How to Spot BS and Never Feel Insulted Again: A Brief Introduction to General Semantics and Non-Violent Communication

There are few things quite so mis-understood by humans as their own psyche and behaviours. A few examples of our distortions from reality include concepts such as the existence of 'good and evil' people, or of a human having a distinctly separate 'mind and body' and hence having separate 'mental' and 'physical' health. Such old superstitions are still passed around human cultures today, even decades after evidence that shows them to be irrelevant has passed from the cutting edge of science.

We (homo sapiens) are capable of having physiological reactions to an amazingly diverse range of stimuli, from typical survival-adaptive responses such as moving your hand away from something hot, those involving abstract (internal) assessment of an important outside stimulus such as identifying another creature as threatening (survival-adaptive in the case of avoiding a poisonous snake, but mal-adaptive in the case of 'irrational phobia' in which some harmless creature(s) may leave someone temporarily paralysed by fear), and other visual yet harmless stimuli such as a sight of an attractive mate causing someone to blush, to the most highly abstract reactions to words on this page that would appear as no more than meaningless scribbles or scratches to someone unexposed to an English language, such as my statement that "you are now aware of your breathing", which in many cases can turn an 'involuntary' or autonomic process into one that is 'consciously' controlled, or any mention of sharing and meeting people's needs, which might provoke some very hostile reactions in some victims of cold-war US propaganda as if they were actually directly threatened with injury as in the former examples. Considering just these examples, it should come as little surprise to anyone characterised by curiosity to hear that this 'mind-body' separation does not fit into modern science, where behaviours (especially among later evolutionary results such as mammals) are brought about by a complex of 'bio-psycho-social' factors.

 Basic Levels of Abstraction in General Semantics - image via Wikimedia Commons

How this happens*:

In his book "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics", a nearly thousand-page tome held by many as one of the most important books ever written to date, Alfred Korzybski spent some considerable time in its first chapters explaining cutting-edge theories of neuroscience and psychology in 1930, and while some of this is quite dated or vague compared to modern models, it includes a great wealth of interesting examples in nature that make it a worthwhile read for anyone involved in science education. A more up-to-date view of many factors that affect and effect human behaviour can be learned from Robert Sapolsky's excellent introductory course on "Human Behavioral Biology" recorded at Stanford University, but I will do my best to explain the science in brief terms here, with links to explain any jargon for those interested.

One broad (very rough) yet still useful way in which brain structure has been modelled for decades looks at how the central nervous systems of various creatures have evolved over millions of years, since most living animals today share some particular observable brain structures and nervous mechanisms. This 'Triune brain' model was composed by Paul MacLean in the 1960's and popularised by Carl Sagan in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Dragons of Eden".
 Human Brain, noting the Brain-Stem and Limbic System, via Wikimedia Commons
The oldest major part that occurs in humans, often nicknamed the 'reptilian brain' for its origin in early vertebrates such as lizards, happens to be physically located at the bottom or 'base' of a human fore-brain, and consists of structures such as the Brainstem, Thalamus and Basal Ganglia, which regulate basic autonomic processes such as heart and breathing rate, sleep/alertness, and reward mechanisms evolved to find food effectively in a creature's environment.

Next came the Limbic System, situated directly above and around the previously mentioned parts, spanning the mid-brain. This system, consisting of nuclei and structures such as the Amygdala, Hippocampus, Septum and Fornix, appeared in early mammals, introducing behaviours involving emotion, which in its simplest forms was expressed by way of olfactory senses, i.e. ones involving sense of smell and the release of hormones into the air, which explains why some of it was referred to for a long time as the Rhinencephalon (from Greek for nose-brain) and why so much sniffing is involved in the social activity of small mammals. Both these 'reptilian' and 'paleo-mammalian' structures of the brain strongly influence all daily workings of the rest of our bodies by way of the Endocrine (or hormonal) system, with which they communicate through our bloodstream via the Hypothalamus and Pituitary gland which are situated at a blood-brain barrier.

