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Metaphor and propaganda

October 2, 2014

Literary references creep into political discussions on Echo of Moscow radio, and politics finds its way into linguistic discussions too. Here’s Anatolii Nikolaevich Baranov, a guest on a semi-prescriptive, semi-descriptive show about the Russian language:

ANB: There’s this school of general semantics, or there used to be… Its most prominent representatives, as is often the case, were in the U.S. But nevertheless, they expounded a number of very important ideas, which, it seems to me, remain important for our present situation. That one must not conflate a word and the thing it describes. They are entirely different things. When we call something… I don’t know, when we say “there are fascists over there” or “it’s a junta,” then we must distinguish between what we say about a thing and what it is in reality. This is a crucial point, and keeping it in mind would allow people to avoid quite a few mistakes and even, I think, quite a few tragedies that arise in life as well [crosstalk]…

Ol’ga Severskaia: [crosstalk] …the word reveals someone’s point of view about something and not the thing itself as such, in this case.

ANB: Yes, of course, it’s a question of interpretation. And when we say that… Is there metaphor in political language? Yes, of course there is. But on the other hand we can always separate ordinary language from metaphor. Because when people say of the government in Kiev that it’s a junta, the question arises, to what extent is it really a junta according to the [precise?] definition you could find in an encyclopedia, or do we just kind of think to ourselves that it’s a junta [или это мы так себе думаем, что это хунта]? And so, you see, these are two different things, and in propaganda the two are practically always conflated. And of course that’s a major difficulty for the practical mind [для обыденного сознания], because ordinary people don’t make distinctions between the word and the thing, they take them to be identical. (September 21st, 2014, 4:53 to 6:25)

In the rest of the interview Baranov had interesting things to say about the use of images and metaphors in political discourse from late Imperial Russia through the Soviet Union, perestroika, and today that reminded me of George Lakoff. For example, besides the rebuilding metaphor in the word “perestroika,” which could be interpreted as adding to or making changes to a structure, a lot of “accelerating vehicle” metaphors were used in contemporary discourse, as well as a metaphor of Gorbachev and other leaders being on a ship, which they could change the direction of, or they could throw someone overboard.

Ukraine is not just the main current events topic in Russia. It takes over everything, just as around 2001-2003 it was impossible to listen to or read anything in the U.S. — from sports talk radio to specialized listservs for academics studying Slavic languages — without hearing about Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and then Iraq. People in Russia seem surprised and annoyed if the rest of the world cares more about Hong Kong or Ebola. Retired political scientist Stanislav Belkovskii (who says plenty that has more bite than anything I hear in the American media) was good on this: “We took second place, but after Ebola fever we’re the second most dangerous threat to humanity. And ISIS is only third. You can see how much we all have to be proud of” (September 30th, 2014).

Echo of Moscow also talks about propaganda from a fiscal point of view, with Evgeniia Al’bats worrying that the rising share of the Russian budget spent on “propaganda” will not leave enough for social programs (September 23rd, 2014).

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 2, 2014 7:41 pm

    That reminds me of a passage I recently read in Robertson Davies: “…Pargetter’s warning about the witnesses, or clients, whose creed is esse in re; to such people the world is absolutely clear because they cannot understand that our personal point of view colours what we perceive; they think everything seems exactly the same to everyone as it does to themselves.” And general semantics reminds me of A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A, which introduced me (and many another young sf fan back in the day) to the wacky world of Alfred Korzybski.

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