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In Praise of Semantic Warfare

In Praise of Semantic Warfare

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Strictly speaking, individual words and terms have no fixed meaning. Rather, these signs emerge into life as mostly empty vessels that are imbued with ever greater meaning over time by the semantic associations affixed to them by living and breathing individuals.

The first associations to “stick” to the sign are then ratified (or not) by the “daily plebiscite” of usage, meaning that, in theory, we have an enormous power to change how a word or term is used and perceived. 

The ultra-powerful in society do not, however, want us to know about the inherent malleability of language, nor our collective ability to consciously imbue its particular elements with new and different meanings. 

And for a very good reason. 

A broad understanding of this dynamic would seriously undermine what they see as one of the key precincts of their power, and with it their ability to put those inclined to question their often illicit and immoral maneuvers on the defensive through the targeted issuance of epithets; which is to say, a word or term that they, through their overweening control of the institutions of cultural production have repeatedly imbued with a seemingly fixed negative moral or political valence. 

The granddaddy of all such epithets in the contemporary era is, of course, “conspiracy theorist,” which was invented and spread by the “Mighty Wurlitzer” of the US Deep State to discourage those unconvinced by the self-evidently shambolic findings of the Warren Commission to cease their attempts to get to the bottom of the assassination of JFK. 

Its success in stopping both civic conversations and critical thinking processes in the citizenry has spawned a veritable sea of discursive imitators, many of which are formed by putting the prefix “anti” before a social belief or element the elite culture planners have previously worked very hard to present to society as an unalloyed good. 

We have, sadly, become so accustomed to the use of this last technique that we no longer ponder the deeply pernicious and no doubt intentional way it cancels the very idea of personal agency in those toward whom it is aimed. It says, in effect, that these people are purely reactive creatures who have no inherent ability to look at the world mindfully and generate coherent explanations of their own about how this or that aspect of our shared civic and political culture truly functions. 

Nope, according to assigners of these “anti” labels, these skeptics are nothing more than unthinking drones whose idea-making capabilities top out with the issuance of reflexive and irrational grunts against the self-evident truths of the status quo

Case closed. End of discussion. 

And most importantly, another day of dialectical impunity for the powerful, and the courtiers that generate the constant flow of images and tropes used to justify their continuing hold on power, and in a broader sense, the right to define the nature of our social “realities.” 

The persistent success of this elite technique for exiling certain ideas and people from our cultural system is, I have to admit, a source of both mystery and sadness for me. It makes me wonder, at times, if the elite disdain for our cognitive and volitional capabilities may in fact be on point. 

Could it be that most of us, in fact, are pre-programmed to surrender our agency at the first sign of a canceling putdown or threat of ostracism, however absurd, emanating from someone presented to us as being authoritative, even when that “authoritative” figure issuing the “conspiracy theorist” or “disinformation” fatwa these days is often nothing more a 26-year-old twit with an overly-expensive diploma working in a Silicon Valley cubicle or a Brooklyn coffee shop? 

Maybe so. 

But I prefer to look at it in a somewhat more hopeful and more historical light, one that takes into account the unavoidable waxing and waning of large social projects, of how times of great prosperity and power inevitably give way to a decadence characterized by the systematic laying in abeyance of essential truths and life skills. 

Under the weight of an historically unprecedented bombardment of emotionally stimulating but infinitely less semantically precise visual images, we seem to have forgotten the enormous power of words to shape our concepts of reality, and have thus flagged in our ability to see them (in regard to both ourselves and our enemies) as the tools of war they are and always have been. This inattention to the power and precision of language has left us, metaphorically speaking, like a samurai who leaves his sword unsharpened and exposed to the rain, or an infantryman who never cleans or oils his rifle. 

Unlike many of us, however, our social elites never stop thinking about the generative power of language, and how they can use it to both make us look kindly upon their self-serving projects and, as explained above, to shoo us away from the near occasion of open-ended critical thinking. 

So, what can be done?

The first and most obvious thing is to pay much more attention to how our social elites employ language. This means becoming much more attentive to how they use it to push our emotional buttons on one hand, and short-circuit conversations and important inquiries on the other. It also means observing how and by what means they deploy tropes amenable to their own goals across numerous sub-fields of the cultural field at the same time. 

In short, we need to admit that we are under constant semantic attack, and observe quite carefully the origin and deployment patterns of their lexical volleys.

The second is to avoid the American tendency, nurtured by watching movies like Rudy on an endless loop in our home theaters, to believe that if we only put our minds to it we can develop an idea and language-making infrastructure that will allow us to defeat the one they have worked hard to assemble over several years in relatively short order. 

The fact is we are severely outgunned. And our tactics need to reflect this reality. 

So, like guerillas seeking to expel a colonial power, we must avoid the folly of seeking open-field victories and instead concentrate on ways to disrupt their systems, and in this way, dissipate their enormous, if at the same time generally clay-footed, sense of impunity and omnipotence. 

How? 

A good place to start might, as strange as it might seem, be to take a page from the tactical playbook of the movement for homosexual rights. 

For years the term “queer” was used to pejoratively describe homosexuals, and by this means, to insure that they saw themselves, and were seen by others as “lacking the goods” for full admission to everyday life of the culture. And this epithet worked its magic for a very long time. 

That is, until a few decades back when gay activists stopped running from it and instead embraced it, and then made a concerted and ultimately successful effort to completely invert its semantic associations and contents, turning it from a marker of ostracism into one of group pride. And in so doing, they robbed those they saw as underestimating the full breadth of their humanity of an important cudgel. 

Might it be time for those of us in the health freedom movement to do the same? 

Though they constantly call us conspiracy theorists and anti-science dolts, they have never shown the least bit of interest in finding out whether our critiques have any empirical basis or whether we spend our days and nights listening to Alex Jones or reading scientific studies. And they never will. 

That was never the point of calling us these things. It was, rather, to cast a negative semantic shadow on everything we think, do, and say. And they’ll keep using these epithets as long as they keep many of us on the defensive and work to soil us in the eyes of the more general public. 

But what if we stopped running and took their epithets as a point of pride? 

I can see the T-shirts now: 

Hi I’m a Covid Conspiracy Theorist and I believe in:

-constant study

-dialogue with thoughtful people

-dignity

-compassion

-personal autonomy

-individualized care

-sustainable health. 

People used to getting their way are often one-trick ponies who often lose their footing in the face of humor and misdirection plays. 

Will it work? 

I can’t say. But if nothing else it might open up a larger conversation about how, as the intellectual guerillas we never wanted to be but have needed to become, we might develop other creative means of disrupting the benevolent image of the forms of tyranny they have planned for us.



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Author

  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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