Finally, the Cerebral Cortex, or more precisely Neocortex that forms part of it, that highly convoluted outermost or 'top' layer of a human brain that gives it its distinctive shape and is commonly referred to as 'grey matter' for its colour that is distinct from the creamy-white inner myelinated parts of the brain, is where most of our memories, cultural conditioning and hence personality develop. This has been the latest major development in central nervous systems, occurring in late mammals, and being most pronounced in humans and other apes.

In most of these structures, but especially the cerebral cortex, all of our memories, providing our context for reacting to present stimuli, and hence our very personality, is stored within the structure of our neural connections. The mechanisms by which this comes about are now a subject of intense study within the field of Artificial Intelligence - in order to attempt to replicate it in an artificial electronic circuit. To use a broad analogy, as each of our ~86,000,000,000 neurons are on average connected via synapses to other neurons a few thousand times, giving an average total of around 10^14 possible synaptic connections (for comparison, there are 2-4 * 10^11 stars in the Milky Way and a similar order of galaxies in our observed universe to date), the experiences that we have will fire signals along paths described/determined by the nature of our sensory inputs. Typically this activation will make those neural paths easier to fire in future, a factor of Neuroplasticity that we now try to mimic with 'memory resistors', such that with progressive similar experiences it becomes easier to 'remember' along a particular neural pathway. This is in some ways analogous to a Programmable Logic Device in electronics and computing, in that our brains start out as somewhat of a 'blank slate' upon which to create custom circuits adapted to their particular application/environment. To add more complexity, in some areas of the brain and in particular neurons, some synapses will fire in a way that produces an 'excitatory' effect downstream (that is, to keep a signal going and encourage a particular action to happen), whilst others will produce an 'inhibitory' effect (preventing a signal from being sent on to some other part of the central nervous system, and hence preventing a particular behaviour from being expressed). The latter concept of 'inhibition' is extremely important within the context of culture/social norms and preventing undesirable or 'taboo' actions from being carried out. A neuron itself includes an amazing set of logical functions, such as in its combined comparator, transistor/switch and amplifier functions in processing action potentials derived from those excitatatory and inhibitory signals, within a microscopic biological system.

Some aspects of the aforementioned brain structures are worth making note of, for instance the role of the Amygdala in the identification of potential threats and hence regulating the 'stress response' - an activation of parts of the sympathetic nervous system, such as the adrenal glands, which evolved to help animals to escape from predators or other dangers. This natural mechanism is normally harmless in its original setting, yet when activated continuously by social pressures in the form of 'chronic stress', it results in many debilitating and sometimes deadly diseases, due to the way our immune system is suppressed during times of stress in order to conserve energy, and Dr. Robert Sapolsky has written about this and other highly relevant points at length in his book, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", which may be far more approachable as a basic introduction to human behaviour and neuroscience than any typical scholarly text.

Roughly speaking, reactions such as these - assessing something that we see or hear as a threat, whether it is a deadly creature with nasty big pointy teeth or simply someone preaching ideas that conflict with some pre-conceived notions that currently sit within the structure of our brains, tend to be 'competing' for the attention of our body's endocrine system in terms of activating an easy nervous pathway, whilst some social context stored within our neocortex is trying to inhibit such primitive actions as 'fight or flight' and keep our composure so that we don't violate societal rules by smacking someone round the head.

Returning here to my premise, this becomes very important to consider when we think about how we use language, as improper uses of language can easily lead to people having undesirable 'semantic reactions' as Korzybski refers to them - distinct responses to unsubstantial things to which we attribute meaning (symbols and words) as if they were as substantial as an animal baring its teeth at us or a potential mate flirting with us. In 'healthy'/'sane' contexts, semantic reactions can lead us to empathise with people on the other side of our planet suffering from some natural disaster such as an earthquake or even a man-made disaster such as starvation enforced by a market system, and do all that is within our power to aid them. In 'unhealthy'/'unsane' contexts, semantic reactions can lead an entire regional society of people to be stirred with hatred for people of a particular ethnicity or social persuasion due to their leaders' clever use of rhetoric.

