Language of Politics

Linguist Noam Chomsky on two meanings of political terms, primary principle of international relations, and role of propaganda

videos | September 3, 2014

Why did governments start to control populations through propaganda rather than by force? Who wants to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices? Institute Professor & Professor of Linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noam Chomsky, speaks on the delusions of advertising.

Take communism — it has a literal meaning. Literal meaning its core principles: workers control over production, community controls over decision-making and so on — that’s literal meaning. The way it’s used as a system is radically the opposite — absolutist control from the top, virtually no participation and so on. Or, say, take democracy. Democracy is supposed to be a system of government by and for the people — that’s what we hail. We look at the actual meaning, say in the U.S., which is pillar of democracy. We find that about 70% of the population, lower 70 percent on the income scale, have no influence whatsoever on political decisions, no attention is paid to them. Attention increases slightly as you move up. When you get to the very top, people get what they want, because they essentially make policy.

Primary principle of international relations’ theory is that governments act to protect their security. Security for home? Security for the population? No. They act in many ways to harm the population, easy to show that, their own populations as well. Security for the state itself? Yeah, that’s the reason for the secrecy. A lot of the secrecy is to protect state authority from scrutiny by their own public. Security for concentrations of domestic power like the corporate sector? Definitely, that’s what the Trans-Pacific partnership was about. So yes, security in a certain sense and not security in the sense that we are supposed to believe it.

If you look back about a century in the freest countries in the world: England and the United States, it was recognized openly that the problems of controlling the population were increasing. Therefore new mechanisms must be developed, in fact new industries, devoted to controlling the public mind, to controlling attitudes and beliefs. That’s the origin of the huge public relations industry, which is a massive industry, hundreds of billions dollars a year devoted to what we used to call propaganda, controlling attitudes and beliefs.

Laureate Professor of Linguistics, Agnese Nelms Haury Chair, College of Social and Behavior Sciences, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona
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