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. 

Surviving 1984: Understanding Mystical Manipulation

Picture this: You walk into a room full of people waiting to see a magician. The loud speakers are pumping with a dub-step based song with voiced-over inspirational statements from the upcoming presenter interspersed. The crowd is excited, and it’s hard for you not to feed off that excitement.

When the magician finally comes out, there are flashes of lights and a puff of smoke. He seems to appear out of nowhere. The crowd goes wild. With a wave of his hand, he quiets them down and as the show progresses, he demonstrates a seeming psychic clairvoyance about people in the audience and playfully induces a few to cluck like a chicken on stage for him.

You leave the venue awed by the magician’s seeming omniscience and omnipotence.

This scenario would be an illustration of the second criteria that Lifton identified in working with survivors of thought control: mystical manipulation. It can take many forms, but it generally has to do with the manipulation of consciousness or experience to produce a certain effect.

Within the illustration above, there are several techniques. The music before the performance was designed to pump up the audience emotionally, getting them excited. The beat of the music could induce a slight trance-like state, decreasing the critical thinking components of the attendees and increasing the suspension of disbelief.

Even the energy of the crowd was a manipulation in itself, encouraging your body and emotions to sync up with theirs.

During the performance, various things from knowing information about others (whether it was pre-gathered or they were actors in the audience is hard to say) and hypnotizing and manipulating the behavior of some (again, real or acted?) increased the sense that the performer was godlike or at least had powers beyond the audience.

Was this man an entertainer or conman?

To some extent it probably depends on the context.

Mystical manipulation is not, in and of itself, exclusive to cults, but consent plays a big part in the ethicality of how it’s used.

When you know that you’re going for that, you probably don’t mind. Buying tickets to see a magic show, for instance, involves a certain amount of consent and expectation and a willing suspension of disbelief. You expect to be wowed—for the magician to seem all-powerful/all-knowing—while also realizing that the magician is just working a fancy trick on you.

If you go to a church service and this is happening, you’re not warned about how it will affect you, and the person on stage is using this to gain your allegiance or to actually convince you that he is as magical as he claims, the manipulation becomes nonconsensual and potentially dangerous as demands are made on you to commit to something or give money towards something while your critical thinking skills are impaired.

What I described is probably a bit over-the-top when, in actuality, milder forms of manipulation are all over society.

Advertisements are notorious for using “peripheral” persuasion, subtle ways of using association and emotional induction to convince people that certain products will produce happiness, create beauty, provide sex, and do a bunch of other things that the company could never explicitly claim for its product.

You’re walking through a store and you suddenly think you NEED such-and-such a product and you don’t know why. The idea seems to come from you. No one is standing there telling you to buy it.

But in reality, you’ve been primed to think of that particular brand first and to associate that product with desires and drives beyond what the product does.

Mystical manipulation can also be used through more common spiritual or cultural practices. Margaret Singer describes the way that chanting or panting (or any exercise that decreases oxygen supply sufficiently) can induce a physiological reaction in a person which can later be interpreted by a group to indicate a spiritual experience that verifies their beliefs.

In reality, it’s a physiological trick akin to pressing the backs of your hands against the door jamb for thirty seconds and then feeling them involuntarily rise when you stop.

Other types of manipulation can be more subtle but just as effective. I mentioned priming earlier in regard to advertisements, but there is also prophetic priming whereby a person such as a fortune teller, preacher, or some other figure claiming to have knowledge beyond others will declare something along the lines of, “Something tragic will happen in the coming weeks. And when it does, you will remember my words and know that what I am saying is true.”

The trick is that it’s vague enough that it’s impossible for it not to come true; when it does, the speaker has already primed the person to associate the incident with a prophecy, once again lending that sense of omniscience and omnipotence to the “prophet” or their message.

Mystical or unusual experiences can be an important part of connection and meaning making, but they can also become weapons used to convince a person to join a cause without sufficient information or surrender their autonomy to someone else.

Being aware of how mystical manipulation can play out is a major component of not being blindly influenced.

If you walk into a venue with the scene described above and you know that the pumping music and emotional crowd will likely affect you, you’re prepared for and informed about the changes that may happen. You don’t suddenly think it’s because the person coming on stage is so damn wonderful, powerful, and all-knowing.

Being aware that you’re feeling the way the environment is designed to make you feel frees you to think critically about whether you consent to that environment and what the agenda of the people involved might be.

For further reading:

Robert Lifton: Though Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Margaret Singer: Cults in our Midst

Videos on the effects of music in regard to cults/recovery

Compliance Psychology