Sometimes we simply do not know what we are saying. For instance, how many atheists pause before they say ‘goodbye’, because they understand that it is a contraction of ‘God be with you’ so contradicts their beliefs?

Words move away from their original meanings – ‘tawdry’ from ‘St Audrey’s lace’ or ‘exorbitant’ from ‘out of the wheel track’, for instance. And words can also vary in their meanings from one country to another. As George Bernard Shaw said, the US and the UK are ‘divided by a common language.’ Even simple terms like ‘potato chips’ have different meanings (and please avoid ‘fanny’ in polite company when in the UK!).

The dictionary-makers track the movement of language and try to keep up, but with over a million words and counting in the English language, it is a hard task.

Language separates us from the other species. Without language, we would be nothing more than chimpanzees. Language provides us with collective memory, so allows us to build on the insights – the memes – of past generations.

Because of language, we can explore the world and our own consciousness with a vast literature from the very first named author – Princess Enheduanna of Babylon- to the present day.

Alongside the language of words, some see music and mathematics as languages. But where music and mathematics are for the most part logical and honorable, verbal language is capable of tremendous deception. And the use of language to cajole and coerce is an everyday aspect of human life.

The distinction between concrete and abstract language is vital to our understanding of verbal deception. Language is used to describe not only objects but also feelings and concepts. Abstract language is the essential tool of persuasion: it flowers into poetry and song, celebrates messages of harmony and unity and can at times help us to transcend the mundane world; but language is also the essential tool of deception.

Orators and propagandists, demagogues and tyrants are all familiar with the thought-stopping platitude and the armour-piercing phrase. Careful examination can show that such arguments are at times pure sophistry: ways of twisting logic to gain consent.

John Wesley used a relatively simple approach to convert thousands to his Methodist creed: he would describe the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell, and then warn his listeners that death might strike them down as they strolled home from his sermon. If they had not repented their sinfulness, they would surely plummet straight into the fiery pit. Words can be very powerful, as every hell-fire preacher knows.

Loaded language is an essential aspect of Robert Jay Lifton’s remarkable delineation of thought reform.[1] Words become weapons to the totalist, who appeals to emotion rather than reason. Lifton pointed to ‘loaded language’ as a tool of manipulation: specialised meanings with an emotional bias.

Smart people immediately question the idea of a ‘loaded language’ by pointing out that medicine and the sciences are loaded down with complex terms. This is true, and at times a forest of verbiage becomes a screen for ignorance; a way of retaining authority through highfalutin jargon rather than actual expertise.

Historian Barbara Tuchman put it this way: ‘Let us beware the plight of our colleagues, the behavioral scientists, who by use of a proliferating jargon have painted themselves into a corner – or isolation ward – of unintelligibility. They know what they mean, but no one else does. Psychologists and sociologists are the farthest gone in the disease and probably incurable. Their condition might be pitied if one did not suspect it was deliberate. Their retreat into the arcane is meant to set them apart from the great unlearned, to mark their possession of some unshared, un-sharable expertise. No matter how illuminating their discoveries, if the behavioral scientists write only to be understood by one another, they must come to the end of the Mandarins.’[2]

And, with the collapse of Imperial China, the Mandarin bureaucrats came to a very bad end. The latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Society (DSMV) highlights this propensity for definitions. Yet again, the APA has produced a labyrinth of symptoms rather than actual ailments. It is likely that the thousands of variants described in this vast manual will diminish exponentially, once their neurology is comprehended. So we have to be cautious: words do not necessarily enhance understanding: at times, quite the opposite.

Where the terminology of the behavioral sciences should be viewed with skepticism, the same does not hold for real medical terms. My friend, Spike, tells me that contrary to popular opinion, there is a name for the back of the knee – the popiteal fossa – and the rest of the body is pretty well covered from the hallux to the coronal suture (from toe to tip, that is). This means that doctors know where to look, and what they are looking at, and can easily communicate their observations to others schooled in the same language.

Robert Jay Lifton gave this description of loaded language: ‘The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.’[3]

Members of totalist groups speak in slogans: ‘thought-terminating clichés’. When challenged on any aspect of doctrine, they will tend to parrot an example given by the leadership. Words are used to induce phobia, guilt, and loathing. Any disagreement with the leadership will be labeled ‘selfish’. Any conflicting perception will be quickly dismissed.

George Orwell finished his last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a remarkable appendix on the potential of language to confine thought. He suggested that a ‘thoughtcrime’ against Big Brother might even be impossible without the words to think it.

While language is not our only means of thinking, it can all too easily persuade us. For instance, adding the word ‘because’, and only the word ‘because’, to a request to use a photocopier will significantly raise your chance of jumping the copier queue (‘I need to use the copier, because…’). We respond automatically to words. This automatic tendency – compliance – is a basis of thought reform.

A new language is donned like a new set of clothes, but at times they prove to be the Emperor’s new clothes. The words are empty of meaning but loaded with emotion. Scientologists are told that members of the ‘élite’ Sea Organization can do anything, whether they are trained or not. They are urged to ‘Make it go right!’ Even as a believer, I did not accept that an unqualified person could build a nuclear reactor from a length of damp string, but I’ve met many people convinced that with the right ‘necessity level’ – their leader Hubbard’s expression – they could.

Indeed, one long-term Scientologist when asked her response to the imminent nuclear war predicted by Hubbard in 1980, said that she would simply ‘mock up’ (create out of nothing) an ‘electropsychometer’ and counsel out her own trauma. The impish chap who had put the question to her simply said, ‘Do it now. Go on: prove that you can.’ And she, of course, responded that her ‘necessity level’ was not high enough.

English professor and US Senator Samuel Hayakawa said this: “Everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language” his own as well as that of others, both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen…. If the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.’[4]

As with so much else in manipulation, time is of the essence. When subjected to impenetrable jargon, it is necessary to retreat and regroup, to take time away from the persuader and consider the ideas in private and with the help of sympathetic friends. With enough discussion, profound-sounding philosophy can soon degenerate into mumbo-jumbo. Whenever you are urged not to offer your opinion- for whatever reason – it is definitely time to leave, because we understand in part through putting ideas into our own words. Totalists tend to censor communication for this very reason.

Just because someone uses unfamiliar words does not mean that they are wise. As we have seen, psychiatric jargon deserves suspicion, and we should feel able to say, ‘Yes, but what does that mean in everyday language?’ If someone cannot explain in simple terms, it usually means that they don’t know what they are talking about; but it can also mean that they are intentionally fomenting confusion with the aim of recruiting you.

On this occasion, I will agree with cult-leader Ron Hubbard that it is very important to know the meaning of words, but let me add that it is even more important to understand the intention behind the words. When large sums of money or blind loyalty are demanded in return for these words, they are probably part of a trap. Beware!

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about [subject] you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

[1]Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

[2]Barbara Tuchman, Practising History

[3]Robert Jay Lifton, op.cit., p.429

[4]S.I.Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action