Photograph of Barack Hussein Obama's Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, via Wikimedia Commons

Why it is important:

While I normally abhor that presently common practice of reciting short quotes from famous historical figures (not to mention often mis-attributing and paraphrasing them) out of their original conversational context, in order to support one's arguments, I find these next two examples in their original context to give some very important testimony. The first one I originally heard from a recorded course presented by Marshall Rosenberg, and is included in his book "Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life". In Hannah Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jerusalem", which covered a war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, it is mentioned that during an interview when Eichmann was asked "Was it difficult for you to send these tens of thousands of people to their death?", he responded very candidly that "To tell you the truth, it was easy. Our language made it easy." When his interviewer asked what that language was, Eichmann said "My fellow officers and I coined our own name for our language. We called it amtssprache - 'office talk.'" When asked for examples, Eichmann said, "It's basically a language in which you deny responsibility for your actions. So if anybody says, 'Why did you do it?' you say, 'I had to.' 'Why did you have to?' 'Superiors' orders. Company policy. It's the law.'"

Does that sound at all familiar? A similarly meaningful snippet came out of the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal, where Gustave Gilbert transcribed and mentioned in his "Nuremberg Diary" this conversation with Hermann Göring in his cell on the 3rd of January 1946:

Göring: "Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."

Gilbert: "There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars."

Göring: "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

If there was ever an example of a court accurately describing a testimony as from an "expert witness", these would be prime examples of expert opinion on matters of propaganda and tricking a human mind with language. The severity of crimes committed in the name of the 'Third Reich' (not to downplay the severity of any of those perpetrated in the name of 'Allied' countries) last century can easily show how much of a serious matter our comprehension of language and semantics is.
Photograph of British tabloids - July 5 2011, via Wikimedia Commons
To bring this into a present context, today we see an abundance of abuses of language being employed, within the discourse and debates of media and politics, in such ways as to influence people to believe a particular point of view without giving any evidence in favour of it. Some examples of this include the 'tabloid press' where every day writers appeal to those evolved defensive reactions by tarnishing someone's reputation with de-humanising names and labels; one only has to pick up a discarded copy of the Sun or Daily Mail on the streets of London to be instantly disgusted by this treatment of our fellow humans, or to watch a few minutes of 'Fox News' or any of the popular news outlets presented by the 6 media corporations who control 90% of the USA's broadcasting. Then there are many politicians in self-proclaimed 'democratic' nation-states who will use these same fallacies in order to gain popularity and further their career, meanwhile writing the same kind of nonsense into declarations that we call 'legislation' or 'statute law'. Finally, people employed by courts and police forces have to work within the structure created by those psychopaths, and end up condemning those who have harmed no-one to lengthy (and in the case of the National Defense Authorization Act's stipulations in the USA, indefinite) imprisonment and torture without access to the protections normally afforded by such courts, simply because some political opponent has been labelled as a 'terrorist' or 'extremist', etc. A case that sticks in recent memory were the home-raids perpetrated by the FBI in Portland, which resulted in the imprisonment of at least three young people, because those raids had found "black clothing" and "anarchist literature", and they did not testify before a 'Grand Jury' which was closed to the public. The acts have been likened to a 'witch hunt' of those who hold ideas contrary to an established zeitgeist. On 'the bright side', one of many innocent people subject to extraordinary rendition by the CIA has recently won a ruling against their crimes in the European Court of Human Rights, yet while some might suggest that this could herald a weeding-out of corruption within that institution, this is unlikely to affect any underlying socio-economic factors that brought about such behaviours. It's saddening to say that the dozens of such news stories that I have bookmarked over the last few years are merely 'the tip of the iceberg' showing a systemic trend of abuse that occurs in bureaucratic systems due to the use of Eichmann's 'office speak'.

