2020-05-14

Propaganda in Overdrive: The Weaponization of Language (Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

The last few days we have been hit with an intensified barrage of alternative reality from Trump’s tweets and press interviews and his online supporters over “Obamagate”, “Deep State” conspiracies and more bizarre assertions in relation to the covid-19 pandemic and the federal government’s response. How can any one person possibly keep up with untangling the webs and layers of lies and distortions?

One article that I had the fortune to stumble across this morning does truly make sense of what is happening. It is a sobering read. I once posted here on the way religious cults have been said to practice “logicide” (the killing of everyday meanings of words) to create alternative realities for members (e.g. teaching different meanings for common words, especially the word “love”). What is happening in the wider national discourses is far more complex, insidious and all-pervasive.

Celine-Marie Pascale

The article is The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism by a Professor of Sociology, Celine-Marie Pascale.

I’ll post some snippets. Bolded highlighting is my own and reflects my own particular interest; layout and formatting are also my own.

To do justice to the issues I will spread this outline over several posts. See the full article for sources of the many facts cited.

First, the problem —

The world is facing a violent intensification of the scope and reach of authoritarian politics at one of the most precarious times in global history. Public figures openly deride expertise, exalt opinion as fact, and favor brute force. We are witnessing government campaigns to undermine any version of reality that does not align with their agendas.

. . .

Far-right authoritarian movements are produced through weaponized language that demeans, demoralizes, and confuses.

. . .

While there is more continuity in these times than one might like to admit, we must also acknowledge that this historical moment is different in two very important ways.

First, as we witness this authoritarian turn around the globe, numerous catastrophes loom in our futures.

— massive inequality with 8 individuals holding an aggregate wealth equal to half of the global population – roughly 3.5 billion people …

— 45.8 million people in 167 countries live in some form of slavery …

— 20.9 million women and children have been forced into sexual servitude …

— (conservatively) 70.8 million people (one in every 108 people worldwide) have been forcibly displaced …

— climate crisis alone will produce 200 million refugees by 2050 …

— nuclear contamination from catastrophes like Fukushima and Chernobyl are poisoning food supplies and increasing rates of cancer …

All of these threats transcend national boundaries and are leading people to wonder if we are coming to a historical limit to our collective survival. Indeed, we may face a lethal absence of hope.

(Second, simultaneously we) are witnessing the entrenchment of far-right authoritarian politics.

Authoritarian politics might best be understood by their efforts to:

  • produce and naturalize hierarchies of human worth;
  • cultivate of a sense of victimhood among the dominant population;
  • elevate anti-intellectualism, with attacks on universities and the college-educated;
  • marshal a quest for racial and/or religious purity;
  • launch attacks on media with the aim of becoming the sole trusted source of information;
  • and sharpen a militant patriarchy that is rooted to the law and order politics of a mythical past and expressed through top-down leadership …

Rising authoritarian movements are evidenced by:

  • Donald Trump (Republican Party) in the USA,
  • Viktor Orbán (Fidesz) in Hungary,
  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (AKP) in Turkey,
  • Andrej Babis (ANO) in the Czech Republic,
  • Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) in Brazil,
  • Heinz-Christian Strache (Freedom Party) in Austria,
  • Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands,
  • Jarosław Kaczyński (Law and Justice) in Poland,
  • Marine Le Pen (former National Front) in France,
  • Matteo Renzi and Luigi Di Maio (Five Star Movement, M5S) in Italy,
  • Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party) in India,
  • Rodrigo Duterte (PDP-Laban Party) in the Philippines.

Authoritarian mainstays include:

  • Belarus,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Vietnam,
  • Laos,
  • Cuba,
  • Venezuela,
  • Iran,
  • Eritrea,
  • Chad,
  • Togo,
  • Oman,
  • Swaziland,
  • Djibouti,
  • Bahrain,
  • Saudi Arabia,
  • Azerbaijan,
  • Afghanistan,
  • Burundi,
  • Libya,
  • Sudan,
  • Yemen,
  • Guinea-Bissau,
  • Uzbekistan,
  • Tajikistan,
  • Equatorial Guinea,
  • Turkmenistan,
  • Democratic Republic of Congo,
  • Central African Republic,
  • Syria.

As of this writing, much of the globe reacts with frustration to the hypocrisy, contradictions, and lies associated with this turn to the right.

. . .

Weaponizing language

Weaponized language always involves four conditions:

  • an elite that shapes a narrative,
  • a barrage of slogans,
  • a person or persons who serves as the charismatic face of the movement,
  • and an insular approach to international relations.

. . . . Weaponized language . . . not only concerns slurs and euphemisms for violence; more importantly, it shapes public discourse and therefore affects public perception, opinion, and behavior. Weaponized language exploits cultural vulnerabilities. It is used

  • to attack people perceived to be disloyal,
  • to dehumanize minority groups in the service of a mythological homogeneous nation-state,
  • to discredit known facts,
  • and to strategically manipulate public emotional responses.

Through weaponized language authoritarian movements establish their own authority as unaccountable and render the violence they enact as ordinary.

. . .

The weaponization of language today relies on a constellation of tactics that include:

  • censorship,
  • propaganda,
  • disinformation,
  • and mundane discourse.

Some might argue that to refer to these strategies as the weaponization of language is an overstatement; that we simply face the proliferation of inaccurate, misleading, and false information – some of which can be produced by software bugs . . . . This depoliticized analysis misses the reality that the weaponization of language is a systematic process – not a random one – which is essential to constituting and consolidating authoritarian power. Weaponized language is a systematic, affective manipulation that amplifies resentments, deepens social divisions and destroys the integrity of public information spaces.

. . .

Next, a closer look at the tactics of weaponized language, beginning with censorship.


Pascale, Celine-Marie. 2019. “The Weaponization of Language: Discourses of Rising Right-Wing Authoritarianism.” Current Sociology Review 67 (6): 898–917. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392119869963.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Propaganda in Overdrive: The Weaponization of Language (Part 1)”

  1. I guess she does not realize that she is repeating what the billionaire-owned mass media and state funded NPR says 24/7. After the first 20 years, one realizes that it is the hypostasis of feminist hysteria and pseudo-revolutionary, a very evil form of propaganda of its own.
    I am reading Roland Barthes’ works from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. He understands that bourgeois propaganda and anti-bourgeois Propaganda are both dependent on the same mythological and literary forms. He understood Bertolt Brecht better than anybody. Bob Dylan also drew from Brecht and Hanns Eisler.
    “Propaganda in Overdrive” is a good descriptive title for it.

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