Rock-Paper-Scissors: Words-Meanings-People

This presentation was created for the 5th Annual Denton (TX) Area Conference of the Texas Association for the Improvement of Reading in Denton, TX, on September 23, 2006.

Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

ETC Cover 62-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 62 No. 1, 2005)

Nothing illustrates the power of symbols and language quite like a presidential election. Of course, those of us who know a little bit of general semantics recognize that this ‘power’ lies not in the words and symbols themselves, but in the motivations, intentions, reactions, and evaluations of the individual human beings who speak, write, see, hear, and read the words and symbols.

Alfred Korzybski emphasized that we must vigilantly maintain an ongoing awareness that symbols (or “maps”) are not the things symbolized (or “territories”). He underscored the potential consequences of confusing symbols with their referents when he cautioned that, “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (1)

Who rules your symbols?

With this issue we introduce a new regular feature, “Calling Out the Symbol Rulers.” Each quarter we will highlight examples of how rulers rule by symbols, and how we let ourselves be ruled by symbols. This feature will succeed to the degree that you and other readers participate in the process by corresponding with us — we seek your responses, reactions, analyses, opinions, and examples you find pertinent to this topic.

Whom might we classify as potential symbol rulers? By our definition, just about anybody who participates in a communicative transaction could be considered a symbol ruler. We might start by carefully observing people of influence such as politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, bosses, parents, supervisors, coaches, advertisers, priests, preachers, rabbis, mullahs, commentators, columnists, reporters, etc. How do they generate, manipulate, frame, and convey their messages? What techniques do they employ to influence our judgments and decisions?

You might apply some of the principles of general semantics in your analyses:

  • Do they confuse facts with inferences, judgments, or beliefs? (And by what standard are facts differentiated from non-facts?)
  • Do they over-simplify complex issues into easy-to-understand but misleading either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong polarized choices?
  • Do they attempt to attribute only one cause to an event or one consequence of an action, rather than recognizing multiple causes and multiple consequences — some of which we may never know?
  • Do they generalize from one experience or one person’s anecdotal evidence as if that were the only possible or the ‘right’ universal experience?
  • Do they take responsibility for their own statements and judgments, recognizing what Wendell Johnson referred to as “to-me-ness,” or do they attempt to speak for a group or with the authority of a group?
  • To what degree are they saying something beyond the simple application of a label? (“All you need to know about him is that he’s a liberal!”)
  • Do they objectify high order abstractions such as truth, justice, moral values, security and speak about ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were ‘things,’ rather than inherently inexact, personalized, and even arbitrary notions?
  • Do they concentrate on similarities at the expense of ignoring differences, and vice-versa? Do they exhibit attitudes of allness (or none-ness)?
  • Do they fail to apply Korzybski’s extensional devices — specifically, indexing (Muslim Leader1 is not Muslim Leader2), dating (Senator Phlops views on de-regulation1980 may not represent the Senator’s views2005), and et cetera, (the et cetera, or etc., means that more can always be said; we can never know all there is to know about anything).

Remember … these same principles that you apply critically to others, you can apply to yourself. And we want to emphasize that in general semantics we are not so concerned with the words as we are with the underlying human thinking-feeling and evaluating processes, judgments, perspectives, etc., that are conveyed by the words.


  1. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.76.

De-Mythifying Meaning:

Proposal for the NCTE Annual Convention, November 18-21, 2004, Indianapolis Convention Center

Title: De-Mythifying ‘Meaning’

50-word Annotation:

Four educators apply principles of general semantics to debunk common myths regarding ‘meaning.’ Such ‘meaning myths’ inevitably lead to communication breakdowns, media manipulation, unrealistic expectations and slow self-development. Participants will takeaway practical methods to guide students toward more mature, responsible and self-aware attitudes about their own ‘meanings.’

500-word Description:

The American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce is credited with the observation that, “You don’t get meaning, you respond with meaning.” Nobel physicist P.W. Bridgman expressed the notion in more operational terms when he stated, “The true meaning of a term is to be found by observing what a man does with it, not by what he says about it.”

Nevertheless, in our popular culture, in our mass media, in our personal communications, and even in our classrooms, we continue to perpetuate unproductive and potentially harmful myths about ‘meaning’ such as:

  • the “single meaning myth” – that there is a single meaning, the meaning, rather than possible multiple meanings depending on context, circumstances, and the backgrounds of those involved.
  • the “impersonal myth” – that ‘meanings’ occur or exist apart from the individuals who generate ‘meanings,’ that “things mean” or “words mean” rather than “people mean.”
  • the “meaning = definition myth” – that a dictionary definition dictates how a term must be used and what it ought to ‘mean’ in the future, rather than noting how that term has been used in the past and how its current usage may be changing.
  • the “meaning is spoken myth” – that the significant ‘meanings’ we experience in life can be verbalized, that we can actually describe “how it feels.”

General Semantics, a system for evaluating our language and behaviors, provides practical methods to aid teachers and students debunk, or ‘de-mythify,’ these and other commonly held but unproductive and potentially harmful notions about ‘meaning.’ This panel offers presentations from four professionals representing the fields of journalism, theater arts, communications, and management. Each presenter has applied the principles of general semantics in his/her own classroom environments.

