Philistines, Barbarians, Aliens, et alii :

Cognitive Semantics in Political "Otherness"

Lewis P. Sego, Ph.D.

Indiana State University


As you can undoubtedly tell, I am no politician. If I were, I should not have chosen this topic. I am, rather, a self-appointed representative, hailing from the country that some citizens of the earth call "The Great Satan." The term "Satan" means to them the "other force." To us, in the United States, it means "the evil One," the "evil force." Otherness is all around us, if we see ourselves in the centeregocentricity at its best, terrestriality at its worst! From the witches of Salem to the Darth Vaders of science fiction, otherness is the enemy, too often seen as such by people possessed, possessed of themselves, possessed by their political leaders, and possessed by that which they would deem to be the force of righteousness.

A new paradigm of cognitive linguistics

In this paper I am presenting a paradigm of cognitive linguistics that is the political other of the more familiar paradigm of my many esteemed colleagues. What I am trying to establish here is the reality that there are two ways of seeing, two ways in which cognitive linguistics may shed light on the words we speak and hear, write and read. My thesis, essentially, is this: opposing political forces need not destroy what has been built; they may, but they need not. Rather, one force may gain strength and direction from the other and, in the spirit of Hegelian compromise, come to embrace "otherness" as a good thing, a way of saying to the other, "Thank you for that lesson I no longer must learn the hard way." Our values may then reflect that which we have learned from analyzing their semantic components. Our words and the meanings of our words may be granted freedom from strict individual interpretation.

Political otherness

"Political otherness," therefore, contrary to popular opinion, is not all bad. In this paper I shall attempt to show how four cognitive considerations may be used to further the ambitions of corrupt leaders. Thereupon, I shall try to establish the truth of the memorable line William Shakespeare wrote, that is, Mark Anthony's assertion: "Ambition should be made of sterner stuff" (Julius Caesar, III, ii, 97).
The "sterner stuff" of which my thesis consists will reduce the four cognitive semantic instruments of the politician to mere phantoms with no power to corrupt, no absolute power to corrupt absolutely, no power to corrupt semantically.

Certain assumptions about the nature of cognitive semantics and about the relationships between cognition and political aims and outcomes have guided this study. First, cognitive semantics, as a term, assumes that meaning is not "out there" but is subjectively inside each of us, mediated by sensory data, or sense experiences. Each of us constructs a metaphysical universe or world, if you will, from our perceived experiences. The percepts and concepts in this personal universe form themselves from analogy or metaphor, little by little into networks or strings of subatomic particles and wave patterns that parallel, I believe, the superstring theory of modern physics. The binding between these codes and those of the language or languages one hears constitutes the cognitive component of a person's experiences at the most elementary level of human existence. The encoding, therefore, is both dynamic and static, the particles stringing into a stasis that gravitationally bend the waveforms with it until the encoding becomes spherical, somewhat like a bubble, familiar to engineers of the new "bubble memory" for computers.

Features of an experience, therefore, may be recalled to consciousness by the use of symbols (i.e., words and phrases), not necessarily limited to the context in which they were first encountered. Thus, for political purposes a leader of one group of people may employ words that a would-be follower acquired years earlier when but a little boy in a context of highly charged emotions in a neighborhood fight. "We will bury you," said Nikita Kruschev to Richard Nixon during their train trip across the United States. The features of the earlier confrontation need not be entirely identical to those of the present leader's mental picture. Yet, a Richard Nixon can induce feelings from a specific past in his listener or reader that render the follower amenable to the leader's own purpose, defending a country's position during a cold war.

The term political otherness, like all other nouns (or noun phrases or terms functioning as nouns), consists in a form, a function, and an essence at least at six levels of significance, conscious or otherwise, corresponding to six dimensions of realityin cognitive semantics, six dimensions of metaphysical resonance. Within each dimension the polarity of the concept assumes extremes that range from the political identity of the politician and her/his immediate others (his/her followers) to the features of the concept rooted in individual experience(s) with policies not their own.

