Saturday, December 10, 2005

Managed Mystification

Long-time BBC commentator John Humphrys has done the cause of communication a distinct favor with his recently published Lost for Words: the mangling and manipulating of the English Language ( 2004). In this and in subsequent postings, I would like to extract a few of Mr. Humphry's most succinct observations and develop them into a critique of what I call "Managed Mystification," or the deliberately crafted destruction of intellectual meaning as a sales and/or propaganda technique: something quite the opposite of what most people think they mean by "communication." Modern, literate, liberal democratic society appears on the verge of coming unhinged because of this pernicious influence.

For example: in his chapter entitled "Who are they kidding," Huphreys puts his finger, so to speak, on the chief culprit: "the language of the marketing men. They, too, use language to manipulate, but it has nothing to do with argument. Words are used - if they are used at all - to conjure up moods, images, and subconscious associations in order to sell. The intention is not to persuade us through convincing argument, or even to appeal to our passions. It is to subvert our emotions so that we submit to the message, only half aware that we have done so. And it works - which is why the politicians have adopted some of the techniques." Managed Mystification. We don't know why we buy the products and services we do or why we vote for certain brand-name candidates; yet we vaguely feel a need to do so because of some pictures we have seen: blurred sequences of disconnected images accompanied by some strangely compelling background music and occasional word-like noises.

Humphrys has a gift for concisely summarizing important insights into our use and misuse of language and he provides just the kinds of contemporary examples that best illustrate what he wants to say. He provides no bibliography, yet students of semantics can easily detect in his witty and lively prose observations in many cases made previously throughout the past eighty years by authors such as C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (the Meaning of Meaning: 1923), I. A. Richards (Practical Criticism: 1925), Alfred Korzybski (Science and Sanity: 1933), S . I. Hayakawa (Language in Thought and Action: 1941- 1990), and of course George Orwell in his novels (Animal Farm and 1984) and landmark essays, especially "Politics and the English Language" (1946). In the postings that follow, I will try to elaborate on these critical connections.

For now, though, I'll just conclude this little introduction with an observation that clearly identifies the issue of our time: namely, the struggle to defend ourselves, our language, our literature, and our cultural identity itself from the depradations of Managed Mystification. As John Humphreys puts the case:

"If we use words without a direct link to our own thought, what we end up with is mere words - just noise - rather than the communication of one mind with another."


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