Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

The Day The Tide Went Out

© Dr Richard Bolstad

Using Neuro-Linguistics on a Global Scale

Does NLP have political implications? If you don't think so, maybe this article isn't about NLP as you know it. In October 2004, I received an email from an American citizen in New York. He had read my articles on healing the trauma of the war in Sarajevo, in which I discussed the value of NLP processes to end the cycle of violence. He wanted to know what I thought NLP could do to heal the similar trauma resulting from the events of September 11th, 2001 in New York. What, he speculated, could NLP trained people do if a government was utilizing and deliberately enhancing a traumatic response in its citizens.

The issue is not new. Neuro Linguistics is a term first coined by Alfred Korzybski in 1933 and 1941 (Korzybski, 1994, p lxxxix), to describe the science which would study the effects of language on the human brain. He warned then "At present the totalitarians have exploited neuro-semantic and neuro-linguistic mechanisms to their destructive limit." He urged that democratic governments needed a special bureau to study neuro-linguistics, suggesting that "For example, if consulted, such a body of governmental specialists would have studied Mein Kampf and various speeches of Hitler, Goebbels, etc, as a part of their duties, long ago, and would have advised their governments that psychopathological people are getting in control of world affairs and that their words cannot be trusted at all." This concern of Korzybski's must all have seemed a little paranoid in 1933 of course!

The neuro-linguistic evidence was quite clear though. Joseph Goebbels explained his and Hitler's view of events fully in a famous New Years speech at the end of 1939 (Goebbels, 1941). The speech is full of unspecified verbs, nominalizations and presuppositions, as Korzybski noted. In February 1933, Goebbels explained, a terrorist attack burned down the Reichstag (German parliament). A Jewish terrorist organisation was blamed. The elected government under Hitler responded by setting up the Special Security Department for the Fatherland (the SS). Hitler also accused "pro - Jewish Terrorist" governments in Czechoslovakia and Poland of harbouring the terrorists. He withdrew from the League of Nations and notified it that he was annexing Austria (1938), and protecting the people of Czechoslovakia (1938) and Poland (1939) by assisting them to set up new governments that would not harbour terrorists. He set up concentration camps in Poland to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely. The response of "Old Europe" was to complain that he was invading those countries. The whole affair ended rather badly.

Is Korzybski right? Would people trained in Neuro-Linguistics be able to detect a repeat of this kind of event? Would they be able to respond to it, and would they have the courage to warn world leaders?

The USA and the Rest of Civilization

The world leaders were all very congratulatory on November 3rd, 2004, as George W. Bush was re-elected for a second term as US President. But across Europe amongst ordinary people, there was shock and dismay. An opinion poll published the next day in the French newspaper, "Le Parisien" said 65 percent of French citizens surveyed think that Bush's reelection is "a bad thing." In London, the headline in "The Daily Mirror," read, "How can 59,017,382 people be so dumb?". Across Asia, headlines were similar. Hong Kong's "South China Morning Post" labeled Bush's win a "victory for divisiveness." An editorial in Malaysia's "Berita Harian" said U.S. voters had "deafened their ears and blinded their eyes from the screams of babies and children who died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine as a result of Bush's actions." (All quotes in this paragraph are from Radio Free Europe, 2004).

President Bush's inaugural speech after his first (2000) election reveals what we in NLP would call his operating metaphor or life metaphor for his work. I use this as an example when teaching this concept on the Master Practitioner training. Bush concluded his speech by saying "This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." (published at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/inaugural-address.html). On September 17, 2001, he made it clear that the time had come for him to ride with that angel. He announced, in words that evoked chilling memories of the Christian holy wars of medieval Arabic history "My administration has a job to do. ... We will rid the world of evil-doers". This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile." (Carroll, 2004).

Referring to Bush's 2004 election strategist Karl Rove, Time magazine says "The weight that voters attached to values suggests that Rove's singleminded attention to the goal of turning out 4 million more evangelical voters than in 2000 may have paid off."(Gibbs, 2004, p 21). Two people who would not have been surprised at this result are Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker. Over the years 1981-2001 they completed a series of studies based on the World Values Survey, a questionnaire analysis of the values held by 250,000 people in 70 different nations across the globe. This study identified that within each country, there is a values similarity such that people of different ethnic and religious affiliation will tend to share many characteristics of their home nation. Moslems living in the United \States of America tend to share most of their values with other Americans. Christian communities living in Saudi Arabia tend to share many values with other Saudi nationals.

