and so we are faced with a choice. Either go on using the words and phrases created by the global political classes – conveniently ready packed and ready for use in 2020 – or create our own vocabulary. Here are some suggestions from friends and acquaintances:
|Existing lexicon||New lexicon (for critical thinkers)|
|New normal||New abnormal|
|Social distancing||Social isolation|
|Stay alert, control the virus, save lives||Obey the rules, wreck the economy, kill people|
|Wear the mask||Support the nonsense, perpetuate the fear,
|Throw away all the good work we’ve done||Perpetuate our destruction|
In fact, the decision not to use the language of the establishment has a precedent. The Nigerian author Amos Tutunola wrote his first novel The Palm Wine Drunkard in 1952 while the country was still under British colonial rule and he used a pidgin to translate African cultural particularities into the English language. So perhaps readers could suggest ways of expanding the lexicon so that the Newspeak lexicon is replaced with a language that leaves room for debate and discussion.
Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD, formerly Professor of Management and Marketing, is the author of several books exploring diversity in management practices, thought and design. She runs conferences on the topic of ‘Questioning History’, with the next one on 18-20 December 2020.
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