Cognitively we know, we conceptualize, we perceive, we notice, only by contrasts. Without contrast a perception cannot become a concept. If there is a word for the contrasting element, we use it to label the other end of the spectrum. If no word or experience exists with which to construct the dichotomy (the polarities), we construe (construct) the opposite by arbitrary and abstract means. We use the cognitive equivalents of non-, anti-, un-, counter-, contra-, meta-, (etc.) as in non-linear and linear, anti-matter and matter, etc. We use dia- (as in dialectic, diatribe, etc.) to label the entire dichotomy (both poles at once). Otherness, then permits expansion of conceptual experience and enlarging of the number of sememes permitted to map this expansion of first-hand and/or vicarious experience.

Out of these constructs the politician enters four stages of cognitive semantics in the concept of otherness in political leadership. He or she enters the first stage of self-awareness or self-identity, moves upward to the stage in which metaphorically he/she becomes aware of "otherness." The next stage operationalizes the metaphor in special definitions, permitting conceptualization of the "other" with features drawn from the political leader's own earlier experiences. Finally, comes the instrumentation, or acting on the awareness of the "otherness" previously constructed, in such a way that the other is perceived to be the opposition, even at times the enemy.

Any would-be political leader, whether an Alexander the Great, or a Reverend Jerry Falwell (U.S. leader of the so-called "Moral Majority"), must rise or fall on the identity of his/her movement, as perceived in the context of differences or otherness. One's identity is established cognitively on the basis of contrast to others. If no others are perceived, identity is neither possible nor necessary. For Alexander the otherness that drove him to conquest was his awareness of any political state outside his own domain. Later, for him to stand atop a mountain and view his world, without any others to conquer, was to acknowledge to himself that the identity of conqueror he had long enjoyed was no longer possible. There was, as far as he knew, no political otherness. Nothing remained for him but to weep.

For Jerry Falwell, on the other hand, the world of his morality becomes even more distinctly different from the changing moral otherness that defines his self-hood. He sees his political challenges multiplying and at age 65 is hoping to lead his dwindling group of religio-political followers for yet, at least, ten years. His otherness is the world of birth control and legal abortions and agencies that distribute contraceptive information. The political otherness seems to be drifting away from his policies, ever widening the gap between U. S. public policy and the Falwell positionno church approval for unwed parents, no condoms, no pills, no information provided teenagers about contraception, and definitely no abortions. Identity, cognitively, becomes easier to achieve in the context of great conceptual extremes. The concept of "otherness" makes such political identity possible.
Shakespeare's often quoted question "What's in a name?" may be answered in the context of the identifying function of a noun and its otherness. Until a cognitive node has been identified by its association with a symbol, the percept or concept is not easily available to recall in its own context or in other contexts. Moses, for example, found leadership of his people much easier when he could name them, not as separate tribes known to the Egyptians as "Hebrew slaves," but as the "Children of Israel." The inscribed stone tablets of law, the shepherd's crook, and rod of disciplineall became visible symbols of Moses' leadership until the Ark of the Covenant took ascendance over them. The Philistines were identified by a catch-all semanticism, a term associated with "otherness," i.e. "strangers." Even to this day, the Hebrew language adheres to the ancient syllable (Pe or Phe, minus Masoretic pointing, Lamedh, Shin, Taw, and YodhYTSLP) in its modern term "Palestinians," "PLSTY." Etymologically the Palestinians are simply the "others" (the "strangers") of ancient animosities toward "otherness." Many years later King David's star (consisting of two intertwined mirror-images of triangles) became Solomon's great seal, still the symbol of the modern Nation of Israel. The mirror image suggests co-existence with and co-dependence upon "otherness."
When the epoch of legalism was spent, and Christianity began to assume its place, the persecuted Christians in the catacombs of Rome identified themselves to each other by the secret symbol of a stylized fish, an elongated Greek "alpha," representing Jesus as "Alpha and Omega," suggesting "The Great Fisherman" with His commission to make his followers "fishers of men," and with the added mnemonic of the Greek word for "fish," becoming for the early Christians a convenient acronym, " icqus ," (Iesus, Christus, Theos, Uios, Soter: "Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Savior"). The fish symbol, then, became a node for a cognitively rich network of mental images, creating an identity of separateness from the "others" (the "non-Christians," who were perceived as "persecutors"). This political otherness soon gave way to synthesis and unification under Constantine, The Great, whose sign of the cross remains to this day the symbol of Christianity.