While not everyone has been a target of government attacks due to their political values, moral convictions, skin colour, et cetera, almost anyone who has spent some time trying to communicate ideas of peace, equality or sustainability (i.e. by their primary Oxford English Dictionary definitions at present) can relate how many members of the public will have negative 'semantic reactions' to any ideas that sound to them like 'Socialism' or 'Communism', and put up a figurative 'defensive wall' in their behaviour, making conversation difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous.

Even if you can manage to make some information or evidence heard to someone with ridiculously antiquated/erroneous beliefs such as some divine 7-day creationism, or that 'competition is good for us', and they experience some cognitive dissonance with that new information, they may grasp at any excuse to dismiss what you have told them in order to maintain the security of their internal 'world-view'.

Furthermore, such internal prejudices and beliefs often lead people to never even listen to your arguments 'for a second', due to committing what is well-known as "judging a book by its cover". I have heard a few rare cases through the ZM UK chapter of members encountering people who have inherited some post-WWII xenophobia reacting to any mention of the Deutsche loan-word 'zeitgeist' by jumping to a conclusion that TZM advocates some kind of neo-nazi dogma. A more recent and public example that I have seen of this occurred in a pair of articles written by Rick Falkvinge, Captain of the Swedish Pirate Party, on a subject of absurd legislation that not only harms innocent people, but is even counter-productive to its stated purpose. The comment sections of said articles, though heavily moderated, still show how some people jumped to some erroneous conclusions based upon the article titles without reading any of the arguments presented, simply because of how sensitive the subject at hand has been made by popular media.

Then more recent still was an incident following the recent school shooting in Conneticut, when a case of mistaken identity was made by major media organisations including CNN, and some hearsay that followed resulted in abuse being directed at an innocent man named Ryan Lanza and a political comic artist whom he happens to follow, Matt Bors. The discourse surrounding that incident itself exemplifies some issues raised within a guest article on the aforementioned Falkvinge blog - Guns Don't Kill People, Guns Kill Productive Debate About Complex Societal Issues.

How we can avoid these problems:

While our best chance of mostly removing these problems from human society probably lies in engaging those schools and educational institutions that currently shape the minds of our youth, in order to bring basic linguistic teachings up-to-date with modern science, a number of disciplines (or what I would endearingly call 'brain hacks') have arisen over the last century with aims to de-bug our broken use of language and make people more aware of culturally-derived unconscious assumptions that they fall victim to, while enabling clearer communication and hence more productive and amicable dialogue. Along with a firm understanding of modern science, any of the following methods are worth your time in learning.

A friend to some in TZM, Heron Stone has spent something like the latter half of his life on figuring out this problem, and along his way has identified what he calls "the Five Stupidities of English" - a set of five fallacies so prevalent that they are used almost every day (and sometimes in every sentence) by most speakers of English languages, and which largely translate into other languages of similar structure. He sees tackling the following issues as generally useful, though I reckon in particular they can make a good first step along a path of using language with more clarity and accuracy. You can listen to a conversation that he had with Tom Vine of TZM UK chapter on this subject in 2010, but I have tried to summarise them here:

