Spin That, Mr. Goebbels

We humans live in “symbolic reality.” That is what I call our social environment, because it is so saturated with artificial symbols.

For the most part, lower animals live in “actual reality.” They don’t have to deal with artificial symbolic representations. A tree is a tree, and a threat is a threat. A female in heat is an available female, and available food is available to be eaten. In other words, things are just what they seem to be. Everything that “is”, is what it seems. The animals don’t have to cope with symbolic representations…unless they are pets, in which case they do have to cope with them, because we infuse their reality with artificial symbols such as verbal commands.

But we humans, especially those of us in the developed world, have to function in a landscape of artificial symbols. We’re surrounded and bombarded by words, images, sounds, even smells and tastes, that represent actual things. We have a remarkable ability for creating and understanding symbolic representations. It isn’t going too far to say that that is what separates us from other animals. Without the ability, we wouldn’t have language or math, or culture and politics, or music and art.

Through human history, the use of symbols has been governed by an ethos, a natural sense of right and wrong. Within that ethos, accuracy and precision are the primary determinants of how symbolic representations are made and used. Nobody seriously questions this fact. No one says, for example, that the stop sign should mean to keep driving. No one says that the car speedometer should be calibrated to show incorrect velocities. No one asks for the Cross to be erected over grocery stores. Likewise, it is taken for granted that a piano key will strike the note assigned to it, and that two and two will sum to four, and that a flag with stars and stripes refers to the USA.

But when it comes to words—those symbolic representations that are humankind’s greatest invention—ahh, no. Suddenly, with words it is not only okay to play false with them, but it is believed to be canny, even wise. After all, the skill for manipulating the meaning of words is a sign of intelligence, and manipulating words to one’s personal advantage, and the disadvantage of others, is how one “gets ahead” in this world.

Once upon a time, it was considered a virtue to be “plain-spoken.” Until the twentieth century, in fact, that was one of the highest compliments that could be paid a man. There were a great number of derogatory names given to those who went out of their way to not be plain-spoken: flim-flam man, con-man, fibber, sophist, rogue, knave, swindler, faker, four-flusher, charlatan, mountebank, trickster, sharpster, cheater, and, of course…liar.

I’m not sure when “lying” became “putting a spin on things” or “shading the truth,” but I am fairly certain that the change corresponded with the emergence of advertising as an industry. Modern advertising was spawned by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who is fondly deemed the “father of public relations.” But the real genius behind modern-day dissembling was another man: Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for Adolf Hitler. The liars of today, prevalent and smug in spheres of business, government, and media, should express their debt of gratitude to Mr. Goebbels by erecting heroic statues of him across this nation.

After all, he pioneered their techniques for so perverting symbolic reality that we no longer believe any words we read or hear. But that open admiration, I suppose, might offend decent people, because when Mr. Joseph Goebbels finally ran out of lies in the spring of 1945 and had to commit suicide, he killed his six little children first.

Even the liars who destroy our faith in words can’t put a positive spin on acts like that.