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Manipulation by Language

by Judith Barben Thursday, Jul. 14, 2005 at 10:31 AM

"Before tyranny becomes visible for eveyrone, it begins when the word loses its dignity.. Rulers never manage without manipulation and propaganda.. In neuro-linguistic programming, language has the task of diverting people.."


By Judith Barben

[This article published in: Zeit-Fragen Nr.26, 6/27/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.zeit-fragen.ch/. Dr. Judith Barben is a Swiss psychologist and psychotherapist.]

The Swiss Bundesrat is trained by its spin-doctors to always give their statements the right “spin.”3 The Bundesrat delegate knows what is central: Don’t enter into the substance of any question, always repeat the same assertions and constantly garnish these assertions with the meaningless word “credible.”

At a media conference, Bundesrat delegate Samuel Schmid said: “The notion that we want to be in Nato cannot be surpassed in pure fantasy and unimaginativeness… A lie remains a lie even if one repeats it a hundred times.”4 He insisted neutrality and the constitution mandate would be safeguarded and the militia principle strengthened.

Today it is increasingly obvious how impudently the Bundesrat pulled the wool over our eyes. The constitutional mandate, national defense and the militia principle were not safeguarded. A combination of the German army and Nato in the areas of training and armament was planned. At that time the Bundesrat slandered anyone who revealed these connections as a liar,

Is this an example of linguistic manipulation? How is this different from a lie? In his remarkable 1964 lecture “The Corruption of the Word and Power”5, the philosopher Josef Pieper pointed to the indivisible connection between language and truth. Truth is nothing but reference to reality, Pieper said. When language is not concerned about truth, it becomes a dangerous instrument of power.

Pieper presented his ideas with the help of Socrates’ and Plato’s conflict with the sophists. The sophists in ancient Greece developed the technique of political rhetoric into the highest refinement but were not worried about the truth content of what they said. With their rhetoric, they could find good reasons for the worst things. Socrates and Plato criticized the sophists as dangerous word distorters. For Pieper, the worst feature of sophistry is that it corrupts the dignity of the word.

What is the dignity of the word? According to Pieper, language is the medium of our common intellectual existence. Human existence is expressed in the word. The achievement and dignity of the human word lie in the relation of language to reality and to fellow-persons. One speaks to make something real known to another. Something real should be communicated to another. These two aspects of language can be distinguished but not separated from each other.

What happens when a person lies? Pieper shows that both aspects of language, its reality-reference and its communication character, are destroyed by lies. Strictly speaking, a lie is not a communication. Why? When human speech is no longer directed to the cause, when the relation of the word to reality is dissolved, the communication character of language is also destroyed because the other is no longer recognized as an equal partner. He becomes an object guided by language in a certain direction or encouraged to a certain action. A speaking without a partner occurs. The word becomes a means to manipulate others. Its dignity is violated. The word should be used like a functional instrument. With the lie, the equal relation to another is lacking. Therefore a lie is not a communication in the true sense.

Thus a twofold “corruption of the word” occurs: “corruption of the reality reference” and “corruption of the communication character.”


We are also faced with sophists today. Today’s sophists are spin-doctors who sit in propaganda divisions of the government and in the offices of the economically powerful. They are called communication specialists and are highly trained in the social sciences and communication theory. Their business is “political communication.” The government alone employs 432 “communication experts” for 80 million francs a year. 220 of them are occupied exclusively with so-called “public relations.”6 In their offices, word usage is not focused on truth but on polishing language to reach systematically concealed political goals. This misuse according to Pieper is not only false but “miserable, injurious, sinister and essentially bad”!7

A lie is especially malicious when it is not only practiced but imputed to the other. The same conduct was recently observed with representatives of high finance. Economic leaders spread the absurd claim that a Swiss agreement with the EU (European Union) would increase security and create jobs. All opposing statements were “false information” and “untruths”, they said. “We cannot leave lies unanswered.”8 Economiesuisse was the front organization of high finance and operated with a budget of several million francs for the Swiss agreement campaign.

For Pieper, Plato’s and Socrates’ conflict with the sophists is a model case. Plato and Socrates saw a danger in sophistry and identified by name what threatens the life of the spirit and society in all times, what resistance has been necessary since time immemorial and will also be necessary in the future.

If language is neutralized against the norm of truth, it is an instrument that a ruler can take in hand and use as propaganda for any violence goals. Pieper sees here the great danger of the sophist corruption of language. “The element of threat with all its forms and degrees of slander and public condescension” is always characteristic of propaganda. Mastery, Pieper says, consists in veiling threat and not letting threat appear naked. Making the threatened believe is easy since he can be intimidated and do what he would do himself, the rational and correct.


Doesn’t this occur very often? Bundesrat delegate Deiss shouted threateningly to the hall: “Away with the protectionists and barricadists! I want a Bundesrat that supports me.”9 With such threats, the voting citizen should be intimidated so he agrees to agreements that damage citizens while creating more profits for high finance.

With manipulated arguments, all the dams against globalization should be torn down. In an interview, Bundesrat delegate Calmy-Rey argued that new negotiations with the EU must be carried out under difficult conditions in case of a No of voting citizens to the Swiss agreement and personal freedom of movement expanded.10 Professor Walder unmasked this threat as a propaganda lie by asking Ms. Calmy-Rey in writing whether corresponding threats could be presented by the EU. He only received an evasive answer.

Pieper sees a hidden preparation of tyranny in the misuse of language for lies. He offered the thesis that one could read the “latent virulence of the totalitarian poison in the sophist manipulation of language, Before tyranny becomes visible for everyone, it begins in a much less alarming way in that hardly perceptible moment when the word loses its dignity. With this basic idea, the philosopher shows us how language, truth and the political climate are closely connected. Rulers never manage without manipulation and propaganda. They also instrumentalize the media to that end.

Therefore it is very important to have one’s own independent newspapers and publications. For that reason, the Swiss people’s initiative “Popular Sovereignty instead of Official Propaganda” is urgent and indispensable. This initiative covers a very important part of the problem, official propaganda. The propaganda by the media and high finance is not discussed. However the official propaganda is especially insidious and unconstitutional because the taxes of all citizens are misused for one-sided propaganda and many people still trust the authorities and – justly – expect them to act in the public interest.

The social sciences are counted in the arsenal of the spin-doctors. Psychology, a valuable means of assistance, is misused by spin-doctors as an instrument of manipulation. One psycho-technique, “neuro-linguistic programming”11 coming from America is very widespread. Its advocates describe this technique as a collection of very effective techniques of communication and change.”12 with which they can actually change personality on desire up to the core of identity.13


Neuro-linguistic programming was developed from hypnosis and aims at starting unconscious human reactions and processes by means of “hypnotic empty clichés.” The name neuro-linguistic programming is composed of the elements “neuro,” “linguistic” and “programming.” “Neuro” means perception, “linguistic” language and “programming” the re-programming of unconscious behavior patterns. Neuro-linguistic programming works with these elements. People can be influenced on different levels of perception, above all by lingual messages, and reprogrammed on unconscious planes.

Two important basic assumptions of neuro-linguistic programming are firstly: reality is not important since every person has his or her own reality and secondly language is used as a means of influencing, not as a means of understanding.

One frequently applied technique of neuro-linguistic programming is “reframing.”15 Reframing means “setting something in a new framework.” With this technique, terms that originally had a positive meaning and a positive emotional tone are underlain with a completely different meaning. The positive emotional tone of the original meaning is automatically transferred to the new context.

This technique was applied when Bundesrat delegate Deiss proclaimed in public: “More growth (for the Swiss economy) is the most pressing goal of Swiss domestic policy.” “Seize the change!”16 Guided by his spin-doctors, Deiss used here the terms “growth” and “chance” as hypnotic meaningless words to couple the expansion of personal freedom of movement with a positive and agreeable emotional tone.

In the meantime we know about Bundesrat promises before votes. In 2000 Bundesrat Leuenberger promised that the heavy traffic would be cut in half by 2009 owing to the bilateral agreements. In reality, the heavy traffic since then has increased from under a million trucks at that time to 1.3 million today thundering through our country every year.

With regard to the approaching Swiss plebiscite of September 25, 2005 on the expansion of personal freedom of movement, empty clichés like “upswing for jobs” and “new export markets in the new EU countries” were fluttered about as rosy future prospects.17 Obviously the advocates knew all this was not true. They also knew that the new EU countries have gigantic unemployment rates and that expanded personal freedom of movement would lead to increased unemployment in Switzerland and massive wage dumping. With linguistic manipulation, they try to mislead us about these realities since they pursue other goals. Removing all market barriers for globally operating capital is central to them to the harm of us citizens.

However “you can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all the time,”18 to speak with Abraham Lincoln.

11 Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in short NLP, was developed by the Americans Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Cf. Judith Barben, The Psychologizing Trap – a “dirty trick” of the “spin doctors,” Zeit-Fragen, 2/12/2001; “From Machiavelli to Neuro-Linguistic Programming”, Zeit-Fragen, 1/28/2002; “Neuro-Linguistic Programming instead of Science. Bergie report reveals handwriting of Spin-Doctors, Parts I and II, Zeit-Fragen, 6/24/2002 and 7/1/2002.

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