“War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength”: Chomsky on Words That Have Lost All Meaning

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” – George Orwell, 1984

In a totalitarian society, it doesn’t matter much what people think. If they get out of hand, they can be violently coerced into submission.

However, in democratic societies, or societies that maintain democratic forms, those in power cannot always use force to reach their objectives; this is a result of long and hard-fought popular struggles and civil disobedience, and so on, and the struggle continues to this day.

Unlike an overtly totalitarian society, it does matter what the population thinks in a democratic society, because there is a possibility (however slight) that they can influence policy if they “lend their weight” in a particular direction.

So forms of thought control must be implemented in formally democratic societies to keep the population in line with power.

The phrase “thought control” sounds conspiratorial, but that the media would use their immense power to influence and shape the opinions of the masses is pretty close to common sense.

Today, the major media sources are owned by huge corporations, and airwaves are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. This has a serious effect. Those who attempt to bring an independent view of the world — one not dictated by the needs of owners and advertisers — are few and far between, as they often lack the resources to compete.

As a result, we are left with a media that is owned by and that relentlessly pushes the interests of the elite sectors of society, leaving the middle and working class atomized, confused, and hopeless.

What are some of the tactics used by the media to influence the minds of the masses?

There are many, of course, but one of the most important is the creation of alternate definitions for words that are important to a functioning society, and the effect is to make them completely devoid of meaning.

Noam Chomsky, in a collection of interviews titled What Uncle Sam Really Wants, describes how this process works.

The terms of political discourse typically have two meanings. One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is the meaning that is useful for serving power — the doctrinal meaning.


According to the common sense meaning, a society is democratic to the extent that people can participate in a meaningful way in managing their affairs. But the doctrinal meaning of democracy is different – it refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites. The public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants,’ as leading democratic theorists (in this case, Walter Lippmann) have explained. They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with what matters – like public policy – that are none of their business.

If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s not democracy. Rather, it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home, by more subtle and indirect means.

Free enterprise:

…a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive government intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich. In fact, in acceptable usage, just about any phrase containing the word “free” is likely to mean something like the opposite of its actual meaning.

Job creation, free trade, the free market, market forces, and so on all fall into a similar category, and are used in similar ways, depending upon what big business is attempting to do to screw the public. Whether it is passing a “trade” deal that will “create jobs,” or promoting the values of the “free market” overseas, it is all the same: business pursuing its interests, and working to convince the public that it is all for the best.

Defense against aggression:

…a phrase that’s used — predictably — to refer to aggression. When the US attacked South Vietnam in the early 1960s, the liberal hero Adlai Stevenson (among others) explained that we were defending South Vietnam against ‘internal aggression’ — that is, the aggression of South Vietnamese peasants against the US air force and a US-run mercenary army, which were driving them out of their homes and into concentration camps where they could be ‘protected’ from the southern guerrillas. In fact, these peasants willingly support the guerrillas, while the US client regime was an empty shell, as was agreed on all sides.

So magnificently has the doctrinal system risen to its task that to this day, 30 years later, the idea that the US attacked South Vietnam is unmentionable, even unthinkable, in the mainstream…The guardians of political correctness can be quite proud of an achievement that would be hard to duplicate in a well-run totalitarian state.

It is almost never the case that the United States is committing an act of aggression, by definition. “Defense against aggression” means whatever the United States happens to be doing at the moment, so for anyone to say that the United States is committing an act of aggression would be a logical contradiction, based on “doctrinal” language.

Peace process:

The naive might think that it refers to efforts to seek peace. Under this meaning, we would say that the peace process in the Middle East includes, for example, the offer of a full peace treaty to Israel by President Sadat of Egypt in 1971, along lines advocated by virtually the entire world, including official US policy…But the sophisticated understand that these efforts do not form part of the peace process. The reason is that in the PC [politically correct] meaning, the term peace process refers to what the US government is doing – in the cases mentioned, this is to block international efforts to seek peace.

The peace process is restricted to US initiatives…That’s the way it works. Those who cannot master these skills must seek another profession.

Special interest:

The well-oiled Republican PR systems of the 1980s regularly accused the Democrats of being the party of the special interests: women, labor, the elderly, the young, farmers – in short, the general population. There was only one sector of the population never listed as a special interest: corporations and business generally. That makes sense. In PC discourse, their (special) interests are the national interest, to which all must bow.


…which has come to refer to advocates of a powerful state, which interferes massively in the economy an in social life. They advocate huge state expenditures and a postwar peak of protectionist measures and insurance against market risk, narrowing individual liberties through legislation and court-packing, protecting the Holy State from unwarranted inspection by the irrelevant citizenry – in short, those programs that are the precise opposite of traditional conservatism. Their allegiance is to ‘the people who own the country’ and therefore ‘ought to govern it,’ in the words of Founding Father John Jay.

The result?

To make sense of political discourse, it’s necessary to give a running translation into English, decoding the doublespeak of the media, academic social scientists and the secular priesthood generally. Its function is not obscure: the effect is to make it impossible to find words to talk about matters of human significance in a coherent way. We can then be sure that little will be understood about how our society works and what is happening in the world.