A good story shouldn’t be preferred to the truth: Political Sophistry

On the misuse of language (sophistry)

Something that has been exercising my mind in recent years is the way we communicate with each other; and, more speicifically, how people in the public arena seem to be more willing to communicate by sophistry. Whether in relationships at home, at work, in advertising or politics, there seems to be growing trend to ‘misuse’ language. In some instances, the misuse is deliberate, in others it forms part of what might be described as a vested fiction, a story we tell ourselves because it makes us feel better (at a societal or individual level).

Much of my PhD and counselling work revolves around the idea that the aim of communication is to help our understanding of reality and to identify future actions. The misuse of language hinders both objectives; we cannot understand what is happening around us, and therefore we are controlled by the other person; unable to participate fully what is happening around us.

I use the word ‘misuse’ because of a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates, who said that ‘the misuse of language induces evil in the soul’ or in another translation, ‘false words are not only evil in themselves, they infect the soul with evil.’ In either case, the general idea is that we should not misuse language not just because it is generally a bad idea but because we harm ourselves when we do. Why? Socrates isn’t bothered about grammar but that, when we deliberately misuse language, we are essentially lying; deliberately creating a difference between what we say to other people and what is real: creating a barrier to our being able to understand reality. In short, we are doing little more than manipulating other people. Just think of the way an adulterer tells their story, some advertisers sell their products, not to mention the messages given by (particularly populist) politicians across the globe.

I would suggest that the harm is not limited to individuals but also wider society. This suggestion is easily seen in the quote from the leading populist Nazi, Joseph Goebbels:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State”

What is true of the state is equally true of our relationships with other people, just think of the impact of gaslighting.

Goebbels was not the first to misuse language, nor patently in our own day, the last. 2,500 years ago, Plato was concerned with a group known as Sophists who were teaching people how to use words to improve their financial and political position.

For the Sophist, the truth was not allowed to get in the way of a great speech. Verbal skills which used exaggerated and flowery language, that lacked content and any real relationship with the truth or observable reality were to be encouraged. Essentially, the Sophist was really a nihilist who believed in nothing but furthering their own ambitions.

If communication is not to be used to further our understanding or to reflect reality there must be another reason for using it; that reason cannot be anything but manipulating other people. whether our partners, friends or the wider population.

Goebbels offers a glimpse of how we can respond the misuse of language in any relationship: look to understand the reality of what is happening around us. In a counselling session, for example, I use communication to develop an understanding rather than simply to be told what is going on. This is a point I will pick up on in another blog soon.