The word "The": What many of us know is the most-used word in English today, you might be surprised to find is also by that token the most mis-used word. Something that people know yet too often forget to take notice of is that the word "the" carries with it an implication that there can only be one of whatever follows it.
There are plenty of proper contexts for using the word "the", such as asking someone to "switch the light on" when there is only one electric light in the room that you are in, which removes ambiguity by shared understanding. If, however you were working in an office and your manager asks you to "find the answer to this problem", you could go away for 15 minutes to find an answer to that problem and your boss might see it as "the answer", but if you had searched for 5 or 10 minutes longer, you might have found several other answers, some of them better than the first one you found. This becomes even more absurd when someone asks for "the truth" about any particular issue. For instance, if I tell you that I have a mug in front of me and that mug is blue, have I told you "the truth"? What I have told you closely matches reality (with a standard definition of blue light), but if I then tell you that the mug is roughly half-full with tea (not half empty) and it's also an insulated camping mug that's nigh-indestructible, is that yet "the truth" even if it meets the current extent of my knowledge? Clearly each of these things are "a truth", a term that would tie many people's tongues due to habit if they begin trying to use it, but it seems that in over 90% of cases, people will default to using 'the' instead of 'a', 'an' or something more appropriate, and Heron estimates that in over 90% of those cases, its usage is incorrect and serves to mis-lead not only the listener but also often the speaker too. So as I've said before, if someone tries to ask you for, or worse - tell you, "the way" to bring about a sustainable and equitable economy, remember to challenge them on it.

Reification: This could also be described as 'identifying with words/concepts', or the opposite of understanding that 'the map is not the territory'. Heron's explanation runs along a line that 'we were taught that a noun is a person, place or thing' but what constitutes a 'thing' is too ambiguous, and so 'if you can't put it in a bucket, then it's probably a reification'.

A classic example of this occurs when people argue to no end that "economic theory X is better than economic theory Y", yet they cannot actually be engaged in productive discussion because "a true form of X has never been implemented". If that is the case, then participants in a debate need to be willing to accept comparisons of systems that vary in particular specified features of interest, while controlling scientifically for discrepancies. If they are unwilling to accept scientific evidence on particulars, or to examine anything within 'partial' social experiments that wasn't affected by extraneous circumstances, then attempting discussion is probably futile.

Two-valued logic: Also known as 'the law of the excluded third' this is an idea that something can either be A or B, but nothing else. This binary logic can easily be true when given very clear definition, e.g. a person is viewed as either 'married' or 'not married' depending upon which government documents have been signed, but there are plenty of cases in reality where such logic is not useful.

Take for instance the statement "humans are either male or female", which might seem quite innocuous to someone who has not seen much of this world, but even if it goes by the definitions of possessing either XX or XY combinations of gender-predisposing chromosomes, it ignores not only other unlikely yet possible combinations but more importantly the wide range of gene-environment interactions that result in typical observable characteristics mixed from either end of a continuum of biological expression. This becomes problematic when a person tries to project a binary definition within their head into a real-world situation that it does not fit - aside from obvious bureaucratic problems resulting from the previous example, this could include such silliness as insisting that someone must be 'either a capitalist or a communist' or even worse 'either a democrat or a republican'.

Absolutism: These are statements, or more importantly un-spoken assumptions, of the form "all X are Y". Statements such as this are almost always incorrect, unless they are referring to something that does not exist, for what use is it to say that "all unicorns have a horn" if there are no unicorns? In plenty of natural examples, there are things that 99% or more of which have a particular trait, yet some remain that do not have that trait.

Consider statements like "all people with an X and Y chromosome have a penis and two testicles" or "all cars have four wheels". There may be situations in which making assumptions such as these can be useful, but if the assumption is not consciously noted then people may be caught out and make terrible mistakes. Aside from stories that manipulate people's expectations of occupations that are marked by inequality in gender, this fallacy is very frequently committed by career politicians, and such absolute assumptions often lead people to commit the "no true scotsman" fallacy.

The "Is" of Identification: One of the less-understood problems is our use of identifications and categories for conveying information. If I were to take a young child into a park and they point at something, asking "what is that?", and I tell them "that is a squirrel", how much information have I just given them? About the same as telling you that "I have a thing in front of me". If that child has never heard about a squirrel before then merely telling them what you call it is of no use to them, but you could tell them that squirrel "climbs trees, picks nuts, hides them in the ground and eats some in the spring, having a symbiotic relationship with the nut tree since some lost nuts grow into new trees while the rest feed the squirrel". That is, it is more useful to say what something does than what it is (although in this day and age people will usually just give you a name and point you to google or wikipedia :).

