In Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories, released today, Marcel Danesi, a professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto, Canada, studies the speeches of dictators like Mussolini, Stalin, Putin, and Hitler, as well as prominent hate groups. His research shows that they all use dehumanizing metaphors to spread hatred of others.
“Their goal is to attack people who are different, such as racial minorities or people with different sexual orientations.”
Denasi proposes that racist messages, lies, and conspiracy theories are easily accepted because our brains are wired to believe them.
Language with Negative Connotations
The Nazi regime used racist words such as “pests,” “reptiles,” and “parasites” to compare outsiders and minorities to animals. Similarly, in August 2017, when groups of white supremacists arrived in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, they used animal and dirt metaphors to describe those they opposed, claiming they were fighting against the “parasitic class of anti-white vermin” and the “anti-white, anti-American filth.”
With the rise of populist and far-right political movements in the 2010s, the use of dehumanizing language to engender hatred of foreigners or those who are different has spread worldwide. In 2016, during a state-led public campaign against refugees and migrants in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban characterized them as a “poison.”
Our brain wiring
Danesi’s research indicates that metaphors that dehumanize individuals are highly effective because they activate existing circuits in the brain that connect important and notable images and ideas. In essence, metaphors circumvent the cognitive reasoning centers, guiding our thoughts to concentrate on specific things while disregarding others.
Danesi further explains that as these circuits are activated more frequently, they become more deeply ingrained, to the point where it becomes almost impossible to deactivate them. This also holds true for conspiracy theories – studies have shown that individuals who believe in such theories develop more inflexible neural pathways, making it challenging for them to reconsider their perspectives on certain situations.
“When we come across a big lie or a conspiracy theory, it can shape our ideas without us even being aware of it. By being exposed to particular metaphors, we may develop hostile feelings towards specific groups – this is why hate groups use metaphors to turn the switches on, so as to motivate people to violent activism.”
Research shows that once people adopt certain beliefs, they are unlikely to change their minds even when presented with evidence that contradicts their views. Instead, they are more likely to seek out information that confirms their beliefs, avoid anything that contradicts them, or even twist the contrasting information to fit their beliefs. Because of this, it is unlikely that people with fixed mindsets will ever change their opinions.
According to Danesi, this can have disastrous outcomes.
“When lies are used to generate hate, harmful behaviors tend to result, including violence and genocide against the target individual or groups. The spread of lies is also becoming a powerful factor in generating political and social instability worldwide, destabilizing democracies.”
What can we do?
Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from the harm of falsehoods? As Danesi suggests, one of the best things we can do is to comprehend the metaphors of the other party, and to scrutinize our own metaphors. However, history and science indicate that this approach is unlikely to be effective – research shows that once a lie is accepted as credible, the brain becomes more vulnerable to subsequent deceit.
Note: How to spot fake news?
In today’s digital age, where information is readily available and news travels fast, it can be challenging to distinguish between real and fake news. It is important to be vigilant and take the necessary steps to identify and avoid fake news. Here are some additional ways to identify fake news:
- Check the Source: Make sure the news comes from a reliable and trustworthy source. If the source is unknown or unfamiliar, it’s best to do some research before believing the information.
- Look for Evidence: Check if the news includes supporting evidence or facts. If there are no sources or evidence to support the claims, it’s likely to be fake news.
- Check the Date: Make sure the news is current and not outdated. Sometimes, fake news can be old news that’s been recycled.
- Look for Multiple Sources: While cross-checking with other sources is important, it’s also helpful to check if the news is being reported by multiple sources that are known for their credibility and reliability. This way, you can be more confident that the news is accurate.
- Be Aware of Biases: News sources may have a particular agenda or bias that can influence the way they report information. It’s important to be aware of this and read from a variety of sources to get a more balanced view.
- Check the Author’s Credibility: Before believing any news, it’s important to check the author’s credentials and background. Are they an expert in the field they are writing about? Do they have a good reputation?
- Look for Context: Fake news often lacks context or important details that can provide a more accurate understanding of the situation. Always try to get more information and context before accepting any news as true.
- Check the Images: Fake news often uses doctored or misleading images to support their claims. Always check the images and make sure they are from a reliable source and accurately represent the story.
- Be Skeptical: Don’t believe everything you read or see. Use your critical thinking skills to evaluate the information.
In-Article Image CreditsThe Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605 via Wikimedia Commons by Unknown with usage type - Public Domain. 1605
Featured Image CreditThe Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605 via Wikimedia Commons by Unknown with usage type - Public Domain. 1605