Response Side Semantics

ETC Cover 63-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, Volume 63 No. 1, January 2006)

From the July 1, 2005, National Public Radio broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show:

Diane: Here is an interesting email from Steve, who’s the Executive Director for the Institute of General Semantics. He says: “These kinds of panels invariably concentrate on the supply side of political talk — the spin, the propaganda, the doublespeak. Seldom does anybody bring up the listener’s or reader’s individual responsibility to critically, sometimes skeptically, evaluate the messages they hear and read. Why isn’t there more emphasis on educating people as critical thinkers and evaluators?” (1)

The distinguished panel that prompted my question consisted of: Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University (2), William D. Lutz, Professor of English at Rutgers University (3), and Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich. The topic for this program concerned “Political Language.”

Responding to my question, Leibovich commented:

I think that’s a fantastic point. I mean, I think it’s one thing to talk about responsibility, it’s another thing to talk about ability. Quite frankly, you really, really need to think and listen hard to actually see and recognize a lot of the rhetoric that is coming your way. (1)

Lutz responded that he dealt with the question in the last chapter of his Doublespeak Defined book. The discussion moved on.

Is the premise of my question valid, that virtually all the focus is on the “supply side” of the communication process, implying that the reaction or response to the message is inevitable, pre-determined, or presumed?


  • How many hundreds of colleges have programs in advertising and public relations? How many colleges have even one course that deals with how to intelligently evaluate and respond to advertising?
  • How many billions of dollars are spent around the world on campaigns to stimulate demand, desire, and support for products, services, political agendas, and religious causes? How many dollars are spent to inform and educate individuals as to the manipulative means used by media advertisers, politicians on the stump, and preachers in the pulpit?
  • It’s not uncommon to hear a remorseful person caught in the media’s crosshairs issue an apology such as, “I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by what I said.” How often does anyone challenge those who choose to take offense? Why is the burden on the speaker to not say something that might offend, rather than on the listeners who seem to seek opportunities to find offense?
  • Do we spend more time teaching children about “bad” words, images, and thoughts that should not be used, or do we teach them how they might react if they encounter such “bad” things?
  • Could there exist a more glaring prejudice against the notion of responsibly reacting and responding than the linguistic lunacy that underlies the pervasive term proactive? By what tortured logic should the act of reacting be de-legitimatized in favor of the false-to-fact folly that someone can be proactive, without benefit of any stimulus, prompt, or need? (As a public service, I offer the beginning of an indefinitely long list of topics about which it is now impossible to be proactive: terrorism, airport security, drugs, gangs, the budget deficit, the environment, urban sprawl, inflation, and — no offense — your weight. I’m sorry, but those and all other known issues are already out there, and it’s too late for anybody to be proactive about them.) (4)

In the early 1960s, Ernest Hemingway opined that the essential attribute of a great writer was to “have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.” (5)

In 1933, Alfred Korzybski warned that “those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (6)

As 2005 turns to 2006, I suggest that the burden for detecting crap now falls squarely on those who must continually respond to the accelerating and accumulating supply of crap generated by the growing hordes of symbol-ruling-wannabes.

Therefore I propose to introduce a new term to the general semantics lexicon that acknowledges the much-neglected response side of the communication relationship: Response Side Semantics.

A Metaphor Inspired by Economics and Behavioral Science

During the 1980 U.S. Presidential election campaign, Ronald Reagan promoted the economic theories of Arthur B. Laffer, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Laffer’s theory regarding taxation maintained that an economy required an optimal rate of taxation to generate the maximum revenue. Beyond that optimal rate, revenue actually decreased, which meant that, on the back side of the curve, tax rate decreases actually resulted in increased tax revenue. (7) In the political campaign language of 1980, the policy was referred to as “supply side economics.”

Laffer predicted that as tax rates were lowered (presuming, of course, that the current rate was beyond the optimal rate for maximum revenue), producers and manufacturers would apply their tax savings to produce and manufacture more goods and services, increasing the overall supply of goods and services. As the available level of supplies went up, prices would go down, consumers would buy and demand more, and the general economy would expand such that the same (or ever lower) tax rate would produce more actual revenue dollars. The rising tide of revenue would lift all economic boats. Supply rested on one side of the relationship, demand on the other; demand was a function of supply.

Supply Demand


Demand Supply

The supply side is like a dog, and the demand side is like the dog’s tail. Manipulating the supply controls the demand. The dog wags the tail.

