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					                       Meaning, Signs & Symbols (Part Three)

       As we have discussed previously, the ability to create meaning from signs
and symbols allows human beings to dominate our environment. If the creation of
words and symbols contributes to the power we have over animals, then it seems
reasonable that the creation of words and other symbols enables some human
beings to dominate the lives of other human beings. Does the use of symbols create
a condition of inequality in which some become Masters and others become Slaves?

       Within animal societies some individuals control the behavior of others. This
unequal distribution of power is relatively easy to explain: followers allow the
leader to take charge because they recognize physical superiority and they don’t
want to risk injury or death. A follower-wolf acknowledges his alpha leader’s
superior natural gifts (e.g., strength, quickness, ability to hunt). But here again we
see how humans are different. Men of great strength are often completely
dominated by physically puny men, and even by the “fairer sex”, who are often—
according to Harry Belafonte and others—smarter! It appears clear that human
power and authority is not based on physical strength. Getting Slaves to do what the
Masters want them to do, like everything else in human life, is based on the use of
arbitrary signs. Specifically, the Master’s power over the Slave is based on the
Master’s ability to define reality his way.

       This idea is also evident in literature. Accurately identifying the
manipulation of symbols unlocks a world of meaning in literature. Over the next
two months we’ll see this in peculiar diction choices in mysterious Zen koans,
Cassius’ constant wheedling in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and political power
struggles that form the background of a protagonist’s personal crisis of meaning in
The Kite Runner.

        In discussing the symbolic nature of the Master’s power, we should first note
that all definitions of reality are arbitrary. In particular, we must remember that the
nature of a society—who is admitted and how they must behave—is inevitably the
result of the decisions of a person or small group. We must also remember that,
once internalized, these arbitrary definitions determine how people think and
behave. The “Master” can therefore be defined as “the man or woman who is able to
make other people (Slaves) accept his or her definition of reality.” Slavery, in this
analysis, is a psychological condition produced by symbolic definitions—by the
words of the Master.

        Specific examples help illustrate the point. One hundred years ago American
females washed their hair with soap. No one thought there was anything strange
about this. As long as a girl washed her hair with soap, her hair was considered
beautiful and clean and she would be loved. So, at that time, American girls were
satisfied—happy, even—with their soap-washed hair. But then came the Masters
(in this case, American corporations with enough money for advertising) with a new
definition of the situation: “If you don’t use shampoo for your hair, your hair will not
be considered beautiful and no one will love you.” The Masters’ definition was
accompanied by symbols of lonely, poor old maids who were still using soap to
clean their hair. The new definition of beautiful hair was also supported by words,
symbols cleverly arranged to sound convincing (unless you think about their
denotative meanings): bouncy, luster, silky, body, et al. Because the Masters were
able to make Americans accept the new definition of “lovely hair” American women
were no longer satisfied with soap and began buying shampoo. Thus, by creating
symbols, Masters created an entire industry that brought in $40 billion last year
alone. Think you’re not a Slave to shampoo? Be honest: you have no idea what’s
actually in that bottle or whether a specific ingredient is a chemical compound that
cleans your hair or causes cancer. One common silicone-based ingredient can be
found in caulking and Silly Putty. Many of the ingredients have been shown to be
harmful to both human health and the environment. They are only legal because
they are sold in small quantities, not because they’re good for you. What are the
potential health risks of using shampoo every day? No one knows. We do know one
effect on the environment. Household wastewater—featuring chemicals from
beauty products like shampoo—is actually changing fish that swim near sewage
pipes from male to female. (Source: “What’s Really In Your Shampoo?” at

      Still, what high school girl (or guy) would dream of washing her hair with
ordinary soap or dishwashing detergent (both of which have the same cleaning
properties of shampoo)? Could such a creature be loved? Shampoo is one of many
products we buy and use without question. You can no doubt think of many other
commercials—symbols/products/definitions of how you should look and smell—
which have turned you into a Consumer-Slave.

         To return to our main point: only a fool believes that the power to control
others is based on physical strength, rather than on the ability to make them accept
arbitrary definitions of reality. (Note: in a physical contest mastery may be achieved
through natural signs instead of symbols, but punches or tackles are only important
in relatively insignificant games which have little importance in the larger world of
social power—and even in sports we talk of athletes winning because they were
“psyched up” by symbols of motivation, disrespect etc.) Ultimately a person
becomes a Slave simply because s/he has accepted someone else’s definition of

        Of course, such brainwashing is much easier to accomplish if the Slave
doesn’t attempt to understand the Master’s vocabulary. A poor grasp of the Master’s
language is guaranteed Slavery—how many people bought houses they couldn’t
afford in the last decade because they didn’t understand the language in their
mortgage contract?

