The Personalist Project

The recent HHS contraceptive-coverage mandate, and the lying, manipulative rhetoric surrounding it, has exposed once again the close connection between the abuse of language and the abuse of power. And maybe that's a good thing. We've become so accustomed to political spin, campaign rhetoric, partisan platitudes, etc., that it is easy to miss the manipulative and coercive elements in these forms of sophistry. But those elements, though usually hidden, are always there.

Deceit and violence are in fact very closely related. Sissela Bok calls them "the two forms of deliberate assault on human beings." They are both modes of dominating people; of using them in ways, and for ends, they would not willingly and knowingly choose. And though violence is the more obvious assault, deceit is more dangerous because "it works on belief as well as action." "Even Othello," Bok points out, "whom few would have dared to try to subdue by force, could be brought to destroy himself and Desdemona through falsehood."

The connection between sophistry and force became notably clear, I thought, in the way Obamacare was passed two years ago. For a long time the project was moved along by means of the usual political spin. But by the end, when spin came up short of votes, the new law was simply "forced through" Congress and foisted upon a largely unwilling and doubtful nation. The gloves had come off briefly, making the fists visible. What mattered was the goal—passing the bill and gaining control over the nation's healthcare industry. They would have preferred to do it without force, but lack of cooperation left them no choice. I couldn't help recalling these lines from Evita:

If normal methods of persuasion fail to win us applause,
there are other ways of establishing authority.
We have ways of making you vote for us,
or at least of making you abstain.

The link between sophistry and coercion is again made starkly apparent in the HHS mandate. Under cover of noble rhetoric—women's health, fairness, access—the moral integrity of individual citizens and private organizations is directly assaulted. The choice being put before all faithful Catholics and Cathoic institutions is between violating conscience and paying a stiff penalty. In bald terms, the Obama Adminstration is saying to us all: "Betray God, your fellow man, and your own soul, or else..."

Josef Pieper, the great Thomist thinker of the last century, explains how this threatening aspect is an element in all propaganda:

Plato... characterizes the essence of injustice as the combination and collaboration of peitho and bia, rendered as "persuasive word" and "brute force". Obviously something is lost when the translations speak only of cajoling, wheedling, and flattery. Left out is the element of menace. But then again, the most perfect propaganda achieves just this: that the menace is not apparent  but well concealed. Still, it must remain visible; it must remain recognizable.

One reason for concealing the implied threat is to make it possible for someone to "save face" while giving in to it. (Think, in this connection, of the so-called compromise offered by the Obama administration. It is substantially the same mandate, but now packaged in words that, for some at least, make it much easier to swallow.)  Again Pieper:

...those for whom the menace is intended must nevertheless be led and eased into believing ... that by acquiescing to the intimidation, they really do the reasonable thing, perhaps even what they would have wanted to do anyway.

I'm afraid, then, that Katie is right. It seems that "battle lines are being drawn" and things may well get ugly during this election year. The manipulative use of language has been so widespread for so long, that it already has done considerable damage to the body politic.  Our powers of resistance have been weakened.  The process described by Pieper is, I fear, already taking place.

The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape. It does contain violence, albeit in latent form. And precisely this is one of the lessons recognized by Plato through his own experience with the sophists of his time, a lesson he sets before us as well. This lesson, in a nutshell, says: the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language. The degradation, too, of man through man, alarmingly evident in the acts of physical violence committed by all tyrannies... has its beginning, certainly much less alarmingly, at that almost imperceptible moment when the word loses its dignity.

Comments (1)


#1, Feb 22, 2012 10:12am

Deceit is a "deliberate assault on human beings." It's the most subtle and most effective way to keep people in bondage, to keep them  bamboozled and ignorant such that they cannot be free.

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