3rd Prize in VSP 2022:
language corrupts thought.
“… if thought corrupts language, language corrupts thought.”
Krzysztof L. Lesniewski
Third Prize in Vernon Smith Prize Contest 2022.
The aim of the essay is to illustrate how impactful the language is especially in political context with the focus on the impact of the corruption of language. The essay elaborates on this in preliminary manner in Chapter I. This is done from Christian viewpoint and other philosophical backgrounds. This Chapter shows how important the language is on its own and in political context. Next, Chapter II proves how the language may be corrupted. Accidentally through language traps, passively through censorship and actively through propaganda. In the final IIIrd Chapter it was illustrated first how the language may be employed for political aims and second to what extent it may be corrupted. That is to the point whereby the political programme behind the term contradicts the intuitive meaning of the particular term. Three notions have been analysed to prove that; nationalism, socialism and welfare state. It has been proven that the corruption of language has devastating effects. The aim of the essay has been realised.
This essay will elaborate on the importance of language in the Chapter I. Based on various philosophies it will be established that language is important on its own and crucial to politics in context of exercise of power. Second the methods of language corruption will be discussed in Chapter II. Given the importance of language established in the previous chapter it is apparent that government and political circles will like to employ the powerful language for their particular purposes with a goal of exercising power in mind. Active propaganda and passive censorship will be discussed. Lastly, in the Chapter III three notions will be discussed and analyzed to show how very corrupted the language may be notwithstanding that only short slogans will be discussed. Socialism, nationalism and welfare state will be discussed.
The importance of language in general and in political context.
First of all the highest authority, the Holy Bible will be consulted. It states in the Gospel of Saint John Chapter 1 Verse 1 (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) that:
„In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”1
This passage is self-explanatory. The importance of the word and thereby of language is huge and the use of it impacts on all that resulting matters. Furthermore and because of that particular reason outlined above the language should be used appropriately. The next quote will support this idea. The Gospel of Saint Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 37 (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition) states:
„Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”2
Although the meaning of this passage refers to the ban on taking certain oaths discussed in the Chapter. The simple understanding for our purpose is that yes should mean yes and no should mean no. That would be a general principle that the words should have a clear meaning which should not be confused with other words’ meanings. This idea was close to Wittgenstein’s heart. In his Preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus he clearly stated what the book is meant to be about.
„The book deals with the problem of philosophy and shows, as I believe, that the method of formulating these problems rests on the misunderstanding of the logic of our language. Its whole meaning could be summed up somewhat as follows: What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”3
We are particularly interested in the summarized meaning of the book as stated by Wittgenstein. That is the principle of clarity of speaking adhered to by the Austrian School of Economics which in general uses plain language to explain econmical phenomenon.4 If that principle is grossly violated namely when even if special terminology is applied but in dishonest manner then the results can be horrifying. Even to the point whereby truth and honesty are absent from political discussions as Orwell imagined because those who are most influential in the society corrupt the language.5
Regarding Orwell he also imagined in his book 1984 that the people can be controlled by the use of a particular type of language. The fictional language was called Newspeak.6 It was new English infected with slogans and jargon supporting the established political status quo.
However, some philosophers such as Cicero and Latini go even further and state that language is the prerequisite of the city and civil life. It should be employed in particular in the discussions in the political community on the matters of what is just and what is unjust. The role of rhetoric is so important according to Cicero that he considers it the most important component of the science of ruling the city.7 So not only is the language a tool of controlling the politics but also it is employed for establishing the politics in the first place.
This idea is developed by Hume who expanded the centrality of the concept of public opinion – established by Locke – to politics and asserted that “it is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded.” He asserted that the approval of public opinion is necessary to government because people are obedient only as long as they judge fit. As a result, opinion is the foundation of government because consenting opinion is necessary to avoid rebellion.8 Rothbard attempts to explain how the politicians establish control over society and become government. He suggests that a state should first secure a support from a sufficient group of active members of the society then focus on securing passive support from the ignorant masses.9 Ignorance is arguably a key component when it comes to securing support through the corruption of language although presumably even some intelligent individuals may be susceptible to the sufficiently persuasive mass communication. Mises observed during a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in 1947 that Eucken’s speech has been altered by the Nazi jargon. Even though Eucken was critical of nazism, he has lived in Germany during the Second World War and probably the propaganda has affected his language.10
Finally in general practical sense, language permits to transmit knowledge from person to person throughout society and through the ages. If properly used it facilitates cooperation and teamwork thereby increases production.11 Furthermore according to Keith Chen even the grammatical structures used for describing future impact on future-oriented behaviours such as on making savings.12 However although there may be some impact on finances as argued by Keith Chen that should not be overestimated when other factors are at stake. Such as in the Toomet’s article which shows that the knowledge of a local language may not influence the pay increase to a high extent when ethnic tensions exist in a given labor market.13 So given that it is not always beneficial to apply multilingualism … proposes to use one language instead of translating to all official languages in the EU.14
From a moral point Marcus Aurelius who was both a philosopher and a politician states three values worth working for: proper understanding, unselfish action, truthful speech.15 Clearly proper understanding depends on access to truthful speech and arguably the resultant of both is a higher probability for unselfish action.
Corruption of language. Neutral and accidental language traps, passive control through censorship and active control through propaganda.
Based on the importance of language on many areas which also formulates opinions on which the governmental approval depends this chapter will proceed to analyze how the language can be altered and corrupted to achieve particular political aims. Thompson is so sure of the impact of language on politics that he presents a quote which states that corruption of language is an evil which should be fought at all times. Furthermore he states that most people accept political corruption of language and are used to propaganda even in the best times.16 If so then it comes as no surprise that politicians apply those measures to achieve their political means. Supposedly there will be a minority of honest politicians restrained by their personal morals or a well designed system. However, the consequences of the corruption of language which impacts the thoughts and thus the ideas and actions will be dealt with in the last chapter.
Regarding the language traps they arise when inappropriate word is used to convey a particular idea. The risk higher for such a trap to arise when methaphors17 and similes are used. For instance Bettina Greaves clarifies in her article that the word revolution is wrongly used when it comes to technological changes during the so called industrial revolution as those changes have been progressing gradually rather than immediately.18 She further elaborates on other terms with distorted meanings which are illogical when used in particular context such as competition, strike or picket, invisible hand metaphor etc.
As the technological progress takes place through evolution so is the degeneration fo freedom of speech an evolutionary process. First language traps are left unexplained, second pluralism is limited by censorship and then propaganda can be put in place with full force. Surely those processes may run in parallel however, the gradation of harm seems to be presented rightly and in order. On the other hand censorship becomes more important when the total control is already established for it becomes a regulating tool whereby the propaganda might be more important for gaining the political power when the entity is not yet able to censor on a mass scale. So it is clear that these tools interplay with each other.
So the censorship is dangerous as part of the general process of degradation. Moreover it is dangerous on its own. In particular because when dissenting voices are silenced how is the society going to obtain broader information. A peculiar type of censorship takes place at a later stage of establishing total control or when such control is already established. So first regarding the totalitarian or at least let us say an uniformly informed society. When the control is already established then the expected outcome is total subordination of the society and in particular of the state administration. It takes a lot of courage and moral strength to oppose a censored uniform view in particular when someone is part of the state administration. One is truly exceptional when his opposition is not contained to expressing opinions but even extends to action contrary to official orders. Some examples which show how to challenge the official view include the examples of Oscar Schindler, Chiune Sugihara or Wilm Hosenfeld. All of whom opposed a current dogma which stated that some people are not people and therefore do not deserve to live. Their action in fact are extreme examples of opposing censorship and propaganda at the same time through action which expressed a contrary view.
Regarding the states where freedom of speech is still considerably respected, the president of the Mises Institute rightly recalls political correctness as a mean of censorship.19 It will be pointless to mention who and how currently engages in such activity but for a peculiar case of censorship through political correctness which took place in Portugal. It seems that the totalitarian sentiments are simply inherent to those who are in power and to political power in general for it is a recent case. What is worse is that it concerns the state administration namely two judges which may indicate that the freedom of speech and freedom in general have degraded considerably and action have to be taken to improve the current state of affairs in general in Europe. The case is that two judges ruled in a case that it was unlawful to deprive German tourists of freedom through quarantine. That view expressed through a judgment was opposed and the judges were threatened with disciplinary action as recently as in AD 2020. It is an extreme example which took place in relation to the pandemic hysteria which in fact can be regarded as a modern example of global propaganda.
Therefore, regarding the propaganda. In totalitarian regimes linguistic engineers can coin slogans to support an official view and achieve complacency in the society across different groups which but for the work of the linguistic engineers would have different views deviating from the desired norm.20 However, slogans do not only belong to totalitarian countries. As already mentioned we were able to witness a global propaganda because of sars cov virus. Within months the media influenced by the governments and international organizations were able to convince the world that it is a good idea to shut down economies, stay at home and wear masks which impede breathing. The governments and the media seemed to compete who will sell a more stupid idea better. The slogans included also social distancing. An idea that two meters should be left individuals. Some governments were content to tell people what they might and what they might not do. For instance in Poland for some time it was legal to walk the dog but not leave the home. In England the Prime Minister persuasively convinced people that they may leave home to exercise for 30 minutes. Leaflets were distributed. In short the governments felt needed and happy about spreading propaganda which diminished the basics freedom in a clearly illegal and totalitarian-like fashion. So far the only popular successful legal challenge of those measures took place in Portugal and immediately we have seen how censorship reacted. The protests were largely unsuccessful and violently disregarded through the police force. It is quite worrying as it seems that the scope of freedom was quickly limited with complacency of the state administrations even if the ordinary members of society somehow tried to oppose both censorship and propaganda.
So what is the solution to avoid those problems arising from the corruption of language. The Austrian School of Economics proposes to use a plain natural language. The argument for use of such language is developed by Rothbard who states that such imprecise, plain and natural language is the most optimal to describing also imprecise human actions.21
How corruption of language techniques influence the reality based on three notions: socialism, nationalism and welfare state.
This chapter will analyze three terms namely: socialism, nationalism and welfare state. It will be shown that behind those pleasant terms are hidden rather unpleasant ideologies and therefore unbearable realities which may result if those theories will be applied in practice. The point of this chapter is to show how practically through a mean of language which is employed in corrupted way evil ideologies may be promoted under a good disguise. So it is meant to underline the power of language. Also to show how „spectacular” results may be achieved by relying on ignorance of the electorate and by corrupting language.
As Le Bon rightly predicted that XXth century was a century of the masses.22 Swiftly applied propaganda successfully promoted two corrupted ideologies. Socialism and nationalism. Both names at first give a positive impression in linguistic sense.
For socialism indicates with its name that the political proponents of this ideology would take care of the society. However, from the political program we may find out that we would not want to be taken care of in such manner as they propose.
p.11 -> Communists aim to reduce the available capital of the worker to the bare minimum which sustains his existence.
p.12 ->Communists declare to abolish the existence of families and propose having common wives on the basis of community.
p.13 -> Communists declare that workers do not have a fatherland.
p.14 -> Radical anti freedom ideas such as:
- Expropriation of land and imposition of rental. The rent should be spent on state budget.
- High progressive taxation
- Repeal of the law of inheritance
- Confiscation of property of all emigrants and mutineers
- Centralization of credit through a national bank with a monopoly.
- Centralization of means of transport.
- Increase of the number of factories, means of production, rental of agricultural fields according to a social plan.
- Imposition of mandatory work for all. Creation of workers’ armies in particular for the agriculture.
- Unification of agriculture and industry. Action towards eradication of differences between the cities and the villages.
- Public and free education of children. Eradication of child labor in factories. Synthesis of education with production.
Regarding nationalism one would imagine the political proponents of this idea would take care of the nation. However, as we may find out from the political program or rather an „unified doctrine”23 of one nationalist he does not want to take care of the nation as a whole but only about particular group in the nation.
Now it is a long and daunting book. However there is one thing worth mentioning. The word „Jew” appears there in an English translation 547 times and the book has 470 pages. The word Jew appears in conjunction with some facts which even if true do not constitute a basis for mass extermination. We may find out that Jews avoid taking showers and gain money from prostitution.24 Surely there are other fascinating facts in the book however I am afraid I am not going to summarize the supposed nationalistic political programme in detail given that it is largely based on a clear obsession on the Jewish part of the German society and therefore it would be pointless to mention more and more negative characteristics. Knowing the results of such racist ideas we may straight proceed to reject nationalism . However, as in the case of socialism which in fact is not so oriented on the benefit of members of the society, nationalism is also not about taking the care for the nation as a whole. Rather it is another name for tribalism which promotes a particular group and as the history has shown even proceeds to physically eliminate the unwanted non-members of the dominant group.
A nation is a community of people formed on the basis of a combination of shared features such as language, history, ethnicity, culture and/or territory.25
definition of nation and definition of nationalism
Neither socialism nor nationalism does establish heaven on earth as it promises26 and as it has been established in certain cases they do not even promise the heaven but outright hell. To sum up the death toll arising from the application of socialist ideas through communism in Russia amounts to … in China …
Furthermore the death toll arising from the application of nationalism in Germany through national socialism amounts to …
Certainly political proponents of either socialism or nationalism will argue that communism and national socialism have been radical alterations of the pure and brilliant ideas of socialism or nationalism. However, it has to be stated that [dobre drzewo nie rodzi złych owoców] so probably both ideas are not correct and even if they err less than their extremist children they err nonetheless. Therefore there is no point in adhering to the erroneous ideas and it is only with a great surprise that we can still observe a fascination with those two ridiculous and evil ideas which probably stems from ignorance or search for a grail of ideologies clearly failed.
