Robert Jay Lifton noticed that totalitarian organizations devised another purpose for language: to terminate thought. This doesn’t mean eliminating imagination so much as steering it through cliche’-ridden “interpretive shortcuts” that reduce complex situations to something easy to grasp, emotionally charged, and capable of conveying a sense of absoluteness. When Chinese communists in the 1950s were language loading, they used phrases such as “imperialist”, “exploiting classes”, and “bourgeois” to inflame followers and create a sense of righteous indignation. When Newt Gingrich sent out an advisory word list for his republican colleagues to use against their democratic opponents in the 90’s, that list encouraged the repeated use of words such as “betray”, “corruption”, “decay”, “pathetic”, “sensationalist” and “hypocrisy”. Media sound bites containing Gingrich’s words and other emotionally evocative, divisive words still saturate the air waves in the U.S. because the media has embraced this approach, knowing that the use of such language sells their products more because it appeals to our baser instincts..
Language loading has become so culturally pervasive that a person has to battle, day in and day out, against the passivity it encourages. This battle has 3 fronts: 1) Imagination itself. The best way to control imagination is to steer language towards belief. Loaded language is laced with beliefs that eliminate any sense of irony and imaginative uncertainty: the best quality of imagination, the one that gives us pause in order to protect us against coming to premature conclusions. 2) Surrogacy. The purpose of slick advertising/marketing campaigns is obviously not to lead us to any “truths”: it’s to make us think they are doing this. Ads replace the natural process a person would take in discovering what’s real with high influence projections that prey on unconscious insecurities and desires. 3) Isolation. There are two primary ways people individuals isolate themselves from the world: through comfort, and/through seeking out likeminded people to fan mutual flames of indignation about anyone not sharing their belief system. Contrary opinions don’t find any opportunity to be heard inside silos of either sort. If they accidentally make an appearance, they are quickly met with narcissistic rage that fiercely resents any threats to the false identity a person constructs when he had lost his capacity to engage life directly.
Manipulating imagination, redirecting people towards shadows that look like something they aren’t, and distorted conclusions reached in isolation are made all the stronger not just by society’s extreme overemphasis on its’ image-making machinery, but by a lack of commitment to a rigorous educational system and by the internet illusion that convinces us that greater access to information has meant more opportunity to engage in contrary ideas when in fact most people use this tool just to engage in confirmation bias.
Language loading only succeeds when we become dissociated from the experiences life puts in front of us. In ideological contexts, life experiences are rigorously controlled and become increasingly predictable. What must a culture do to put loaded language to the side and find the way to genuine individual expression, alternative ideas, and balanced political judgments? A clue from Prayer, a poem by Rabdranath Tagore
“Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but
to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies on life’s
Battlefield but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be
Saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward,
Feeling your mercy in my success alone,
But let me find
The grasp of your hand in my failure.”