Dr. Gabor Maté has pointed out a particular problem with this when people identify with words, such that he finds distaste with someone standing up at an AA or NA meeting and saying "Hi, my name is bob and I am an addict", when it would be more constructive to say they are 'addicted' or 'experiencing addiction', in order to avoid any sub-conscious implications or hints that their condition is hopeless. Something similar could be said about newspapers that label people as "addicts", "convicts", etc. and in doing so create mis-understandings in their readers (sometimes intentionally so in the tabloid press, but it is better to assume incompetence before malice).

Photograph of American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg lecturing in Nonviolent Communication workshop, Neve Shalom ~ Wahat al-Salam. Israel (1990)
Nonviolent Communication (a.k.a. Compassionate Communication):

Put together mainly by Dr Marshall Rosenberg, a psychiatrist who realised that his traditional training was not often helpful in dealing with many of his patients' problems, I think this discipline is best described as 'applied general semantics', where he has come up with some quite specific methods for helping people to more effectively empathise with others who they deal with, especially in contexts of intimate relationships, conflict mediation, teaching and parenting. Rosenberg argues that we need to 'stay connected to our feelings and needs' in order to understand each other in conflict.

He also points out problems with using "the 'is' of identification", since applying this to our fellow humans, for instance by saying something like "bob is lazy", people far too often pass judgements that don't help a situation since not only do people often find those labels hurtful, but they don't explain what is going wrong, or what need isn't being met. In this case, it is more useful to say "I feel annoyed when bob hasn't cleaned the dishes, because I have a need for cleanliness in the kitchen", from which you can discuss a solution, such as organising when is most convenient for each of you to clean dishes, or whether you could both save time by using a dish-washing machine.

General Semantics:
Similar to those big 'five stupidities' mentioned before, when talking about common mis-uses of English, Korzybski has some other concerns to make note of, such as habits of some philosophers, politicians and even scientists to make statements that "x is true" without reference to when/where it is true, and by omission implying that something is true in all circumstances. Problematic mistakes that could be made along these lines include saying something like "this is the fastest car ever built", which could be incorrect tomorrow, as opposed to "this is the fastest car ever built on earth before 2012", or to say "people with this gene are more violent" as opposed to saying "people with this gene are more violent when raised in an abusive home, and less so when they are not". XKCD examined a more amusing case of this fallacy.

Similarly, Korzybski points out a less-obvious problem that people often have a habit of always treating someone that we come into contact with today after having not met them for months as if they were the exact same person, when science shows that not only are they typically made up of many different atoms by then due to shedding and recycling of cells, but the very structure of their nerves, and hence their personality, may have changed too. Of course that is less significant the more intimate experience we have with a person (unless you just handed them a DVD full of TZM materials last week), but we should not generally allow ourselves to be prejudiced by assuming that our acquaintance Bob(2013) is exactly the same as Bob(2012) with whom we spoke once before.

