Shaping beliefs through language

In “The Ways of Silencing” published last June inThe New York Times, Professor Jason Stanley raised a legitimate point on how political propaganda silences people. Stanley's piece drew plenty of criticism, especially with his comments on pornography. I took interest in what Stanley had to say because he drew from a speech act perspective to argue that no true political discourse takes place in American politics.

I began to wonder if the same applies to true religious discourse. If Stanley's interest is language and the ways of silencing, mine is language and the ways of believing. Among the 160 plus responses to Stanley's piece was one I gave.

Here it is: Professor Stanley raises a legitimate point, and I for one am glad that he tackles it with speech acts. Speech Act Theory is a fancy technical phrase for looking at how a speaker uses language.

The title for a collection of William James lectures delivered by J.L. Austin, and published posthumously, captures it best in “How To Do Things with Words.” Speech Act Theory lets us distinguish the various ways that humans employ language. Asking questions, promising, reporting, directing someone to do something, expressing thanks or sympathy — these are types of speech acts.

Propaganda is a type of speech act as well, and it ought to be distinguished from assertion. Why? With each type of speech act, a speaker's purpose differs greatly. The point or purpose of an assertive is to state what is the case, what is so in the world. An assertion reveals what a speaker believes. John R. Searle says a successful assertive commits the speaker to the truth of the proposition. Only if I believe it is raining can I assert successfully that it is raining. The point or purpose of propaganda extends far beyond this. A speaker doesn't necessarily have to believe what she or he is saying.

I'm unsure how Searle would classify propaganda — perhaps as an incomplete speech act? Or propaganda may very well fit into Searle's 'directive' category of illocutionary acts. With directives, the speaker desires to get the hearer to do something. With propaganda, the point is to sway, to persuade, to shape the audience's belief system. It works, quite successfully, by tapping into people's emotions. It does so either by creating fear and anger or by arousing the fear and anger already there. As Stanley argues, a speaker can silence the voice of another with certain speech acts. More is at stake, however, than just silencing.

Until we recognize the power of propaganda to shape people's beliefs, beliefs that become nearly impossible to give up, there exists no possibility of bridging the chasms in our political issues.

Check Also


Why the Buddhist Precept ‘Abstaining from Taking Life’ Resonates with Me

The Buddha taught we should show compassion to all sentient beings, not just humans. Initially it reminded me of the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which tended to focus solely on not killing human beings. Buddhism too, says not to murder, but breaks it down further, explaining that protecting human life is only possible by also protecting anything that lives.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Glen Meyer

I remember reading that piece in the NYTimes and thinking it was interesting — in fact I kept a copy of it. Along the lines of this post, a book I picked up recently, “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies,” by Marilyn McEntyre outlines seven “stewardship strategies” to encourage us to be better stewards of language.


Hanane – I don’t know if I agree with you. I am a journalist after all 😉

Lace Marie Williams-Tinajero, PhD

Thank you all for your comments. It is fascinating to consider the complex phenomena in the human brain regarding mental states like belief and the role of language. I’m unsure what the precise neuro-biological process is in the brain that allows for someone’s personal beliefs, once challenged, to change. There is much pull with group-think. I’ve kept in mind what one of my professors, Dr. Mignon Jacobs, said as I researched for my dissertation. “It’s important to know what others think, but equally important to know what you think.” Recognizing the extent to which I parrot what someone else has said without thinking it through for myself is a starting point.

Hanane Neff-Loutf

Hi Lace,
thank you for this post. Propaganda is the most powerful tool to take control of people and shape their political belief system… Most of successful journalists we see/hear/read in the main stream media outlets are specially selected to address a particular audience… They’re expert in getting you feel what they want through their faces, expressions, and language… They know your emotion is the key to have you beleive their half-truth (if that) story and exactly at what time you are accessible! Yeah it’s creepy!


This sounds Orwellian, both the political control and the idea that language and politics shape each other. Didn’t Hobbes say something like that too, that politics affects language and vice-versa?

Hanane Neff-Loutf

Hi Tracy:)

I didn’t say all but most are and that’s a fact, at least when it comes to the subject of stereotyping the ennemy… Look, for a good story you need a good villain, from the cold war times to today’s terror obsessed mentalities… Did you hear anyone calling Josh Powell who killed his sons with the hatchet and bombed his house… A terrorist? I haven’t. And the examples are countless.
The people I was talking about are not like you because you are giving an opportunity to a Muslim woman to talk about herself and her faith…
I am talking about people like Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilley, Bill Maher, and my favorite is Glenn Beck I caught him saying “IZlamic terrorists are not hard to find, they’re about 10%”.
Imagine now how many beleive him and how many did check his facts. Let’s check his statistics 1,600,000,000 * .10 = 160,000,000 terrorists!!! Seriously? He sure doesn’t call others who are not iZlamic, terrorists.
I don’t know how you would not call this propaganda?


Just giving ya’ a hard time – I agree there are a few bad eggs out there that give all journalists a bad name! Or, in Glenn Beck’s case, I should say faux journalist….

lawrlwytho proffil proffil tabled instagram

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x