An Essay on ‘Framing’ and Fanaticism: Propaganda Strategies for Linguistic Manipulation

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Propaganda and Argument

In his brilliant classic, Propaganda, French philosopher Jacques Ellul explains that the stereotype—a key tool of propagandists— “helps [humans] to avoid thinking, to take a personal position, to form [their] own opinion.” The problem for a political system is that stereotypes do not require thought as opposed to acceptance and allegiance. They are “acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor.” A prescient Albert Schweitzer argued a generation ago that: “the fettering of the collective spirit … by modern organizations, [by] modern unreflectiveness, and [by] modern popular passions, is a phenomenon without precedent in history.”  The situation has worsened considerably since Schweitzer voiced his concerns. As our communications and message shaping skills have grown exponentially during the “Internet Era,” so has the ability to engage in framing and propaganda. At this point the ability to manipulate our beliefs, values and awareness has reached a level that allows emotive messages using powerfully “framed” stereotypes to be embedded deeply within our psyches without ever coming into contact with our rational minds.

We have devolved further and faster than Schweitzer could have imagined, creating what Deborah Tannen describes as the “Argument Culture.” In the “argument culture” we are fanatics, unable and unwilling to engage in the kinds of fact-based reasoned discourse that we always were told was at the core of the democratic system.   Tannen observed that: “when you’re having an argument with someone, your goal is not to listen and understand. Instead, you use every tactic you can think of—including distorting what your opponent just said—in order to win the argument.” She concludes: “In the argument culture, criticism, attack, or opposition are the predominant if not the only ways of responding to people or ideas.”

Language as a Weapon for Acquiring and Preserving Power

Language is a weapon to gain power, defend power, and undermine opponents’ claims to power. When deployed effectively, the “linguistic weapon” bypasses rational thought and penetrates us more directly on the levels where we experience emotion, fear and bias. A sophisticated industry has arisen that employs strategies anchored in propaganda, “framing,” fanaticism and discord. The experts in this industry teach us how to “frame” everything into thematic propaganda “missiles” that we launch to “sell” our positions or sabotage those of our opponents.

Linguist Ruth Anshen once observed that humans do not only use language but actually are language.   In The Undiscovered Self Jung warned that once the emotionality of a situation rises above a certain level of intensity, reason no longer works “and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.” One disturbing result of the pervasive propaganda and thematic framing with which we are inundated and that we ourselves employ against others is to convert us into angry “golem” who become inextricably tied to an “in” group and deeply opposed to anyone our identity groups see as “The Other”.   This phenomenon extends across the full range of social and political movements.

Once a culture reaches a sufficient intensity of anger and interacts primarily through propaganda there is no longer any hope of engaging in honest and reasoned discourse. This is because the particular “language” we have become, in Ruth Anshen’s sense of the term, acts as a distorting “lens” that limits our understanding and shapes not only how we see what we consider reality but even how we are able to see the world in which we are living. Our group’s “socially constructed language” no longer translates into the “socially constructed language” that is being used by our opponents, our enemies or even by those who simply do not support our agenda.   A result is a culture where “you are either with us or against us” and there is no middle ground left for compromise. As we see daily in the behavior of a wide range of our political institutions and social movements, reasoned discourse and compromise are no longer possible. Our vision of reality has become a collection of inauthentic stereotypes rather than fact and evidence-based interpretations.

The Disappearance of Honesty and True Understanding

A disturbing result of all this is that members of groups committed to a specific agenda or ideology cannot afford to be honest during the “argument,” even if they understood what they were talking about to the extent they recognized the inconsistencies and flaws. This resolutely combative attitude exists in part because since the entire system has devolved toward argumentation opponents will use the same tactics and immediately convert your honesty to uncertainty or inaccuracy and then use any effort on your part to explore a range of rationally legitimate options as a weapon against you and your identity group. But it gets even worse because others within your own group will consider your attempt at reasonableness and honest discourse as an act of disloyalty, betrayal or unforgiveable weakness.

The experience of Guns & Ammo editor Jim Bequette starkly reveals the intensity of our degraded social interactions. Bequetteattempted to generate a “healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights” by publishing a column that broke only slightly from the anti-gun control rhetoric that normally appeared in the magazine. A few days after the column appeared, Bequette resigned his position due to “a swift and vocal backlash from readers and other Second Amendment enthusiasts.” Guns & Ammo also terminated its relation with the contributing editor who authored the column. “I made a mistake by publishing the column,” Bequette wrote in an apologetic letter to readers. “I thought it would generate a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights. I miscalculated, pure and simple. I was wrong, and I ask your forgiveness.”

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