I’m sorry, folks; I know that it’s only April, and we promised to give Jeremy Bentham a rest, but he’s relevant again. Those cursed primaries have made him so. This time we need to talk about another of Bentham’s great insights, i.e., the one about vague generalities and how politicians use them to befuddle the public. Politicians do that, of course, to disguise their real meaning, by masking it with words that can mean any one or more of several different things.[1] “To find the only word that will suit his purpose,” says Bentham, “the defender of corruption is obliged to make an ascent on the scale of generalization, to soar into the region of vague generalities,” until he arrives at one that is suitably confusing.[2] If people don’t catch on to the trick, to the fact that the statement is ambiguous, “the consequence is error and deception.” [3]

Besides being confusing, such generalities also can bring positive or negative associations with them. If a politician used words like “industry, honor, piety, generosity, gratitude” and so forth, at least in Bentham’s day, those terms were considered positive. Bentham called them eulogistic or laudatory.[4] On the other hand, negative words, like “lust, avarice, luxury, covetousness, prodigality” were negative, i.e., dyslogistic or vituperative.

So let’s marry up these two ideas – vague generalities combined with eulogistic or dyslogistic associations – and bring them down to today. Do we have any examples from the campaigns to head the Republican and Democrat tickets this November? Oh, sure, plenty: but let me suggest two, purely as examples.

  • Ted Cruz says, over and over, that his purpose in life is to protect the U.S. Constitution. That sounds pretty eulogistic, doesn’t it? Most people have a soft spot in their hearts for the Constitution. But, of course, nothing is quite that simple. How about Article II, which on its face seems to make Ted Cruz ineligible to be President? One has to be born in this country to be its President. Will Cruz protect that? How about Supreme Court rulings on various hot button issues? After all, the Supreme Court is the final authority on matters of Constitutional interpretation. Will Cruz enforce the Court’s decisions on same sex marriage, abortion rights, and things of that nature? Or will his support be limited only to Second Amendment issues?
  • And speaking of gun control, Democrats pretty much are in favor of that. They really want to cut back on “gun violence,” which has a dyslogistic connotation. But really, what are the gun controllers talking about? Do they want to cut back on guns used in legitimate self-defense, or by police to enforce the law, or by the military in war? How about guns used by crooks to perpetrate crimes? We have plenty of laws about that. Do they want more, or longer sentences? How about guns used in suicide? More and more countries seem to favor legalizing that. Why discriminate if the person who wants to kill himself uses a gun? And, by the way, who should authorize a suicide? Only the Government?

And so you see, both positions leave lots of things undiscussed. They cry out for what Bentham calls “close reasoning” about specific issues and subsets thereof, not for mindless prattle and vague assertions [5]

Vague generalities of the eulogistic variety, often called glittering generalities[6], are important tools for subduing enemy populations in wartime. You may think I’m stretching Bentham a bit here, but really, I have proof. Propaganda is an important part of any war, at least the ones we fight, and our military, following its usual inclination, fully documents its approach to such matters.  Or at least it did so in the not too distant past.

I’m thinking, of course, of Army Field Manual 33-1, Psychological Operations, which although rescinded, remains available from reputable sources, such as the Federation of American Scientists.[7] The Freedom of Information Act[8] is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Without it, think of all the interesting things that might have disappeared from our libraries and archives! Anyway, in case you didn’t know, the acronym for Psychological Operations is PSYOPS, and Appendix I to the Field Manual details some of the more common techniques used to bamboozle an enemy. Among these are, guess what? Glittering generalities![9]

The Field Manual says:

Glittering Generalities. Glittering Generalities are intensely emotionally appealing words so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that they carry conviction without supporting information or reason. They appeal to such emotions as love of country, home; desire for peace, freedom, glory, honor, etc. They ask for approval without examination of the reason. Though the words and phrases are vague and suggest different things to different people, their connotation is always favorable: “The concepts and programs of the propagandist are always good, desirable, [and] virtuous.”

Generalities may gain or lose effectiveness with changes of conditions. They must, therefore, be responsive to current conditions. Phrases which called up pleasant associations at one time may evoke unpleasant or unfavorable connotations at another, particularly if their frame of reference has been altered.[10]

So whenever a politician lays a shiny, new generality on you, bear in mind that he’s not treating you like a friend. He doesn’t want questions and he doesn’t want to educate. He just wants you to applaud and do what you’re told. You’re the enemy, and he’s the PSYOPS technician. If the politician carries on, for example, about our matchless Constitution, the only proper response on your part is that it has some good points, and some bad ones, and may need reform.[11] Leave your blanket endorsements at home.

And above all, when someone offers you a shiny new generality to admire, remember the old proverb: All that glitters is not gold.[12] In politics, that’s always the case.

[1] Id.at Chapter III, Vague Generalities, at p. 230: “Vague generalities comprehend a numerous class of fallacies, resorted to by those who, in preference to the most particular and determinate terms and expressions which the nature of the case in question admits of, employ others more general and indeterminate.”

[2] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Reprint, circa 2010) at Chapter VIII, Observation of the seven preceding Fallacies, p. 287. Hereafter the book will be cited as Political Fallacies at __. Nabu reprints are basically photocopies of the original, so page citations necessarily will be to the original.

[3] Id. at 287 – 288. “When of two terms, viz. a generic term, and a specific term included under it, the specific term alone is proper … ; the generic term, if substituted to it, is ambiguous, and of the ambiguity, if the effect of it be not perceived, the consequence is error and deception.”

[4] See Political Fallacies at Chapter I, Fallacies of Confusion, p. 214.

[5] See Political Fallacies at p. 288: “In proportion as a man’s mode of reasoning is close … for the designation of every object which he has occasion to bring to view, he employs in preference the most particular expression that he can find: that which is best adapted to the propose of bringing to view [everything] which is its object to bring to view, as clear as possible from [everything] which the purpose does not require to be brought, and which in consequence it is his endeavor to avoid bringing to view.”

[6] Wikipedia, for one, calls them that. See the Wikipedia entry on Glittering Generality at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glittering_generality

[7] See Army Field Manual 33-1, Psychological Operations, (31 August 1979), and especially Appendix I, PSYOP Techniques. Henceforth the Field Manual will be cited as AFM 33-1 at __. It’s available at https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm33-1.pdf

[8] If you want to know about the Freedom of Information Act, start with FOIA.gov, at http://www.foia.gov/ .

[9] See AFM 33-1 at Appendix I, PSYOP Techniques, p. I-1, I-2. AFM 33-1 was replaced by Army Field Manual 3- 05.301, Psychological Operations, Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (December 2003). It’s not nearly so interesting. Paragraphs 6-59 through 6-68 deal with the review and approval of PSYOPS products used in foreign countries. These, of course, must be adapted to their target audiences, so great attention is paid to translating and adapting them to the target population’s cultural sensitivities. The book is process-oriented, i.e., focused on having the appropriate people review and approve the materials that will be used. AFM 3-05.301 also is available from The Federation of American Scientists, at https://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-05-301.pdf

[10] Id.

[11] See Political Fallacies at p. 236-237. Actually Bentham was more extreme than that with regard to the English Constitution. He said: “The constitution has some good points; it has some bad ones: it gives facility and, until reform – radical reform shall have been accomplished, security and continual increase to waste, depredation, oppression and corruption in every department, and in every variety of shape.” That’s not exactly a blanket endorsement, is it?

[12] That’s a proverb from the early 13th Century, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition, 2004) at Proverbs, p. 614, n. 17.