Josef Pieper on the Palin/Biden debate

What, then, is flattery? Flattery here does not mean saying what the other likes to hear, telling him something nice, something to tickle his vanity. And what is thus said is not necessarily a lie, either. […] In what lies the distinction? What makes the difference? The decisive element is this: having an ulterior motive. I address the other not simply to please him or to tell him something that is true. Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! This underlying design makes the message a flattery, even in the popular meaning of the word. The other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner; he is no longer a fellow subject. Rather, he has become an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled. Thus the situation is just about the opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, especially to the one so flattered, as if a special respect would be paid, while in fact this is precisely not the case. His dignity is ignored; I concentrate on his weakness and on those areas that may appeal to him — all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes. And insofar as words are employed, they cease to communicate anything. Basically, what happens here is speech without a partner (since there is no true other); such speech, in contradiction to the nature of language, intends not to communicate but to manipulate. The word is perverted and debased to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered. Instrument of power may still seem a somewhat strong term for this; still, it does not seem so farfetched any longer. […]

“The world wants to be deceived”, the saying goes… This is indeed true, yet at the same time too narrow. What the world really wants is flattery, and it does not matter how much of it is a lie; but the world at the same time also wants the right to disguise, so that the fact of being lied to can be easily ignored. As I enjoy being affirmed in my whims and praised for my foibles, I also expect credibility to make it easy for me to believe, in good conscience or at least without a bad conscience, that everything I hear, read, absorb, and watch is indeed true, important, worthwhile, and authentic!

Such, then, is the demand. To such a demand the supply has to respond if there is going to be a profitable business. […] [W]e are faced, in short, with the threat that communication as such decays, that public discourse becomes detached from the notions of truth and reality. […]

[T]his much remains true: wherever the main purpose of speech is flattery, there the word becomes corrupted, and necessarily so. And instead of genuine communication, there will exist something for which domination is too benign a term; more appropriately we should speak of tyranny, of despotism. On one side there will be a sham authority, unsupported by any intellectual superiority, and on the other a state of dependency, which is again too benign a term. Bondage would be more correct. Yes, indeed: there are on the one side a pseudoauthority, not legitimized by any form of superiority, and on the other a state of mental bondage.

Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language — Abuse of Power, pp.21-30

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4 Responses to “Josef Pieper on the Palin/Biden debate”


  1. 1 Mark Powell 3 October 2008 at 10:16 am

    … Dr. Pieper, may I call you Joe?

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 3 October 2008 at 10:25 am

    Nein, Frau Palin. Ich heisse Herr Doktor Doktor Pieper. Wir sollen uns nicht duzen, dankeschoen.

  3. 3 Mark Powell 3 October 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Aw, gawrsch Joe. No need to be so formal when we’re talking about, well, anything, which “has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.” Golly did I say that? (er, no you didn’t Mrs. Palin).

  4. 4 Richard Barrett 3 October 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Ach nein, er tat nicht!


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