Ivan Pavlov, the 19th-century Russian professor of chemistry and physiology, had a real dog. Pavlov’s dog became famous not for wagging its tail, but for salivating. Pavlov conducted experiments with the dog that illustrated he could train (or condition) the dog to salivate at the sound of a bell when the bell was substituted for actual food. Inducing a response (saliva) by manipulating the stimulus (food, then bell) illustrates the physiological action known as a conditioned reflex, or in behavioral studies, a conditioned response.

The response can be controlled by manipulating the stimulus, therefore the response can be expressed as a function of the stimulus.

Stimulus Response


Response Stimulus

Now we have two sets of metaphors, each representing a function in which the manipulation of the left side of the relationship results in a (to some degree) predictable change on the right side of the relationship:

Combining the two, I’ve created a third metaphor to suit my purpose:


The “Response Side” in General Semantics

Alfred Korzybski offered a general theory of human behavior that focuses on matters of evaluation. Korzybski used the term evaluation in a much broader sense than we normally use it today. He considered evaluation to include the total response (physiological, neurological, psychological, linguistic, etc.) of an individual to a given event in a specific environment, to include the individual’s awareness of the response. He considered the domain of his studies to include all fields related to how humans sense, experience, and perceive what goes on in their environments (including what he termed their neurolinguistic and neuro-semantic environments), and how they evaluate those goings-on in terms of their subsequent significance, ‘meanings,’ and consequences.

Coincidentally, Korzybski also used a dog (“FIDO”) to illustrate two important differences between humans and animals: 1) Humans have an almost limitless capacity to manipulate symbols, to make one symbol ‘stand for’ many things, or to have many symbols ‘stand for’ the same thing; and 2) Humans have a greater potential capability to temper their susceptibility to the conditioned response. In other word, we have the potential capability to respond conditionally to symbol stimulation.

Indeed, the late Ken Johnson recognized this as the core of general semantics when asked the question, “How would you describe general semantics in one word?” His answer: Conditionality. (8)

Clearly, general semantics already encompasses both sides of the Supply Side — Response Side relationship.

However, in my judgment, far too much well-intentioned attention has been placed on the supply side, or stimulus side, or sender side, of general semantics. We have extolled the benefits of general semantics as applied to “effective communication” (which translates primarily to writing and speaking) and “talking sense” with more clarity, precision, and less likelihood of being misunderstood. But our speaking, writing, and thinking-feeling depend first on our evaluations of our experiences. Just as Wendell Johnson said that we “can’t write writing” (9) (i.e., we must write about something), we do not speak or write unless prompted in some way as a reaction or response to some stimulus, need, prompt, or ‘thing.’ What we humans do, in the most general sense, is respond to our non-verbal and verbal evaluations.

Korzybski’s focus on evaluation (or the response side) has not received the emphasis that it deserves in differentiating general semantics from other disciplines like linguistics, philosophy, psychology, etc. I propose, therefore, that it’s time to acknowledge and emphasize the response side of general semantics, or Response Side Semantics — especially in light of two clear and present threats coming from the supply side.

Threat 1: Supply Side Saturation — Advertising

That we in 21st-century America approach a saturation point in terms of “semantic supply” is, I would argue, inarguable. Milton Dawes notes the millions of instances of “cultural conditioning” to which we’re exposed throughout our lives. (10) Gregg Hoffmann refers to the pervasive influence of the “mediated world” that surrounds us and unavoidably influences our thinking, attitudes and behaviors. He points out that most of us will be confronted by an onslaught of “mediated messages” within the first hour or two of waking up in the morning … the alarm clock radio, the newspaper, TV, talk radio in the car, billboards, ads plastered on every conceivable surface, the Internet, email, written reports, etc. (11)

Many of these mediated messages attempt to persuade us — some might say condition us — to think, feel, behave, and act according to the specific wishes of the suppliers of the messages. Do this, don’t do that, stay tuned, vote for me, rent this space, check our website, don’t touch that dial, act now, repent now, buy now.

In the excellent PBS Frontline documentary “The Persuaders,” Mark Crispin Miller of New York University notes the growing level of advertising “clutter” in our environment. The fundamental challenge of advertisers is to break through this ever-increasing clutter, yet each attempt to break through the clutter, adds more clutter. He warns that we’re on the verge of becoming acclimated to the pervasive effects of all this advertising clutter: “Once a culture becomes entirely advertising-friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all.” (12)

The late Robert P. Pula, former IGS Director, author, and teacher, defined culture as a “shared hallucination.” In this context, we might wonder who’s supplying the hallucinogens that define our current culture.