Cognitive semantics permits another stage of political development, beyond merely affording identity to a political leader and his/her movement. The concept of otherness may be used to single out features of the imagined opposition, or other side, that may not be shared by the leader and followers of the identified in-group. The "other" may be ostracized by being cast in the image of "barbarian," another term for "other." Features or attributes of the so-called "outsiders" may then be made cognitively significant through exaggerated contrast to the valued manners or behaviors of the newly identified "inside" group. The political leader, by repeatedly calling attention to these disapproved attributes, may elevate the conceptual patterns to a higher level of cognitive generalization in the minds of his followers. The resulting images may then be easily made to fit pre-conceived notions of barbarism. The "barbarian" thus created may be lifted up to scorn. The leader may call for his followers to separate themselves from contact and communication with these "others" that do not share the values, the manners, the behaviors of the "in-group."

Again, the early Christians were called upon to separate themselves from the "world," the "otherness." The Greek term for "church" denoted exactly that separation. "Ecclesia" was a semantic element that literally held the association of "calling out from," or "summoning away from." A political leader may find this use of semantic "otherness" useful, even necessary, as does Jerry Falwell, in maintaining the solidarity of his/her followers.

Once separation has taken place, the leader may offer no opportunity to his followers to interact or communicate with that which now is perceived to be the "other side," the "opposition." It is a small conceptual step from this "otherness" to the level of enmity. The political leader may be able to paint a picture of urgency for his actuation of power. The strategem may go something like this: "They are going to defeat us if we allow them to gain any advantage over us." Nathan Bedford Forrest, an old American military leader of the nineteenth century, has been remembered for one maxim, "Get there fustest with the mostest." At this level of perception the "other" becomes little more than a "target," dehumanized and totally adversarial. The opposition is perceived as such a threat that it often gives rise, as it did in the regime of Adolph Hitler and more recently under the Serbian leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, to a purging of the "otherness" under the euphemism of "ethnic cleansing." Such abuses of perception and cognitive processes lead to atrocities against humanity beyond the imagination of most of us. War is the inevitable result.

A reasonable alternative

To rise above the divisiveness and destructiveness of politics, we can acknowledge the otherness as a source of alternate perspective. We can be grateful that our identity has been made clearer within the context of contrasting attributes. We can see both Arab and Jew as sons of Abraham, as offering diverse histories of political otherness, each contributing to the rich heritage of remarkable identities in a common land. Perhaps the term "Philistines" (or "Palestinians") is no longer pejorative but descriptive. If we see those not-ourselves as Barbarians, we may, at least, thank them for helping us to see important features of ourselves and for showing us our natures. Those who would see the "alien" as distanced or politically separated from us may take comfort in the territoriality conferred upon us by our perception of a presence not politically native to "our soil." Analysts and synthesists, deductive thinkers and inductive thinkers, particularists and generalists, lexicographers and folk etymologists, meticulous linear logicians and intuitive meandering creators from the imagination, the focussed and those with open-ended questions, the scientist and the philosopher, the agnostic and the devoutly faithful worshipper, the researcher of wave-particle physics and the writer grounded in matters grave, the student observing stars that are light-years away and the archeologist/anthropologist studying the magnetic signatures in fossils from ages long since passedall of us ideally will put a lie to the politician whose sole aim is to divide us and deify himself. We seek to learn from him and thereby come to love this neighbor, this erstwhile "otherness."


If we truthfully say we value love, we must love "political otherness." If we claim to be "God's chosen people" (as both Israel and the Arab countries insist is true), we must find a way to love the "Philistines." If we see those not-ourselves as Barbarians, we must thank them for showing us who we are, or think we are. If we fear the "alien," we must seek mercy and forgiveness and come to love him/her/it as a fellow being having differences that enhance our own selfhood. Only then will we conquer our fears and defeat our so-called "enemies" through compromise, not "otherness"' but through unity, through "We-ness" or "Us-ness,"in a spirit of non-judgmental gratitude, loving acceptance, and faith for the future. No longer, then, will we assume the perspective of the politician. We will assume the perspective of an author-researcher who gratefully adds to his bibliographical listing, "et alii." We will assume the cognitive semantic perspective of a single word, not of religious philosopher Martin Buber's hyphenated term, "I-Thou,"but a single, powerful term"We." Fellow lovers of truth and beauty, whatever we know, we owe to others and each other. Thank us every one.

©Copyright 1999, by Lewis P. Sego, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA.