Surviving 1984: Unpacking the Language

Okay, I’m returning to Lifton’s criteria for identifying totalism (previous posts can be found here and here) and want to talk about the role of language in totalistic situations. If you’re familiar with my blog or know me, you probably know how much I love language and words. I think language, in some ways, is one of the closest things we have to magic. By taking sounds and stringing them together, we have developed a way of communicating our private thoughts and experiences to others. Wow! Right?

Language is so so so so important to any society. Language, in a sense, grants existence to something. If you have a word for it, you can talk about it, understand yours and other’s experience around it (to an extent if not fully)…and you notice it in the broader world. That’s why language can be important for marginalized people.

Language can be very personal, but it’s also generally shared. Without the sharing of meaning, the sounds make no sense. It’s through the consensus of a group deciding that such-and-such means a certain thing that language is born.

Now, in loading the language, Lifton is talking about the way that a group of people, be it a government, organization, or family, will begin to use language in a specialized manner unique to them. They might have a slightly different connotation for a word from the broader society or they might have specialized words that only exist within their culture.

That alone, is not necessarily indicative of totalistic influence. Every group will have a tendency to have a sort of specialized private language. On a large level, dialects can be seen as a regional example of how a language (like English) can be vastly different in one area like Scotland from how it is in a different area like the midwest of the United States.

However, there are examples of less location-bound groups as well. If you pick up a journal on neurobiology, you’ll instantly see this specialization before your eyes. Unless you are well-versed in the language used, much of the writing may seem incomprehensible to you.

However, if you know the specialized language, that gibberish will turn into something meaningful.

Sometimes specialized language results from the natural evolution of culture, e.g. dialects. Other times, specialized language becomes a kind of shorthand which can convey ideas faster than spelling them out in simpler terms, e.g. scientific terms. The benefit is the swiftness of communication amongst the members of the group; the cost is that outsiders have a harder time understanding.

So, every group does this to an extent. When does it become a problem?

I’d say it relates to the use.

When you pick up a scientific journal, you might see something that seems like gibberish to someone inexperienced in the ideas, but generally the purpose is not to confuse or stunt critical thinking. Rather, it’s an attempt to create an efficient flow of ideas to further the exploration of the topic.

Sometimes though, specialized or loaded language can serve the opposite function—phrases or words can become a means of separating one from outsiders. It can become a way of shutting down conversation, stopping the exchange of information, or halting critical thinking.

That’s when it becomes dangerous.

Sound bites and slogans become the rallying cry of a group but fail to take the idea beyond the surface. The complexity of dialogue is reduced to a single phrase that, rather than encouraging a deeper exploration of an issue, instead serves as a sort of e-break to the discussion.

Once loading the language begins and is accepted as part of a group’s culture, there’s a distinct feeling that continuing the conversation beyond the acceptable phrases and stunted thoughts would be an unthinkable act, one followed quickly by shame (How could you think that?!) or accusations of betrayal (I thought you were one of us!). Questioning becomes anathema because the language suggests that the “truth” is obvious and only the dumbest or most horrible human being would think otherwise.

If this is sounding familiar to a group that you are involved in, what do you do?

Well, part of this is going to tie directly into the milieu control that I wrote about earlier. Loaded language is one way of controlling thoughts and information, so an important antidote is to begin exposing yourself to alternative sources of information.

But you can also begin digging deeper into the language itself. If the group has not entirely wedded itself to the idea of using language as a means of control, it may be possible to dig deeper with others, but you may also find that (like fighting the milieu control) you have to do it somewhat secretly. It’s at least worth testing the waters. Instead of accepting a standard cliché, ask questions. Pay attention to the way that phrases are used. If there’s a consistent pattern in which answers are trite and used to deaden the conversation, that tells you a lot about the role of words and phrases within the group.

Try questioning what an outsider’s perspective might be.

What alternative meanings might someone else have for a phrase or word? Why might they hold that alternative meaning?

If you encountered someone who didn’t share your group’s specialized terms, would you be able to talk them through what you meant…or even have a conversation about the concept without the specialized terms?

If someone doesn’t automatically accept the “truth” encapsulated in your sound bite, are you able to take the conversation deeper and talk about where you both differ in perspective in a reasonable way that doesn’t assume “I’m right; you’re wrong” or pressure the questioner to end up agreeing with you in the end?

If all you can do is return to the original idea, circling around it like a moth at a light, you might not have fully fleshed out the meaning of the concept or your own position within it. More than likely, it’s serving as a security blanket, curbing the doubts or stopping the conversation from proceeding into unstable territory.

If you find that to be the case, expanding your exposure to the concept and different perspectives on that concept might be in order. Very rarely will you encounter a single way of conceptualizing something outside of totalism.

The more blasphemous or unthinkable this seems to the group, the more likely loaded language is being used in a totalistic method. The more that the complexity of human existence is boiled down into absolutes captured within the span of a sentence or two, the more likely the language is being used to deny rather than enhance critical thinking.

However, one who is well-versed in the loaded language also has the opportunity of using it to subvert the control as well. In some ways, if you cannot get out of the totalistic environment, becoming adept at playing a game with the language to undermine the thought-stopping simplicity can be one way of asserting your own individuality and keeping your mind from becoming dulled. (My partner is the one who taught me this strategy. In the cult, he was remarkably adept at using the language in such a way that it questioned the assumptions around doctrine rather than supporting the thought-stopping.)

Of course, that comes with its own risks, for language, as the vehicle for ideas, is a dangerous tool. Totalistic environments cannot afford to lose control of the use of language.

Nevertheless, just as Lifton asserts that the milieu cannot be perfectly controlled to prevent doubts from arising within an individual, I do not think that loaded language can entirely prevent one’s own personal evolution. Language evolves because individuals make changes. We see the power of personal creation whenever someone coins a word.

Without the general acceptance of that word, it will not be adopted into the language of a group, with a shared meaning among the members, which means that a personal unpacking of language requires the courage to truly question the very foundations of one’s beliefs and a willingness to reject the comfort and belonging that comes with participating in loaded language. However, such an approach can transform the inner world of the individual and the relationship of the individual to the outer world.

Once again, if you are interested in reading more about totalistic control, check out Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton. George Orwell’s 1984, which inspires the title of this series, is a good example of much of what Lifton talks about. 


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