Does Miller’s warning overstate the threat that advertising may overwhelm our individual and collective abilities to appropriately evaluate and respond — or not respond?

Consider the declared objectives of the advertising gurus themselves:

Douglas Atkin, Merkley and Partners Advertising: “When I was a brand manager at Proctor & Gamble, my job was basically to make sure the product was good, develop new advertising copy, design the pack. Now a brand manager has an entirely different kind of responsibility. In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people, through which they get identity and understanding of the world. Their job now is to be a community leader.” Atkin observed the cult-like devotion of some consumers to their brands, such as Saturn automobile owners, Nike shoe wearers, and Apple Macintosh computer users. His quest then became to “find out why people join cults and apply that knowledge to brands.” (12)

Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi, Inc.: “You feel the world through your senses, the five senses, and that’s what’s next. The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie.” (12)

Clotaire Rapaille, French “Marketing Guru” who claims 50 of the Fortune 100 companies as clients and was trained as a psychiatrist who treated autistic children. He discusses his approach to marketing research and how he applies the results to advertising: “We start with the cortex because people want to show how intelligent they are. So give them a chance. We don’t care what they say … It’s absolutely crucial to understand what I call ‘the reptilian hot button.’ My theory is very simple. The reptilian [brain] always win. I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually, give me the reptilian.” (12)

These three industry leaders, who influence the supply of millions of dollars of targeted advertising messages every year, have proudly and unapologetically announced their intentions to:

  • Create a “meaning system” for consumers by learning what cults do, then applying similar techniques to develop cult-like responses to their clients’ products and brands.
  • Generate “loyalty beyond reason” among their clients’ consumers.
  • Appeal directly to the ‘emotional’ or reptilian brain “hot buttons” of their client’s consumers, bypassing altogether their intellectual reasoning capabilities.

So … what’s in your hot button?

Now, I am not so naïve as to presume that these objectives are something new in the world of advertising. However, to hear this in such blatant, matter-of-fact terms in the presence of such overwhelming evidence that advertisers are already well on their way to successfully achieving these objectives, causes me concern.

And it apparently concerns Douglas Rushkoff, the co-writer and correspondent of “The Persuaders.” He asks the $64,000 question to Rapaille, echoing the sentiments I posed to Diane Rehm’s panel:

“What about the environment? If the lizard [reptilian brain] wants the Hummer, and the lizard’s not going to listen to the environmentalist then isn’t it our job, as aware people, to get the reptile to shut up and appeal to the cortex, to appeal to the mammal?” (12)

Right on, Brother Rushkoff!

But … whose job is it, anyway? Who volunteers to appeal to the mammalian cortex, to go toe-to-toe (or synapse-to-synapse) against the billions of dollars spent worldwide to supply our reptilian brains with delicious morsels of loyalty, devoid of any nutritional reason?

Is there any market for an antidote to advertising?

Threat #2: Supply Side Pollution — Politics

In the political arena of persuasion, Rushkoff’s documentary features the work of Frank Luntz, the consultant who constructed much of the language that has been so effectively used (progressives might say “abused”) by conservative politicians since the early 1990s.

Nicholas Lemann profiled Luntz in 2000 for The New Yorker in an article titled, “The Word Lab.” (13) Luntz worked with House Republicans in 1994 and is generally credited as the verbal craftsman for the “Contract with America” that swept the Republicans to victory in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Lemann describes the process Luntz uses to supply the words and phrases that work to get the desired response from voters. He notes that the purpose of Luntz’s “word lab” is not necessarily to find the most informative, accurate, or clarifying terms, but to research which terms most often result in the aims of the client — usually, election, or approval. Therefore, the point of Luntz’s work, according to Lemann, is “to find out what voters already think and then design rhetoric to persuade them that politicians agree with it.” (13)

Lemann credits Luntz with advising “his clients to say Department of Defense instead of Pentagon, opportunity scholarships instead of vouchers, tax relief instead of tax cuts, and climate change instead of global warming.” (13)

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz allows Rushkoff’s crew to film one of his research focus groups for a Florida utility company that wants to “build public support for a change in how it’s regulated on the environment.” (12)

Luntz describes his challenge:

I know that the public is very down on corporate America in general and they’re down on power companies. So what is the language, what is the information, what are the facts, what are the figures that would get Americans to say, “You know what? My electricity company, it’s OK.” (12)

However, based on what we observe in the documentary, the focus group isn’t presented with “information, facts, or figures” intended to educate. Instead, they’re subjected to language prepared by the utility company that promotes its scripted objectives. Through one-way glass, Luntz watches the subjects react and measures their responses on an electronic recorder. He looks for the language that most noticeably evokes the desired response from the subjects.

