Suppose you are the prime minister of a democratic country. With time, as you get comfortable with power, you face internal socio-political challenges in your country. However, power is so enticing you want to hold on to it.
You want to ensure that people speak what you want, even without their knowledge. You want them to defend you even when they know you are wrong. Further, you wish they listened to and praised you in their dreams.
Exciting, isn’t it? I certainly think so. Of course, this isn’t a well-knit Orwellian phantasmal desire. Political elites—in every other society—do precisely this.
They control what we speak, how we speak, and with who we speak what we want to speak. However, their extents vary in time, space, and regime types.
The role of language in the social control
When George Orwell began writing 1984 about how politicians use language to control societies, it wasn’t 1984—but 1948. There was no Michael Foucault in his times. When he wrote 1984, very few had thought of how language plays an instrumental role in shaping power.
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.(Orwell 1948)
In 1984, Orwell, being Orwell, introduced “newspeak”—a language designed by the party (perhaps, alluding to a political regime) to control what people spoke.
He eloquently writes, “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength”—a form of propaganda that the party pedals onto its society. In the chilling Orwellian world, we still see language as the means of direct control of society.
In today’s world, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” is an exaggeration! However, today’s world consents to be controlled through language. It is the Gramscian logic of consent at play.
Indeed, we agree (with or without our knowledge) to be controlled through language. It may seem puzzling—and perhaps, even disturbing. Tell you what, it is! As social-contracting, constitution-abiding citizens, I argue that we implicitly adhere to languages of control.
Languages shape societies. When written and spoken, they tell us how we relate to one another. They make us social—affirming Aristotle’s political animal. If language makes us social and therefore also political, then language is an essential tool for manipulation. Once upon a time, Saul Alinsky, the author of Rules for Radicals, said: “Whoever controls languages controls society”.
How is language instrumental in controlling societies?
The “speech act” theory pervades social sciences through diverse terrains. Broadly, speech act theory is about how words (spoken or otherwise) function not only as presenting information but also as carrying out actions. Here, the words become means of action. Think of it in everyday practice.
We consume lots of entertainment—every day, from intolerable loud-mouthed Arnab in his newsroom to often pretentious patriotic Akshay Kumar movies to a YouTube video on “how to get a job” to an unending drama on Saas Bahu soap operas and ever-frustrating 15-years olds’ TikTok videos.
In all these entertainment sources, we are introduced to terms, words, and expressions—that stick. The utterances, by virtue of being uttered, have now become mainstream social phenomena. They stick. When percolated en masse, they gain the currency of being “the” truth.
Let’s try a dear one: “JNU is anti-national”. Now, as a college-going master’s student of JNU, you know why that judgemental Republic-TV-watching, unsolicited-opinion-giving, out-to-get-you neighbourhood uncle is staring at you—all the time.
Another one: “Pakistan is an enemy nation”. No matter how much you try to think otherwise, you can’t. School texts are written so that you are indoctrinated to think this way, and any other way means you are a “terrorist”.
This one is a favourite: “Nehruvian consensus”. Read Taylor Sherman—and she will make a case for why secularism and socialism, among other things about Nehru, may be myths. Again, textbooks. They teach you to use terms interchangeably.
Last: “Inflation (?), China (?), Godhra (?), Modi ji sahi hai”. Today’s government-controlled news media—and the lies they peddle every day.
Language control at play
In the United States, with the horrific 9/11 attacks, a new language emerged around “terrorism”. It entailed what deems a terror act, who qualifies as a terrorist, and what to do with those who qualify as a terrorist.
What followed after was perpetual discrimination towards Muslims all over the world. It implicitly created a perception about what makes for a terrorist: a black-clad, rifle-carrying, beard-donned Arab man.
A Reddit user, Zan Hakeem, pointed me to the aftereffects of such language controls in American societies. Hakeem writes:
I noticed this [language control] back when 9/11 first happened. I remember the slogan “support the troops” being thrown around all the time. And it struck me as ridiculously euphemistic. Where “troops” was used instead of war. Who wants to support war. But everyone wants to support a soldier- a person laying down their lives for us. And if you disagreed with the Iraq war back then? You were not a patriot. Now, almost the entire country agrees the Gulf Wars were completely wrong.(Hakeem 2023)
In Europe, a new wave of far-right has risen to power, with a vocabulary of keeping their borders safe from “illegal migrants” (a term that was invented to replace “refugees”).
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has consistently used anti-immigration rhetoric to come to—and stay in—power. Our very own Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has vowed to throw “illegal migrants into the Bay of Bengal”—referring to the Rohingya Muslims.
These perceptions are then strengthened through mass media. In general, school textbooks, religious and non-religious institutions, news media, and other entertainment sources become tools for language control.
If you want to control society, you must control the language—in its everyday form of consumption. Language shapes our reality. Once that is controlled, you control what is deemed as reality.
When you control the means of expression—and the ways of expressing—you are halfway through becoming a democratic autocrat. Language, thus, is essential for one to control society. This is the logic at play in most societies on varying levels.
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