Becoming Humane - Being Humane

Evolution of the Humane - Globalisation of Peace - World in Balance


Liberation from Psycological Exploitation:
The Theory Underlying the Work to be Done

by Olek Netzer


1.  General Semantics

As a young man, I experienced Psychological Exploitation as a terribly powerful means of control in the hands of my own political organization's establishment and its leadership. Other party members I knew were not bothered; they were either cynical about it or unaffected. But I could feel distinctly the oppressive quality in the inner processes of discussion in a Party that in its own mind was egalitarian and democratic, priding itself in "open and free debate" before reaching its decisions. By that formally democratic method, after a majority decision had been reached, a "party discipline" was imposed, everybody had to follow suit.  I felt entrapped not having any conceptual means for even expressing clearly what I felt was going on.  The first glimpses of awareness came with reading "Freedom or Death", a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the more famous "Zorba the Greek" and "The Last Temptation of Jesus". The book was about the civil war in Greece between the Communists and the Nationalists and it contained the sentence "There are no ideas in this world.  All there is are people who believe in ideas and behave in light of them.  And the value of an idea is only as the moral stature of persons who live by it".  In my inner world, in which "objective truth" and "common ideology" served as a weapon to club opponents on their heads or prod deviants back into line it felt like the basic truth. It gave me some strength, but I had to grope my way around psychological exploitation trying to pinpoint it exactly, wondering why so few people were aware of that obvious phenomenon, how exactly it worked, and what could be done to liberate oneself and others from it.  I was very much strengthened by the first real theory of political psychology I found in Erich Fromm's "Fear of Freedom"(1), becoming now convinced that people's psychological inclination to authority and domination  motivates their political orientation along with, or more than, their ideology and economic interests.   And then I found an existing theory that gave my awareness of Psychological Exploitation a tremendous push upwards and an ability to cope with it and fight it back.  That theory is called General Semantics.  It is not to be confused nor associated with the academic disciplines "Semantics" and "Semiotics".

General Semantics won my respect and affection by the simple truthfulness of its basic premises and by the character of its people as it was reflected in their books and articles.  There was something humanly warm, fresh and simple, in their style.  It was as if someone wanted to invent a style which is as far away as one may get from professional philosophical jargon, ideological phraseology, abstract language.  Imagine a young idealistic person, feeling helpless, often victimized psychologically by charismatic figures, trying to push his way against the flames of high rhetoric, reading:

"...unless we fumble for words and pause and groan and creak when we talk and add footnotes and explanations, we are not thinking, we are just moving muscles.  A dog does that when it barks. I think we would do well never to trust a person who easily talks more than a hundred words a minute..."(2)

The General Semanticists presented themselves as honest guys, no-nonsense and with an uncommon intellectual courage that led them straight to dealing with the most relevant and most dangerous areas of human existence.  And they did not think twice when a sacred cow needed to be slaughtered, and explained everything in a simple and crystal-clear language, and with good humor too.  The formulation I have used here repeatedly as an "oath" against repeating old mistakes, "we need to know what we're talking about as we have never known before" - is theirs.  I feel intellectually indebted to them. The most popular of the General Semanticists, Sam Hayakawa, defined GS once as a theory dedicated to the problem of how not to make a fool of yourself.  That is certainly more than the political ideologues and teachers of philosophy can claim.  Today I am still willing to be labeled a "General Semanticist" in addition to "a Humanist", in spite of the fact that General Semantics has not developed as I hoped and is still not accepted in the first echelon of respectable academic disciplines.  I suppose, it is too straightforward and too simple to be taken seriously by people with deeply entrenched ideological, ideological-academic, and political interests.  Among the established learned theories I found that General Semantics (GS) is that child with open mind and eyes who sees what all those adults, blinded by their ideologies, do not see, namely, "The Emperor has no clothes!"

2. Conceptions and misconceptions of science

General Semantics is basically a proposition to use the methods of science in areas that so far have not been approached scientifically -- politics and all areas that are considered to be the realm of normal persons' opinions, traditions, and values.  Science in those areas is considered inapplicable on the grounds that in matters that are settled by personal values you cannot make "scientific" measurements, predictions, or experiments that can be repeated and their results verified.  But Science is a terribly effective - and a wonderfully effective - method humans may use to find solutions to their problems. The reader, who having read Part One is now familiar with the scientifically-based processes and procedures for democratic-humanistic political organization, should be able to answer the contention that in the course of human political events the scientific method is  inapplicable: Indeed, it is not science but our value-choice that determined our decision to organize politically and yet maintain equality of all of us in access to organizational decision-making power.  However, once we made that choice, we have plenty of scientific evidence, including much that is based on experimentation, that to reach this goal we need to abolish the organizational power-pyramid with leaders on top.  We have been scientific in choosing the ways to practice our values, and even in understanding our "values" as organizing principles in our behavior rather than just beautiful words which resonate favorably in our hearts and minds.  We have been scientific in making it our methodological principle to know, as accurately as men and women of science  can when they talk about anything they are working on, what we are talking about when we talk about our values, or politics, or when we seek solutions to our problems.   

The proposition of GS is radical because, in contrast to the idea that science and values do not come together, it suggests that we better be scientific in coping with our human problems and even tells how. That proposition is also terribly important, because the scientific method is so effective and other traditional, philosophic, and traditionally common-sense methods so ineffective in the course of human events.  GS requires that we pattern our problem-stating and problem-investigating and problem-solving  after engineers and doctors, while we tread the ground in a domain that so far was run by  pre-scientific modern-day All-Knowers, Sages, Magicians or High Priests, Leaders, people of Vision, Ideologues, Politicians, Philosophers, Teachers, Authorities, and all kinds of "Public-opinion Leaders" who shape our political culture and lead it to the results you can observe, if not feel yourself, all over the world.  Sadly, science in the last 100 years has revolutionized the technology of war beyond our wildest dreams or nightmares, but politics has not been practiced scientifically in any other aspect. As far as thinking rationally, reaching agreement and understanding is part of politics -- if Machiavelli could be resurrected, he'd feel that nothing much has changed over the last 500 years or so in the ways and means people, including their rulers, cope with political problems and conflicts.

The GS proposition, that we be scientific and not anti-scientific when approaching normal human problems that involve morality and values, must be evaluated, first, in light of the existing and traditional alternatives. Then, we need to know exactly what we are talking about. We are not talking about the practices and products of science in industrial, technological or academic institutions. We are talking about science as a guiding principle in approaching and solving our problems.  The reader is invited to suspend judgment for a while.  First, consider the idea of  Science in our culture.

In a sweeping generalization, we suffer from a split personality with regard to "science". On the one hand we have internalized unlimited belief in science as the only approach capable of understanding and mastering the forces of nature, for better or worse, and of solving problems of physical nature such as cancer or AIDS, ICBM's, the hole in the ozone layer or interplanetary flight.  On the other hand, witnessing the destructive potential of scientifically developed technologies or political theories advertising themselves as "scientific" (Marxism), we became distrustful of science itself. We have a strongly internalized disbelief that by scientific methods one can understand and resolve political problems or master the destructive forces of human nature. The mainstream of "Science Fiction" in popular culture is a characteristic symptom of this split-personality mentality, and had it not been so ridiculous in its lack of human imagination, it should be interpreted as sinister.  The future people of the galaxies with their "death rays" and time-machines are not different  in their political behavior from the people we know too well with their prejudices, power-drives, authority, rhetoric, hatred, and of course aggression. Wendell Johnson, the General Semanticist to whom I feel deep affinity and gratitude for what I had learned from him, defined the essence of the scientific approach and described the nature of alternative approaches, in these words:

"Our earliest forebears protected themselves from the torment of raw experience by swaddling their tender sensitivities in superstition... In this orientation improvement had no meaning because the Magician transformed.  He could solve problems quickly and finally and so he does today.  It is in some such terms that I see totalitarianism as the old world writ large.  And I see the new world, the possible future, as one ruled by the authority of evaluated experience - ruled, that is, by the attitude that the dictates of the Old Man, the Knower, the Magician, the authority of age and tradition and power, are to be tested and validated.  If democracy means anything then to me it means just that." (p. 16)

"...The scientific method simply requires that we maintain an honest relationship between conclusion and data, that is between our map and the territory, between the world inside and the world outside..."  "It is the only pattern I know about in which the individual is free, by definition, to work out his own conclusion on the basis of his own data.  He is free, that is, to maintain harmony between himself and the world.  As I see it, the scientific method in that sense is related to everything that somehow centers around the integrity and the dignity of the individual." (p. 55)

Now the reader can judge Wendell Johnson's proposition that we become scientific in our approach to politics.  That is exactly what I mean too: I welcome the reader to the "possible new world", a world truly democratic as it is governed by the "authority of evaluated experience" which lies within each individual, rather than by any theory or dogma or leader or tradition; and, like science itself in choosing its ways to solving its problems, it values above all "honest relationship between conclusion and data". Just consider what could be accomplished if our conceptual maps about the world of politics were patterned after the fairly accurate maps of science guiding us in the physical world.   Common people all over the world know the  scientific approach as the only approach that can solve problems of physical nature, fly people to the moon or raise them from the dead (by resuscitation, possibly one day by de-freezing..).  Millions of Africans make it a passionate goal of their politics to be given the benefit of science for curing the epidemic of AIDS.   Change, innovation, the notion that things are not going to stay as they have always been became the cultural common sense wherever the scientific approach leads the human endeavor to solve problems and cure epidemics.  In all that concerns physical matter science changed completely the ages-old thinking and living patterns of people all over the world and made them look to science rather than to their traditions for solutions. Not so in politics and normal social life - and see the difference!

In a collection of his lectures published after his death, Living with Change, Wendell Johnson tells a true story that shook me and stays with me ever since.  I feel that, in a nutshell, it tells exactly what I mean by science and how a scientific approach should be seen in the context of human values and other alternative approaches.  Johnson cites Galileo Galilei, whose friend, a professor of medicine at the University of Padua, summoned his colleagues and the faculty's dean to observe an experiment. He dissected a human cadaver in order to prove that the center of nerves is the brain, not the heart (the realization, that just a few centuries ago the most learned people in the world new less about their own bodies than a contemporary 8 years old highlights the effectiveness of the scientific approach in changing people's orientation). The dean who watched the demonstration said afterwards that he was very impressed. "I myself would believe that the center of the nervous system is the brain", he declared, "had I not, with my own eyes, read Aristotle".

The conceptual maps guiding people in their social behavior and politics are not good, at least if you judge by the results. Education does very little in teaching us good orientation in the social area.  We are not taught how to use our orientation apparatus, how to navigate independently and sanely and how to avoid mistakes.  Most people learn terribly bad social habits which make them prone to make war against other people. They are being socialized to believe and not question their collective maps as if they represented the living truth and as if their legends and signposts always represented the ways in the right directions. Traditional modes of thinking and believing in matters of national politics, war and peace, etc. have been more often than not openly anti-scientific, educating people to be oriented backwards, toward the "glorious" history, past, leaders -- rather than be skeptical, question authority, look for new solutions to national-social-political problems and believe, like any scientific explorer and researcher worth her or his grain, that new things can be discovered and old problems could be found to have better than the existing ways of coping.   For me, systematic application of GS could become a giant step toward making "That Way Nevermore". With all due caution, we should not overlook the tremendous potential of change by "scientifying" our traditional approach to politics and political life.


1) Erich Fromm (1941), Escape from Freedom, New York: Holt, Rinchart and Winston.

2) Wendell Johnson (1972), Living with Change, New York: Harper & Row

3) Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (1970), New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, p. 33.).

see also:

The Real Causes of War beyond the Multicausal Approach, by Olek Netzer (pdf-version)
THAT WAY NEVER MORE - Egalitarian Alternative to the Pyramid of Political Party Power, by Olek Netzer (
The Einstein Project, by Antonio Rossin 
Truth, Belief, and Negative Language, by Antonio Rossin
The Lessened Flexibility Syndrome - LFS, by Antonio Rossin

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Emanzipation Humanum, version November 2005, translation from german to english by the author. Criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired