“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.”
— Philip K. Dick
As part of my executive training, a former boss once shared a chilling image that underpinned his genius for manipulation. A person, he told me, is nothing more than a floating mass of desires and vulnerabilities, easily brought to heel via a few well chosen words. Adverbs were crucial weapons in his linguistic artillery. He could disarm an angry staffer by pointing out how “overwhelmingly” he appreciated him/her. Simple mistakes were “appallingly” disastrous. He was “profoundly” disappointed when employees failed to meet his ever-shifting standards.
The effective control freak can shape a narrative to his/her advantage while remaining oblivious to the human consequences. Successful politicians are by definition shrewd manipulators, but control slips away when their real-world shenanigans outstrip their laughable linguistic cover ups. Larry “Wide stance” Craig,” John “Being 99 percent honest is no longer enough” Edwards, Rudy “I see myself as Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper” Blagojevich, John “Our families were close” Ensign and Mark “I’m trying to fall back in love with my wife” Sanford are recent cases in point.
The most risible language contortions this side of Dick Cheney’s tortured definitions of “torture” surround mavericky, soon to be ex-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, whose regular butchering of the English language rivals that of George W. Bush. Her surreal “I’m not a quitter” quitting of her job — after which John McCain acquitted himself by observing, “I don’t think she quit” — was followed by this reflection on her political future: “If I die, I die.” Meanwhile, in the alternative universe that is Fox News, Republican “strategist” Mary Matalin strategized Palin’s flameout as “brilliant,” while conservative “analyst” Bill Kristol’s analysis suggested that solipsistic Sarah may be “crazy like a fox.” (Or was it “Crazy like Fox”?) Actually, Bill, she’s just crazy, and would be wise to seek the professional ministrations of a different kind of analyst.
The passing of Michael Jackson — a superb entertainer but an inept control freak — prompted a media-accorded linguistic journey from bizarre pederast to exalted legend, from low-life “Jacko” to royal “King of Pop.” The memory of Jackson’s astonishing talent didn’t benefit from the self-serving hyperbole of some of his prominent mourners. If Jackson Five discoverer Berry Gordy is right that MJ is “the greatest entertainer who ever lived,” Gordy’s own image is burnished. And which Jackson do you think Representative Shirley Jackson (no relation) wanted to bring attention to when she offered up a silly Congressional Resolution honoring MJ? (Among the “whereases”: “On July 14, 1984, after the first concert of the Victory Tour, Michael met 8 terminally ill children backstage.” A kind gesture, but hardly an act of national heroism.)
Overshadowed by the 24/7 MJ coverage — at one dramatic moment, CNN broke into its regular broadcast with “Breaking news: Debbie Rowe hasn’t decided yet whether to seek custody of the kids” — was the death of erstwhile Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a principal architect of America’s Vietnam War policy, which achieved nothing but the deaths of more than 50,000 Americans and millions of Asians. Described in a 2006 Newsweek feature as “a control freak whose toughest job was shaping his own legacy,” McNamara was a brilliant factotum who perverted language to gain support for the misguided war effort by systematically under-reporting the American military’s “body count.” Several decades later, by which time most of the contemporaries who might challenge his account were dead, McNamara tried to reinvent himself as a wise elder, explaining that the “fog of war” causes everyone to make mistakes. But he never did seem to understand the human cost of his manipulations.
It’s tough to deal with master manipulators in power positions. Vigilant mindfulness of the linguistic games they’re playing is a start. (George Orwell, chronicler of the debasement of language by the powerful, said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”) You can take a page from the 12-Step Program and try to accept what you can’t control while seeking to effect change where you can. If the damage is just too great for the yin approach, take William Burroughs’ advice and go for the jugular: “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine.”
If we wait long enough, real world events tend to loosen the grip of the worst control freaks. When this happened to my former boss, his language charted the decline: “Get this done” became “Here’s what I’d like you to do,” which devolved into “Let’s work on this together.” Years later, our roles were reversed and it was “You should give me a job.” Thank you, Karma.