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Symbol Rulers


Module 5 Pages

Orientations, Evaluations | Theories of Evaluation | Symbol Rulers | Implications for Education | Response Side Semantics
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources


The affairs of man are conducted by our own, man-made rules and according to man-made theories. Man’s achievements rest upon the use of symbols. For this reason, we must consider ourselves as a symbolic, semantic class of life, and those who rule the symbols, rule us. (Korzybski, 1994, p. 76) [emphasis added]

Authored by Steve Stockdale

To revisit a slide from earlier in this module, consider how much of our neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic environments involve various agents who are trying to influence our personal evaluations and living reactions.

It’s worth noting that Korzybski’s caution regarding “those who rule the symbols, rule us” was published just months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He (Korzybski) understood how vulnerable and susceptible humans were to the manipulation of symbols, signs, words, music, etc. He knew the neurological mechanisms of conditioned responses from Pavlov’s experiments, consistent with his own formulation of identification whereby individuals did not properly evalute and were unaware of their abstracting processes.

Five years before Korzybski’s caution hit the New York City streets in Science and Sanity, another New Yorker published his own book that, unintentionally no doubt, reinforced Korzybski’s contention.

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. — Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Dr. Sigmund Freud. The name of his 1928 book was Propaganda. He taught the first university course in public relations, and is generally considered to be one of, if not the, father of the American public relations industry.

So there would seem to be a natural tension between what Bernays advocated and what Korzybski warned about. Ironically, however, the history of General Semantics includes several prominent individuals from the the advertising and public relations industries.

This lesson centers on three presentations that address our susceptibilities to “those who rule the symbols.”

1. “The Persuaders” with Douglas Rushkoff

In November 2004, days after the U.S. presidential election, the Public Broadcasting Series Frontline series broadcast Douglas Rushkoff’s 90-minute documentary, “The Persuaders.” The film delves into “the persuasion industry” of advertising, marketing, and political campaigns.

The film includes interviews with several major “persuaders,” who make no apologies for their objectives to … create loyalty beyond reason … develop cult-like devotion … appeal to the reptilian brain … and find words that work. 

You can watch the entire documentary, with transcript, at the PBS website. In particular, pay close attention to segments 4 (The Science of Selling) and 5 (Giving Us What We Want).

2. Lay Off of My Persuade Shoes

In 2009, I was invited to give a presentation to a trade association group of advertisers. I took it as an opportunity to challenge these “persuaders” to raise their game, and their industry, to higher levels of respect for their clients and their clients’ customers.

The slides and narration for the presentation, titled Lay Off of My PERSUADE Shoes, playing off the Elvis Presley song, is located on this site. For the purpose of the 2014 MOOC, these four segments are most relevant:

3. Response Side Semantics

Inspired by a 2005 radio broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, and with my continuing fascination with Douglas Rushkoff’s 2004 The Persuaders, I wrote a lengthy essay on this matter of our individual susceptibilities to those who would try to rule our symbols — by persuasion, coercion, propaganda, or other means.

The paper really began with the question I submitted in advance to The Diane Rehm Show, which she read on-air:

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?

The panelists included Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, Wiliam D. Lutz, Professor of English at Rutgers University, and Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovic. The topic of the program was “Political Language.”

Read “Response Side Semantics.”


Module 5 Pages

Orientations, Evaluations | Theories of Evaluation | Symbol Rulers | Implications for Education | Response Side Semantics
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources