Calling Out the Symbol Rulers

(Published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics Volume 62 No. 1, 2005)

Nothing illustrates the power of symbols and language quite like a presidential election. Of course, those of us who know a little bit of general semantics recognize that this ‘power’ lies not in the words and symbols themselves, but in the motivations, intentions, reactions, and evaluations of the individual human beings who speak, write, see, hear, and read the words and symbols.

Alfred Korzybski emphasized that we must vigilantly maintain an ongoing awareness that symbols (or “maps”) are not the things symbolized (or “territories”). He underscored the potential consequences of confusing symbols with their referents when he cautioned that, “Those who rule the symbols, rule us.” (1)

Who rules your symbols?

With this issue we introduce a new regular feature, “Calling Out the Symbol Rulers.” Each quarter we will highlight examples of how rulers rule by symbols, and how we let ourselves be ruled by symbols. This feature will succeed to the degree that you and other readers participate in the process by corresponding with us — we seek your responses, reactions, analyses, opinions, and examples you find pertinent to this topic.

Whom might we classify as potential symbol rulers? By our definition, just about anybody who participates in a communicative transaction could be considered a symbol ruler. We might start by carefully observing people of influence such as politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, bosses, parents, supervisors, coaches, advertisers, priests, preachers, rabbis, mullahs, commentators, columnists, reporters, etc. How do they generate, manipulate, frame, and convey their messages? What techniques do they employ to influence our judgments and decisions?

You might apply some of the principles of general semantics in your analyses:

  • Do they confuse facts with inferences, judgments, or beliefs? (And by what standard are facts differentiated from non-facts?)
  • Do they over-simplify complex issues into easy-to-understand but misleading either-or, black-or-white, right-or-wrong polarized choices?
  • Do they attempt to attribute only one cause to an event or one consequence of an action, rather than recognizing multiple causes and multiple consequences — some of which we may never know?
  • Do they generalize from one experience or one person’s anecdotal evidence as if that were the only possible or the ‘right’ universal experience?
  • Do they take responsibility for their own statements and judgments, recognizing what Wendell Johnson referred to as “to-me-ness,” or do they attempt to speak for a group or with the authority of a group?
  • To what degree are they saying something beyond the simple application of a label? (“All you need to know about him is that he’s a liberal!”)
  • Do they objectify high order abstractions such as truth, justice, moral values, security and speak about ‘them’ as if ‘they’ were ‘things,’ rather than inherently inexact, personalized, and even arbitrary notions?
  • Do they concentrate on similarities at the expense of ignoring differences, and vice-versa? Do they exhibit attitudes of allness (or none-ness)?
  • Do they fail to apply Korzybski’s extensional devices — specifically, indexing (Muslim Leader1 is not Muslim Leader2), dating (Senator Phlops views on de-regulation1980 may not represent the Senator’s views2005), and et cetera, (the et cetera, or etc., means that more can always be said; we can never know all there is to know about anything).

Remember … these same principles that you apply critically to others, you can apply to yourself. And we want to emphasize that in general semantics we are not so concerned with the words as we are with the underlying human thinking-feeling and evaluating processes, judgments, perspectives, etc., that are conveyed by the words.


  1. Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, p.76.