How is it that humans have progressed so rapidly in science, mathematics, and engineering, yet we continue to exhibit behaviors that result in misunderstanding, suspicion, bigotry, hatred, and even violence in our dealings with other people and with other cultures?
That haunted one of the founders of the field of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, all his life.
His most penetrating insight concerns how humans use (and misuse) language to generate our models of the world. Korzybski’s repeated dictum, “The map is not the territory,” is a succinct observation that our models of the world often fail dramatically to represent its true nature.
In this way he was like Confucius, who argued, “A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”
Therapeutic practitioners of Neuro-Linguistic Programming attune themselves to destructive language models that cause neurosis. Humans’ tendencies to generalize experience, to distort it, or to ignore it altogether can be observed in the ways in which we report it. Unconscious operation of these processes often leads to the kinds of suspicion, bigotry and violence that Korzybski’s question addressed.
Political speech is ripe with the blurry human modeling. Often such speech is riddled through with religious referents, such as, “God Bless America,” or “Allahu akhbar!” Even the Nazis had “Gott mit uns” stamped on their military belt buckles.
Political slogans often depend on sentimental group identification or witticisms to capture attention, but they rarely function as more than linguistic fingers pointing in the vague direction of potential party policies. They’re rather warm, simple, meaningless fuzzies.
In the 2011 Canadian Federal election the Conservatives claimed to be “Here for Canada,” here being where, exactly? The Greens told us that, “It’s time.” Yes? For what? The NDP were “Working for Families,” but what about all the single people? The Liberals offered, “Change we need, from a proven team.” Well, if a party didn’t offer change, how would it ever oust a sitting government?
Occasionally slogans have left themselves open to acidic parody, as in the 1964 American election when Republican Barry Goldwater’s slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” was reworked by his opponents to, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
In 2008 Obama repeated the slogans “Change you can believe in,” (which many voters would argue was a hollow promise), and “Yes, we can,” a meaningless assertion made revealing mostly by what it left out. Most recently Mitt Romney hectored Americans to “Believe in America,” as if America exists only for the faithful. This just in: the Prime Minister’s Office uses “the Harper government” rather than “the Government of Canada” in its press releases; just an accident, I’m sure.
Visual and auditory symbols suggest linguistic models, and compel (or at least strongly influence) our behavioral responses, a fact well understood by those wishing to manipulate us. Corporate brands decorate (some would say despoil) our everyday landscape, nudging our memories’ pleasure reflexes and alerting us to “needs” we had forgotten to attend.
Repetitive pledges, tortured anthems, and mumbled creeds replace thought (and certainly anything as subversive as doubt). As Paul Simon sang, “In my little town, I grew up believing God keeps his eye on us all; and He used to lean upon me, as I pledged allegiance to the wall.” How long have we been standing on guard for Canada?
While the general population stumbles along, those with more certain agendas set interest rates, sign trade deals and no-bid contracts, slide through tax favours, order drone strikes, and trim public services. The rest of us nervously select lottery tickets and roll up our Tim Hortons rims, looking for changes we can believe in, disappointed optimists to the last.
A retired teacher, Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, BC.