However, General Semantics easily sets itself aside from other attempts to address problems with our use of language, since in Science and Sanity Korzybski was not merely offering a critique of language or a self-help book, but proposing a general theory of logic to succeed old systems of logic that stemmed from established interpretations of Aristotelian theory. This was most severe in problems such as the 'two-valued logic' mentioned before, map-terrain issues in some of Aristotle's Syllogisms and in ideas involving 'one-to-one' relationships - i.e. an idea that a problem or a disease only has one cause. While there may be some examples of this in reality, such as one virus to one disease (until it mutates into a family of viruses), as science progresses we are increasingly finding more many-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many relationships, whilst finding more causes and more effects of old supposedly one-to-one relationships. Take for instance the phenomenon of 'opportunistic infections' - here a human body can be put in an irritating state of disease by bacteria and fungi that we come into contact with on an almost daily basis (such as Candida Albicans for example, one of our many symbiotic gut flora), and so not only should it be clear that presence of those microbes is not the only sufficient condition for disease, since not everyone in a human population who are in contact will have the disease, but measures such as applying anti-bacterial or anti-fungal treatments in order to reduce their numbers are futile. It turns out in this and many similar cases that such a disease state is possible when a human body's immune system is compromised, most often because a person in question is under chronic stress, highlighting again the title issue of Sapolsky's book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.
Almost any systems engineer can tell you how MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) systems require far more complicated and difficult mathematics in order to analyse and work with than SISO (single...) systems, and yet MIMO, MISO and SIMO relationships are what we find most often when investigating our natural world, so it becomes extremely important to prepare our next generations to tackle such issues by teaching them a structure of language that suits those problems and equips them with appropriate tools, in a similar way to how it is not sufficient in modern society to teach only addition and subtraction, but also multiplication & division, exponents & logarithms, and even integration & differentiation are increasingly crucial mathematical skills to have in one's 'toolbox' when approaching modern issues in creative and research pursuits. This issue is disturbingly clear when you consider a point made by Dr Albert Bartlett - that "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function" when referring to how we tackle issues of depleting resources (especially fossil fuels), sustainability and 'economic growth'.

Learning tools:
Heron Stone has put together a little website applet called "The Wisdom Machine", which takes your selection of favourite reified words, or a pseudo-random selection of them, and tries to construct a speech that would appear meaningful on face value to an average person, but is actually utter nonsense.

John Duda created a similar tool to this that seems to be quite effective on activists, called "Automatic Insurrection", which uses a free-software code (source on github) that tries to fit random seductive rallying words into sentences in a convincing way.

For plenty of applied examples, you can always look to your favourite politicians to love or hate for some major speeches to dissect. A great example would be a presidential inauguration, but almost anywhere you can find every one of the fallacies described above, and more, being committed by a politician. Just because any particular politician makes these mistakes is not to say that they full of BS, as nobody is perfect (you can even catch an experienced old linguist like Noam Chomsky making them from time to time), but being aware of them allows you to separate what is meaningful and debatable from what is neither wrong nor right but merely meaningless, and seeing that people who use harsh language are not always out to offend but often merely have their internal 'language machine' running on automatic, spitting out useless labels for people instead of raising objective criticisms or concerns.

You can find a free pdf e-book of Science and Sanity sorted by chapters here, kindly transcribed by the European Society for General Semantics. There are also some complete scans of the book available via various torrent downloads. Since S&S is out of legislated copyright in most countries now, you can help by transcribing this into other formats for the Gutenberg Project.
I have also been told on a few occasions that "Tyranny of Words" by Stuart Chase (one of Korzybski's students) is an easier read but with less detail/substance, but I can't speak for it myself having not read it yet.

"E-Prime" is an attempt by some of Korzybski's students to 'fix' English by altering its rules - in this case removing 'to be' (identification) words such as "is". Heron Stone has also been attempting something similar with "Earthling".
Taking an approach of starting from scratch, an unrelated group have tried to design a language named Lojban, so that it is based upon logic rather than culturally formed, and so unambiguous, but I have not seen whether it avoids any of the issues mentioned above or does any better of a job at its stated goals than Esperanto.

The Center for Non-Violent Communication has some useful free learning resources online too.

*A huge caveat here: I am not yet an expert on neuroscience by any means, and while any of my descriptions may be over-simplified to the point of having glaring errors, you should even be wary of any established medical theories to which I make reference, as even these are only stories that we who are curious about nature have concocted from many repeated observations, and while they may be a million times more accurate to underlying natural laws than any ancient dogma such as found in the torah, bible or koran, they are still just stories from a rapidly advancing field, perhaps some of the best ones that we have yet, but further advances in science may yet make them obsolete and bring forth something more accurate. (See 'dopamine is not about pleasure anymore' for a good example). Anyone who embarks upon a path of studying general semantics should soon come to understand the phrase "the map is not the territory", and such problems that can occur with ignorance of that wise statement, with great familiarity.

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