Inglehart and Baker noted that there was an increasing trend (they refer to it as a Rising Tide) across the world in two values directions. Firstly, there is a trend towards secular and rational explanations for decisions rather than tradition-based explanations. Secondly, there is a trend towards valuing self expression higher than group survival and security. This trend is by no means even. One important conclusion emerging from the data is that "industrializing societies in general are not becoming like the United States... its people hold much more traditional values and beliefs than do those in any other equally prosperous society." In the graph below, the United States occupies the lowest (ie most tradition-oriented) position of any first world nation.

This values trend towards "modernity" is by no means an inevitable historical movement. The rise of Nazi Germany makes it very clear that a modern society can indeed shift back in history given certain neuro-linguistic conditions. The Values Survey suggests that the United States is at best static in terms of the shift away from tradition towards rationality. Since the World Values Survey 2001 conclusion, it seems likely that the United States has also shifted from valuing self-expression further back towards valuing homeland security. Ironically, this shifts it into the same values landscape as the Arab world, where it is currently so fully engaged militarily.

This tide reversal makes America increasingly incomprehensible to those in northern Europe, and those in the rational-pragmatic Confucian nations such as China and Japan. There are several side effects of this difference. In their book Rising Tide, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris point out that the position of a country in terms of "modernity" (rationality + self-expression) directly correlates with indicators of gender equality (equal educational achievement for women and equal representation in business decision-making and government bodies). This explains why I come from a country where it seems normal that the Prime Minister is a woman and the head of the largest corporation is a woman, but such conditions are almost unimaginable in the United States of America.

What we see happening in the United States of America is a shift in values which I believe could become as dramatic as that which occurred in Germany 1930-1939, and which is in the same direction. To take another example of this shift, Germany has the distinction of being the only country which ever reinstituted corporal punishment for school children after having earlier abolished it. While the physical punishment of children is accepted as a parent's right in the United States in 2004, it is illegal in most of the first world and in much of the third world. I think it is clear that childrens rights and gender equality are affected by the same movements away from traditionalism.

Word Values

Our Response to the Neuro Linguistic Reversal of Modernisation

Alfred Korzybski set up the Institute of General semantics to continue his work. The Editor of the Institute of General Semantics newsletter, Homer Jean Moore Jnr noted almost immediately after September 11th 2001 that Korzybski would be alarmed at President Bush's language and behaviour, and that Korzybski would see immediately the links back to Goebbels and Hitler. Moore pointed out "President Bush addressed both houses of Congress to declare "war on terrorism". He said countries around the world would have to choose, "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists". He also vowed, "whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done".... In my life, the need for Korzybski's formulations has never been clearer." (Moore, 2001).

In the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, I can find few written comments about the neuro-linguistic environment in which we (the "western" world rather than the "Arab" world) are living since September 11th. On September 11th, 2001, the tide of modernisation went out in the United States, and that affects us as NLP Practitioners directly. Have we in the NLP community not noticed that we are promoting a self-expression-based and non-traditionalist values system? The success of NLP depends on the trend which Ronald Ingelhart calls modernization.

When I teach in NLP in Europe, I'm very aware that there are Departments of NLP at European Universities (such as the University of Helsinki) and that NLP Psychotherapy has gained a respected place in mainstream therapeutic organisations. A German University has a multilingual database of two hundred NLP research studies on the internet (www.nlp.de/research/index.html). These events (in what George Bush ironically calls "Old Europe") are unparalleled in California where NLP began. There are an increasing number of NLP based books appearing on the English language market, but almost all of them are published in Great Britain. I am asking us to consider, "To what extent is the gradual demise of NLP in its country of origin correlated with the swing back to traditionalist thinking and to security consciousness there?"

While 911 was a traumatic experience for the American national psyche, some kind of collective trauma cure does not answer the fact that 911 is a result, not a cause, of America's national stance on security and traditionalism. The Reichstag fire did not make Nazism, and nor did the linguistic skill of one man. Rather than search for a magical external solution, I am suggesting that we consider ourselves part of the solution already. NLP delivers us with the skills to:

Actually, I do hear individual people talking about this in NLP circles, especially in the United States. And I certainly appreciate the work that some leaders in the NLP community (such as Steve Andreas) have done publicising these issues on the internet. I believe it is time we NLP Practitioners had the courage, like Korzybski, to take a stand in history as first position participants rather than puzzled third position observers.

And In Practice?

How do we do that? Answering that question has led me to study change agents such as Noam Chomsky (who was, like Korzybski, part of the prehistory of NLP, being the source of the Transformational Grammar of the metamodel). Some of my comments on his work are available in my previous article "Political Ecology 101: Modelling Noam Chomsky"

Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: learn@transformations.net.nz Website: http://www.transformations.net.nz