He (Luntz, not Pavlov) knows it when he sees his subjects (not his dog) react to it (sans saliva). “If the language works, the language works.” (12)

What’s his secret? What is Luntz paying attention to that others are missing? He states:

80 percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that’s what I need to understand. (12)

One of Luntz’s most notable successes was to gain popular support to repeal what has been known historically as the estate tax.

Here’s a brief description from the IRS website, which still refers to “the Estate Tax”:

Presently … only total taxable estates and lifetime gifts that exceed $1,000,000 will actually have to pay tax. In its current form, the estate tax only affects the wealthiest 2% of all Americans. (14)

Now, if you’re outraged that this tax is on the books, let me hear you yell “This is an outrage! Pishahhh!”

I didn’t think so.

But Luntz came up with a simple approach to rally the masses against a tax that only applies to the wealthiest 2% of Americans. According to Lemann, Luntz first asked a focus group “what they most want to eliminate: an estate tax, an inheritance tax, or a death tax.” The death tax came out first because the perception was that the government should not tax your family after you die. Then he asked them to guess how much money could be passed down before the “death tax” kicked in. Except for the accountants who knew the answer, everyone else in the focus group guessed way too low. Even with the subsequent information that you had to leave an estate valued at a minimum of $675,000 (the figure in 2000, subsequently raised to $1,000,000) before your heirs were subject to “death tax” consequences, the majority of the focus group still supported its repeal. And today, according to Luntz, 75% of Americans support permanent repeal of the “death tax.” (12)

Yes, world … we are indeed that stupid.

In “The Persuaders,” Luntz defends his semantic gymnastics on behalf of the death tax:

Look, for years, political people and lawyers — who, by the way are the worst communicators — used the phrase estate tax. And for years, they couldn’t eliminate it. The public wouldn’t support it because the word estate sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it’s not an estate tax, it’s a death tax because you’re taxed at death. And suddenly, something that isn’t viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It’s the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is, but they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I’d argue that is a clarification, it’s not an obfuscation. (12)

Challenged, Luntz continues:

I don’t argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it’s up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire. Fire can heat your house or burn it down. (12)

Is it just me, or is it getting uncomfortably warm in here? Is that smoke I smell?

Just like his advertising and marketing counterparts, Luntz makes no secret that he’s not out to inform or educate or appeal in any way to rationally-thinking mammalian brains. Like Rapaille, Luntz is after the lizard. And like Rapaille, he’s found it.

The success of Frank Luntz and his Republican benefactors has not gone unnoticed. As Matt Bai describes in The New York Times Magazine, some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, think they’ve found their own progressive version of a semantic alchemist in George Lakoff. (15) Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, supplied the metaphor of frames and pitched it into the cauldron of political constructions.

Bai credits the Democrats embrace of framing as the key equalizer in their “victory” (some might say “standoff compromise”) earlier this year in defending the Senate filibuster. He describes the approach taken by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin:

Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were “changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the “checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party “arrogant.” They said they feared “abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style “war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: “Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, “Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.” (15)

Displaying unusual solidarity, the Democrats kept driving home the “abuse of power” frame and eventually succeeded in forcing a compromise with seven Republicans that ‘saved’ the filibuster as a procedural option available (as of this writing) to the minority party Senators.

So, what’s in a frame ? According to Bai:

Exactly what it means to frame issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative. (15)

From the promotional blurb for Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate:

Author George Lakoff explains how conservatives think, and how to counter their arguments. He outlines in detail the traditional American values that progressives hold, but are often unable to articulate. Lakoff also breaks down the ways in which conservatives have framed the issues, and provides examples of how progressives can reframe them. (16)

So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Great American ‘Debate,’ 2005-style:

In this corner we have the Republican proxy Frank Luntz, armed with the jabs and punches practiced in his word lab.