However for the sake of the arguement one more term which is again falsified linguistically and was a common denominator of both socialism and nationalism will be discussed.
Namely the Welfare state. Both socialism and nationalism are interventionistic in nature when it comes to economy for they promise to take care of the citizens better than the citizens would themselves with a free market economy. It will be shortly proven that a welfare state is not what it promises to be from the slogan and should rather be called a misery state.
Kurt R. Leube the more welfare state cares for the people the more they demand and thus the welfare state cannot ever fulfil its goal. So the welfare state has to be inefficient when it comes to delivering the promised handouts to keep the people’s expectations low
Welfare state in fact does not generate welfare which comes from work not from taxation and redistribution.
To sum up, Chapter I has presented how important the language is on its own and in political context. Various sources have been consulted ranging from the Holy Bible through different philosophers. Next, Chapter II has proven how the language may be corrupted. Accidentally though language traps, actively through propaganda and passively through censorship. In the final IIIrd Chapter it was illustrated first how the language may be employed for political aims and second to what extent it may be corrupted. That is to the point whereby the political program behind the term contradicts the intuitive meaning of the particular term. In short, this work has shown how a proficient cynical politician may employ language and achieve his political aims. The results are surprising or even shocking. Three labels namely: socialism, nationalism and welfare state poison or have poisoned the minds of millions of people advertising precisely contradictions of what would reasonably be expected of them based on the intuitive meaning of those terms.
Krzysztof L. Lesniewski (PL)
2020 Student Member of The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.
2016-2019 Durham University, Bachelor of Laws (Honours, 2:1).
Dissertation on the European Union law titled: ‘Freedom of Establishment: is there a balance of interests?’.
2015-2016 European Academy of Diplomacy, Executive Diploma.
1 Gospel of Saint John 2 Gospel of Saint Matthew 3 Ludwig Wittgenstein Preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 1918 4 Linsbichler, Alexander (2021) : Philosophy of Austrian economics - Extended cut, CHOPE Working Paper, No. 2021-24, Duke University, Center for the History of Political Economy (CHOPE), Durham, NC. p. 255 5 Grono, B., 2008. The Corruption of Language. Cross Section, 4. Pages 55-68 (page. 56) 6 Fengyuan, J., 2003. Linguistic engineering: Language and politics in Mao’s China. University of Hawaii Press. (p. 1) 7 Viroli, M., 1992. From politics to reason of state: the acquisition and transformation of language of politics 1250-1600 (Vol. 22). Cambridge University Press. (p. 28) 8 Wimberly, C., 2017. The job of creating desire: Propaganda as an apparatus of government and subjectification. JSP: Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 31(1), pp.101-118 9 Rothbard, M., 2006. Power and Market: Government and the Economy. Ludwig von Mises Institute. p. 6 10 Greaves, B., 1985. Language Traps. Accessed at: <https://fee.org/articles/language-traps/> 11 IBID. 12 Keith Chen, M., 2003, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets. The American Economic Review, p. 721 13 Toomet, O., 2011, Learn English, Not the Local Language! Ethnic Russians in the Baltic States. The American Economic Review. p. 526 14 Colneric, Ninon, Legal Linguistics Beyond Borders: Language and Law in a World of Media, Globalisation and Social Conflicts. Multilingual and Supranational Law in the EU. p. 183-185 15 Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Modern Library Paragraph 3316 16 Thompson, C., 1992. Philosophy and Corruption of Language. Philosophy, 67(259), pp. 19-31. P. 19 17 Balabanian, G., 2008, The Use and Misuse of Methaporical Language in Economics, Conference Paper, p. 1-2 18 Citation 10. 19 Deist, J., 2022. The Language Vandals. Accessed at <https://mises.org/wire/language-vandals> 20 IBID. p. 30-31 21 Linscbichler, A., 2021. Philosophy of Austrian economics – Extended cut, Chope Working Paper, No. 2021- 2024. p. 25 22 Le Bon, G., 2002. The crowd: A study of the popular mind. Courier Corporation. P. 10 23 Page 4 24 Page 40 25 Wikipedia definition of nation accessed <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation> 26 The state in the third millenium.