       Masters know that language is the key to their domination. The basic plan is
simple: put your definitions into the Slave’s head. Proclaim his/her inferiority while
defining yourself as superior. More specifically, make sure that he keeps hearing
about your greater intelligence, hard work, and virtue—in other words, the reason
you deserve to be a Master. At the same time prevent the circulation of any
definitions that would contradict yours. In 21st century America make sure that
only your explanations—of, say, why some people are poor and others are
wealthy— regularly appear on television. Any religious or historical notion that all
people are created equal should of course be avoided completely. If everything
works out as planned, i.e., if the Slave is properly brainwashed, the Master’s
definitions of reality become unconscious in the Slave’s mind. At this point the Slave
actually believes the ideas are hers, which guarantees she will continue acting like a
Slave. Once a Slave has internalized the Master’s arbitrary definitions, particularly
those about the different roles people should play in life, they become reality for the
Slave, and she therefore continues to accept her inferior position.

        This “plan” has been amazingly successful throughout human history.
Problems arise only when the Slave starts thinking seriously and questioning the
Master’s language. Thus, Masters don’t like seeing their Slaves—whether on a
plantation or in a Santa Maria mall—reading serious books and analyzing words.
From the Master’s standpoint, “What do you mean?” is a rebellious question. For the
Master knows that one thing leads to another, and that the Slave who figures out the
Master’s language soon begins to question the Master’s definitions and
explanations—of, say, why one type of person should be a Master and another type
should be a Slave. And once Slaves seriously question Masters’ definitions, the
Slaves become dissatisfied. Slaves begin to realize that many of the Masters’
definitions are designed not to reveal truth but to keep the Master on top. Even in
the “land of the free” some members of Slave groups have recently discovered some
flawed definitions. For example, many traditional characterizations of racial
minorities and women have been shown to be false. Some members of these groups
have realized the truth of Richard Wright’s words at the end of Black Boy: “Words
are weapons.” Consequently, some of the old Masters are having trouble controlling
Slaves, and they’ve even lost some, because those Slaves began to see through their
Master’s words and started doing their own defining.

        How can a Slave become a Master? First you must face the fact that you are
being controlled by words—symbols, not natural signs. It is important for Slaves to
understand they are not animals. They have the ability to analyze the language that
controls their behavior—and not just the simple words. In analyzing the language,
the Slave should focus on key definitions. For example, a Slave may reconsider the
Master’s definition of “people of color”; other Slaves might give some thought to
traditional definitions of “the weaker sex.” In analyzing such definitions, the Slave
must look beyond the words, to the situation and people the words were supposed
to describe. If a Slave starts thinking seriously about semantics, she will
undoubtedly start creating her own definition of reality. This is the moment a Slave
becomes a Master. And whenever that happens, especially when many Slaves make
the leap together, a thought revolution takes place. One example is when women
stopped allowing men to define them as “the second sex” or “the weaker sex.”
Perhaps you, too, should be searching for some new definitions to describe the
world and your place in it—how do you know you’re not a Slave?
        To sum up: the power to control a social situation and the people in it is
based on the ability to use symbols to define the situation. A current example of this
power struggle is the political debate about health care. As is the case with all major
fights in society, it is a fight over different definitions of reality. Most Americans
don’t know any more about their health insurance than they do about their
shampoo. The fight will be won not by physical strength but by superior language
and definitions, that is, symbols that are more meaningful and truthful—or at least
convincing and persuasive—to the audience. A simple phrase (“Weapons of Mass
Destruction”) was enough to lead America to war in Iraq. Opponents of the most
recent health care bill came up with the phrase “death panels” to get attention—it
will be interesting to see how Americans accept or question language that attempts
to redefine reality.

       Remember the chimp and the knife. She lost only because, unlike the human
champion, she could not recognize the meaning of symbols. The chimp, like many
other Slaves in the world, lacked power and died young because of her lousy
vocabulary. The moral is clear. If you don’t think carefully about the meanings of
symbols and words used in society to, you’ll end up like the dead chimp—a loser.

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