Plastic Words are Hollow Shells for Rigid Ideas: The Ever-Expanding Language of Tyranny

Words are routinely abused by those in power to manipulate us but we should be most vigilant when we encounter a new class of “plastic words“. What are these plastic words? In 1988, the German linguist Uwe Pörksen published his landmark book “Plastikwörter:Die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur” (literal translation into English: “Plastic words: The language of an international dictatorship“) in which he describes the emergence and steady expansion during the latter half of the 20th century of selected words that are incredibly malleable yet empty when it comes to their actual meaning. Plastic words have surreptitiously seeped into our everyday language and dictate how we think. They have been imported from the languages of science, technology and mathematics, and thus appear to be imbued with their authority. When used in a scientific or technological context, these words are characterized by precise and narrow definitions, however this precision and definability is lost once they become widely used. Pörksen’s use of “plastic” refers to the pliability of how these words can be used and abused but he also points out their similarity to plastic lego bricks which act as modular elements to construct larger composites. The German language makes it very easy to create new composite words by combining two words but analogous composites can be created in English by stringing together multiple words. This is especially important for one of Pörksen’s key characteristics of plastic words: they have become part of an international vocabulary with cognate words in numerous languages.



Here are some examples of “plastic words”(German originals are listed in parentheses next to the English translations) – see if you recognize them and if you can give a precise definition of what they mean:

exchange (Austausch)

information (Information)

communication (Kommunikation)

process (Prozess)

resource (Ressource)

strategy (Strategie)

structure (Struktur)

relationship (Beziehung)

substance (Substanz)

progress (Fortschritt)

model (Modell)

development (Entwicklung)

value (Wert)

system (System)

function (Funktion)

growth (Wachstum)

supply (Versorgung)

quality (Qualität)

welfare (Wohlfahrt)

planning (Planung)

Even though these words are very difficult to pin down in terms of their actual meaning, they are used with a sense of authority that mandates their acceptance and necessity. They are abstract expressions that imply the need for expertise to understand and implement their connotation. Their implicit authority dissuades us from questioning the appropriateness of their usage and displaces more precise or meaningful synonyms. They have a modular lego-like nature so that they can be strung together with each other or with additional words to expand their authority; for example, “resource development“, “information society“, “strategic relationship” or “communication process“.

How about the word “love”? Love is also very difficult to define but when we use it, we are quite aware of the fact that it carries many different nuances. We tend to ask questions such as “What kind of love? Erotic, parental, romantic, spiritual? Who is in love and is it truly love?” On the other hand, when we hear “resource development’, we may just nod our heads in agreement. Of course resources need to be developed!


Pörksen published his book during the pre-internet, Cold War era and there have been new families of plastic words that could perhaps be added to the list in the 21st century. For one, there is the jargon of Silicon Valley that used by proponents of internet-centrism. Words such as digital, cyber, internet, online, data or web have entered everyday language but we rarely think about their actual meaning. The word internet, for example, technically refers to a bunch of servers and input devices and screen connected by cables and routers but it has taken on a much broader cultural and societal significance. An expression such as internet economy should elicit the important question of who is part of the “internet economy” and who is left out? The elderly and the poor have limited access to the internet in many countries of the world but we may gloss over this fact when we speak of the internet. The words innovation, integration, global and security/safety have also become key plastic words in the 21st century.

How do these plastic words become vehicles for the imposition of rigid views and tyranny? Two recent examples exemplify this danger.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May justified Britain’s decision to leave the European Union after a campaign characterized by anti-immigrant prejudice and nationalism in a speech by invoking Britain’s new global role:

I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.

It is difficult to argue with the positive connotation of a Global Britain. Global evokes images of the whole planet Earth, and why shouldn’t Britain forge new relationships with all the people and countries on our planet? However, the nationalist and racist sentiments that prompted the vote to leave the European Union surely did not mean that Britain would welcome people from all over the globe. In fact, the plastic words global and relationships allow the British government to arbitrarily define the precise nature of these relationships, likely focused on maximizing trade and profits for British corporations while ignoring the poorer nations of our globe.

Similarly, an executive order issued by the new American president Donald Trump within a week of his inauguration banned the entry of all foreigners heralding from a selected list of Muslim-majority countries into the USA citing concerns about security, safety and welfare of the American people. As with many plastic words, achieving security, safety and welfare sound like important and laudable goals but they also allow the US government to arbitrarily define what exactly constitutes security, safety and welfare of the American people. One of the leading enforcement agencies of the totalitarian East German state was the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit – Ministry for State Security). It allowed the East German government to arrest and imprison any citizen deemed to threaten the state’s security – as defined by the Stasi.

How do we respond to the expanding use of plastic words? We should be aware of the danger inherent in using these words because they allow people in power – corporations, authorities or government agencies – to define their meanings. When we hear plastic words, we need to ask about the context of how and why they are used, and replace them with more precise synonyms. Resist the tyranny of plastic words by asking critical questions.


Pörksen, U. (1988). Plastikwörter: die Sprache einer internationalen Diktatur. Klett-Cotta.

English translation:

Poerksen, U. (1995). Plastic words: The tyranny of a modular language. Penn State Press.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.


The Mesh of Civilizations in Cyberspace

“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

—Samuel P. Huntington (1972-2008) “The Clash of Civilizations

In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his now infamous paper The Clash of Civilizations in the journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington hypothesized that conflicts in the post-Cold War era would occur between civilizations or cultures and not between ideologies. He divided the world into eight key civilizations which reflected common cultural and religious heritages: Western, Confucian (also referred to as “Sinic”), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African. In his subsequent book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order“, which presented a more detailed account of his ideas and how these divisions would fuel future conflicts, Huntington also included the Buddhist civilization as an additional entity. Huntington’s idea of grouping the world in civilizational blocs has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the diversity that exists within each “civilization”. For example, the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia were all grouped together under “Western Civilization” whereas Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf states were all grouped as “Islamic Civilization” despite the fact that the member countries within these civilizations exhibited profound differences in terms of their cultures, languages, social structures and political systems. On the other hand, China’s emergence as a world power that will likely challenge the economic dominance of Western Europe and the United States, lends credence to a looming economic and political clash between the “Western” and “Confucian” civilizations. The Afghanistan war and the Iraq war between military coalitions from the “Western Civilization” and nations ascribed to the “Islamic Civilization” both occurred long after Huntington’s predictions were made and are used by some as examples of the hypothesized clash of civilizations.


It is difficult to assess the validity of Huntington’s ideas because they refer to abstract notions of cultural and civilizational identities of nations and societies without providing any clear evidence on the individual level. Do political and economic treaties between the governments of countries – such as the European Union – mean that individuals in these countries share a common cultural identity?

Also, the concept of civilizational blocs was developed before the dramatic increase in the usage of the internet and social media which now facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals belonging to distinct “civilizations” to interact with each other. One could therefore surmise that civilizational blocs might have become relics of the past in a new culture of global connectivity. A team of researchers from Stanford University, Cornell University and Yahoo recently decided to evaluate the “connectedness” of the hypothesized Huntington civilizations in cyberspace and published their results in the article “The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication“.

The researchers examined Twitter users and the exchange of emails between Yahoo-Mail users in 90 countries with a minimum population of five million. In total, they analyzed “hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map global patterns of transnational interpersonal communication”. Twitter data is public and freely available for researchers to analyze whereas emails had to be de-identified for the analysis. The researchers did not have any access to the content of the emails, they only analyzed whether users any given country were emailing users in other countries. The researchers focused on bi-directional ties. This means that ties between Twitter user A and B were only counted as a “bi-directional” tie or link if A followed B and B followed A on Twitter. Similarly, for the analysis of emails analysis, the researchers only considered email ties in which user X emailed user Y, and there was at least one email showing that user Y had also emailed user X. This requirement for bi-directionality was necessary to exclude spam tweets or emails in which one user may send out large numbers of messages to thousands of users without there being any true “tie” or “link” between the users that would suggest an active dialogue or communication.

Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.
Credit: State et al, PloS ONE 2015Countries are clustered based on the difference between observed and expected density of social ties in 90 countries with population above 5 million, based on interpersonal email and Twitter communication.

The researchers then created a cluster graph which is shown in the accompanying figure. Each circle represents a country and the 1000 strongest ties between countries are shown. The closer a circle is to another circle, the more email and Twitter links exist between individuals residing in the two countries. For the mathematical analysis to be unbiased, the researchers did not assign any countries to “civilizations” but they did observe key clusters of countries emerge which were very close to each other in the graph. They then colored in the circles with colors to reflect the civilization category as defined by Huntington and also colored ties within a civilization as the same color whereas ties between countries of two distinct civilization categories were kept in gray.

At first glance, these data may appear as a strong validation of the Huntington hypothesis because the circles of any given color (i.e. a Huntington civilization category) are overall far closer to each other on average that circles of a different color. For example, countries belonging to the “Latin American Civilization” (pink) countries strongly cluster together and some countries such as Chile (CL) and Peru (PE) have nearly exclusive intra-civilizational ties (pink). Some of the “Slavic-Orthodox Civilization” (brown) show strong intra-civilizational ties but Greece (GR), Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) are much closer to Western European countries than other Slavic-Orthodox countries, likely because these three countries are part of the European Union and have shared a significant cultural heritage with what Huntington considers the “Western Civilization”. “Islamic Civilization” (green) countries also cluster together but they are far more spread out. Pakistan (PK) and Bangladesh (BD) are far closer to each other and to India (IN), which belongs to the “Hindu Civilization” (purple) than to Tunisia (TN) and Yemen (YE) which Huntington also assigned to an ‘Islamic Civilization”.

One obvious explanation for there being increased email and Twitter exchanges between individuals belonging to the same civilization is the presence of a shared language. The researchers therefore analyzed the data by correcting for language and found that even though language did contribute to Twitter and email ties, the clustering according to civilization was present even when taking language into account. Interestingly, of the various factors that could account for the connectedness between users, it appeared that religion (as defined by the World Religion Database) was one of the major factors, consistent with Huntington’s focus on religion as a defining characteristic of a civilization. The researchers conclude that “contrary to the borderless portrayal of cyberspace, online social interactions do not appear to have erased the fault lines Huntington proposed over a decade before the emergence of social media.”  But they disagree with Huntington in that closeness of countries belonging to a civilization does not necessarily imply that it will lead to conflicts or clashes with other civilizations.

It is important to not over-interpret one study on Twitter and Email links and make inferences about broader cultural or civilizational identities just because individuals in two countries follow each other on Twitter or write each other emails. The study did not investigate cultural identities of individuals and some of the emails could have been exchanged as part of online purchases without indicating any other personal ties. However, the data presented by the researchers does reveal some fascinating new insights about digital connectivity that are not discussed in much depth by the researchers. China (CN) and Great Britain (GB) emerge as some of the most highly connected countries at the center of the connectivity map with strong global ties, including India and countries in Africa. Whether this connectivity reflects the economic growth and increasing global relevance of China or a digital footprint of the British Empire even decades after its demise would be a worthy topic of investigation. The public availability of Twitter data makes it a perfect tool to analyze the content of Twitter communications and thus define how social media is used to engage in dialogue between individuals across cultural, religious and political boundaries by analyzing culturally relevant keywords used in tweets. Analyses of Twitter data over time could test the intriguing hypothesis whether connectivity and the content of communications between users living in different countries change over time. Such a study would be even more informative in terms of linking cyberspace connectivity to cultural identities and could provide insights into the evolution of digital ties over time.



Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3) 22-49.

State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The mesh of civilizations in the global network of digital communication. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0122543.

Note: An earlier version of this article was first published on the 3Quarksdaily blog.

State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication PLOS ONE, 10 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122543