Each presentation will offer practical demonstrations and exercises that can be immediately applied in the classroom to help students learn:

  • They should expect to misunderstand others, and expect to be misunderstood by others; this “communicator beware” attitude will help avoid problems of presumed understanding due to an over-reliance on what the words ‘mean.’
  •  What words, or events, or other symbols ‘mean’ is a function of how each individual interacts with and responds to the word or event; each ‘meaning’ carries with it an aspect of “to-me-ness” determined by the individual.
  • How to become an informed consumer of mass media, to discern the ‘facts’ of a news report vs. the reporter’s own interpretation of what the story ‘means.’
  • How to avoid leaping to conclusions, or rushing to judgment, as to what another person ‘means’ by his/her statements, actions, attitudes, etc.
  • That we ought to temper the meanings that we generate or the judgments we make with some degree of tentativeness and uncertainty. We cannot know ‘all’ about another’s motivation or intent, just as reporters cannot convey ‘all’ the details of a story in a limited amount of space.

By learning these and other critical distinctions, students can develop their individual abilities to respond with ‘meaning’ in their daily lives, and respect the ‘meaningful’ responses of others.

Eating Menus

ETC Cover 61-1(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 61 No. 1, 2004)

This issue of ETC marks another transition in the organizational evolution of a discipline. Published from 1943-1948 by the Society for General Semantics, then from 1949-2003 by the International Society for General Semantics, ETC now falls under the stewardship of the Institute of General Semantics.

Twenty-seven years ago, this journal experienced a different type of transition. The late Neil Postman, remembered in the previous issue of ETC, began his 10-year editorship of this journal with a clearly articulated point of view in the first of his ‘themed’ issues, “The Roots of Fanaticism.”

He diagnosed that, in 1977, there existed a “state of mind which banishes reason and generates frenzy, [that] has accompanied mankind throughout our history and gives no sign that it is wearying of the journey.” He observed that this “state of mind” had produced “the odor of a kind of intellectual decadence that some of us have smelled before.”

Postman predicted that “the study of symbolic processes will be a pre-eminent intellectual enterprise for the remainder of this century.”

To whatever degree ‘we’ have, since 1977, engaged in “the study of symbolic processes,” it doesn’t appear to me that we’ve succeeded in diluting what Postman sniffed as the “odor of a kind of intellectual decadence.” Indeed, I contend that this ‘odor’ lingers, wafts and seeps even more persistently and pervasively in 2004 than in 1977.

Consider the issues that, on a given day, dominate our national interest as evidenced by newspapers, media talk shows, and the Internet. Many of these current (March 2004) issues represent deeply-rooted conflicts that concern “symbolic processes” and the “intellectual decadence” of rulers and/or the ruled, who lack the means to differentiate symbols as symbols, rather than things, values, or truths.

  • A piece of paper generated by a local government official that symbolizes a societal practice that, in English, we call marriage has become a touchstone issue for the 2004 elections, undoubtedly to affect every level of elected office.
  • The issuance of the piece of paper that, in English, we call a marriage certificate has become the object of a movement to generate another piece of paper that, in English, we refer to as an amendment, that will change another piece of paper that we, in English, call the Constitution of the United States of America. The intent of this amendment is to define exactly what marriage is, and by extension, what it most definitely is not.
  • The cultural buzz focuses on the recent release of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ. This film presents his (Gibson’s) creative interpretation of the Apostles’ descriptions of their recollections of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Much of the buzz deals not with the film as a film, but with Gibson’s motivations, with what some perceive as his anti-Semitic point of view, and with the question of “Truth” in his creative depiction—is it indeed “as it was”? (Except for the special effects, of course—I assume no actors actually suffered or were subjected to inhumane treatment during the filming.)
  • The French National Assembly has voted to ban clothing and jewelry that constitute “ostensibly” religious symbols from that nation’s public schools.
  • The ramifications of the “wardrobe malfunction” that revealed part of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime continue. Some major media conglomerates have taken actions to curtail or terminate indecent and obscene programming, even prior to governmental direction or market demands.

It seems to me, then, that our susceptibility to all things symbol-related, and our vulnerability to those who manipulate the symbols (and labels, words, morals, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) has not ameliorated significantly in the quarter century since Postman’s editorial. We still, as individuals, groups, and cultures, exhibit behaviors that amount to “eating the menu,” so to speak. We still confuse flags with freedoms, bumper stickers with beliefs, and appearances with ‘realities.’

So what, then, about the relevance of general semantics? Does our discipline bring anything to the table of “intellectual enterprise” for this 21st century? You may correctly presume that I, as the new Executive Director of this ‘new’ organization, would answer in the affirmative.

Twenty-seven years ago, Neil Postman wrote about the consequences of the “symbolic stench” (my term) that pollutes what passes for contemporary cultural, political, and social discourse. Alfred Korzybski warned us over seventy years ago that “who rules the symbols rules us.” The current ‘issues’ that exist on verbal and symbolic levels will divide us politically in this election year, even as our living existence is threatened on quite visible non-verbal levels in New York, Baghdad, Madrid and other cities inevitably to be named later.

Our challenge as students, practitioners, publishers and advocates of an extensional, scientific orientation is to forthrightly address the threats to sane, time-binding behavior as we can, using the methods and tools at our disposal.

Otherwise, we will continue to be fed menus, and eventually not object to the taste.