And in this corner here’s George Lakoff, the Democratic “Great Linguistic Hope,” who’s learned his clinching and counter-punching technique in the basement of his framing franchise.

And all over the arena we have wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling advertising specifically designed (or devised?) by Rapaille, Roberts, and Atkin that gives our lizard brains a meaning system for loyally buying everything that the most effective lizard-pleasing persuaders can offer.

Let’s get rrrready to … what, exactly?

A Response to the Threats — Response Side Semantics

We live in two worlds, the verbal world and the non-verbal world. Wendell Johnson wrote, “The worlds we manage to get inside our heads are mostly worlds of words.” (17) Our daily challenge is to appropriately integrate these two different worlds in our evaluations, responses, attitudes, behaviors, actions, decisions, etc.

As the “supply” of words, images, and symbols exponentially grows, our individual and collective abilities to adequately evaluate and respond (or not respond) to the narrowly-interested symbolic stimulants targeted against us must also rise commensurately, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Otherwise, we risk lapsing into a state I call verballucination, defined as “a delusional state of uncritical unawareness in which individuals and groups can no longer discriminate words and symbols in any coherent way.” We are not ‘brainwashed’ so much as we are ‘mind-muddied.’ When we’re in this state we are especially vulnerable to appeals for “loyalty beyond reason,” to blindly accept the symbols offered by our rulers, to buy into the “meaning systems” sold by the suppliers.

I introduce this notion of response side semantics as simply a label that might help us more readily acknowledge the threats to our individual and collective sanities. We cannot simply acquiesce allegiance and responsibility for our actions, decisions, votes, and purchases to the lizard-loving manipulators on the supply side. Action must follow awareness.

And action, in this case, cannot be laying claim to another corner ring and creating another paradigm for semantic pugilism. We need to educate individuals and groups that we have the mammalian means to detect the crap, to resist the cult-like advertising indoctrination, to subvert our loyalties to our reasoning. We’ve known how to do it since 1933 when Korzybski’s Science and Sanity came out.

It’s time for us to clean up, not clutter up, our neuro-semantic and neurolinguistic arenas.

Otherwise, we might as well go ahead and get the signs made up to post at every port of entry:

Sign Welcome to the Verballucination


  1. Audio file for the July 1, 2005, The Diane Rehm Show, produced by WAMU, American University Radio, available for download from:
  2. Deborah Tannen is the author of: You Just Don’t Understand, That’s Not What I Meant, Talking Voices, I Only Say This Because I Love You, and Talking From 9 to 5.
  3. 3.    William D. Lutz is the author of Doublespeak and Doublespeak Defined.
  4. I contend that blame for proactive falls to the insane popularity of Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #1: Be Proactive. (If you should attempt to develop that habit, are you not reacting in order to be proactive?)
  5. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Delacorte Press, New York, 1969, pages 2-3.
  6. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 5th Edition, 1994, p.76. Available from IGS.
  7. See by Arthur B. Laffer, copyright 1995-2005, The Heritage Foundation. Ironically, Laffer credits Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century Muslim philosopher, as the first to articulate the theory of supply side economics. Present at the first sketch of the “Laffer Curve,” literally on the back of a dinner napkin, were Laffer, Jude Wanniski, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, in December 1974.
  8. Kenneth G. Johnson’s comment as heard by the author, July 1994, IGS Seminar-Workshop at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.
  9. Wendell Johnson, “You Can’t Write Writing,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 1, Number 1, August 1943, pp.25-32. Society for General Semantics, Chicago, Illinois.
  10. Milton Dawes, “The VASTness of General Semantics,”
  11. Gregg Hoffmann, heard by the author during a lecture at Alverno College, July 2005.
  12. “The Persuaders,” produced for the PBS Series Frontline, directed by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, produced by Rachel Dretzin, Barak Goodman and Muriel Soenens, written by Barak Goodman and Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright WGBH Educational Foundation. Originally aired November 9, 2004. Video distributed by PBS VIDEO. Script available online.
  13. Nicholas Lemann, “The Word Lab,” The New Yorker, 16 October 2000, pp.100-117.
  14. Internal Revenue Service website, “Estate Tax Questions,”,,id=108143,00.html
  15. Matt Bai, “The Framing Wars,” The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005.
  16. From the website of The Rockridge Institute,
  17. Wendell Johnson, Your Most Enchanted Listener, Harper & Brothers: New York, 1956.