Propaganda Shell Games a.k.a. Finding Unicorns

Walnut ShellWhen those who use sleight-of-hand to run the shell game con, their ability to win is based on their ability to deceive the eye. Moving the shells is a distraction—the con is won after the shells stop because that’s when they use their legerdemain to remove and replace the pea where they wish. Propagandists play a shell game with words and their meanings, but instead of moving shells on a table, they move emotions that distract and confuse perception; and when they stop those shells, the meaning that is found under a shell is exactly what the propagandists wants people to match to the word— whether it’s an idea, a person or a group.

In Illusion For Power I wrote that propaganda is a planted lie designed to shape a perception of reality. The shell game is manipulating meaning—not just word definitions, but perception of reality. General semantics is a multi-disciplinary field that ranges beyond studying linguistic meanings into looking at how we use words to understand and give meaning to our experiences. Charles Fleming, a professor of general semantics, has taken its basic ideas and used them to evaluate propaganda. Because he’s applied them to each of the seven basic propaganda techniques identified by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis (IPA), I’ll be integrating his work with each of the IPA’s techniques. Here is his introduction to the field.

General semantics provides a general theory of evaluation.

We can consider what we mean when we refer to this system by comparing it with ‘semantics’ as people usually use the term. Semantics involves the study of language ‘meanings.’ For example, when we’re interested in the word ‘unicorn,’ what dictionaries say it ‘means’ and its history of ‘meanings,’ and what it might refer to, we are involved in ‘semantics.’

Unicorn SignGeneral semantics involves such language concerns, but also involves much broader issues. Using general semantics, we’re concerned with understanding how we evaluate, with the inner life of each individual, with how each of us experiences and makes sense of our experiences, with how we use language and how language ‘uses’ us. While we’re interested in what the word ‘unicorn’ refers to and how a dictionary might define it, we have more interest in the person using the word, with the kind of evaluating that might lead people to look for unicorns in their back yards. Do they think that they have found some? Do they re-evaluate their search when they don’t find any? Do they investigate how they came to be looking for unicorns? How are they experiencing the search? How do they talk about it? How are they experiencing the process of evaluating what has happened?

General semantics involves an interrelated set of elements, which, taken together, can help us answer these and similar questions.

In an article on propaganda, Charles Fleming writes, “The Institute of Propaganda Analysis’ [IPA] seven basic propaganda techniques are really the abuse or exploitation of the six basic ideas of general semantics.”2

The “Big Six” Basic Principles of General Semantics

  • Non-identity. The word is not the thing.
  • Non-allness. One can never know or say all about anything.
  • Self-reflexiveness. People make abstractions of abstractions.
  • Probability principle. Where everything changes, probability – not certainty – is the basic idea.
  • Symbol-signal reactions. Symbol reactions involve thinking before reacting; signal reactions are stereotypical and automatic.
  • Extensionalization. Extensionalization is the scientific method — questioning, observing, evaluating, and revising. It refers also to non-verbal definitions.

I realize at first glance these principles may not be that easy to grasp. They’re designed to distinguish between reality, and how we use words to describe reality. That may seem too abstract to be of much practical use, but if you’ll hang in there, I think you’ll see their value. A propagandist will take a word commonly understood to describe one thing, and use that as a lure to whitewash the reality of what he’s doing. The words justice and rights are frequently used this way. Their common meaning is the shell used by the propagandist to gain acceptance of his lie.

Here is another way to look at these ideas. In General Semantics Alfred Korzybski explains the first three principles in terms of a map and the territory it charts.3

  1. A map is not the territory.
  2. A map does not represent all of a territory.
  3. A map is self-reflexive in the sense that an ‘ideal’ map would include a map of the map, etc., indefinitely.

Applied to daily life and language:

  1. A word is not what it represents.
  2. A word does not represent all of the ‘facts’, etc.
  3. Language is self-reflexive in the sense that in language we can speak about language.

Hang on to this list because even if you’re not quite sure how it meshes with evaluating propaganda, I think it will be clearer as you see them applied to the IPA’s seven propaganda techniques. I’ll bring in Fleming’s analysis of how each one abuses these general semantics principles as it tries to convince you that you can find a unicorn in your backyard!

Walnut, 55294 Bodenheim, Germany; Vera BuhlCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. GNU Free Documentation License.
1Susan Presby Kodish and Bruce I. Kodish, Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of General Semantics, 2nd ed. Extensional Publishing, 2001. via general semantics By Richard Nordquist, Guide
2Charles A. Fleming, “Understanding Propaganda From a General Semantics Perspective,” Et cetera, (Spring 1995) 3–12.
3Alfred Korbzybski, “General Semantics,” Alfred Korzybski: Collected Writings 1920-1950. © I.G.S. Englewood, New-Jersey
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Paneau IRALCO, Gavigan: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic license. Photograph cropped and modified.


2 thoughts on “Propaganda Shell Games a.k.a. Finding Unicorns

  1. I sincerely thank you for this post… I had a basic grasp of semantics, this explains it all so clearly!! I shall enjoy reading more!!

  2. Thanks, Chrissy. I was unfamiliar with the field of general semantics before I did this series, and so I’m writing as a novice. I decided to bring it in after I stumbled across Fleming’s article and found it fascinating. From what I’ve read it goes beyond semantics into logic and philosophy.

    I was amused that Fleming chose to use unicorns in his example, and then I was able to find a sign with one on it!

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