How to Achieve Tyranny With Mush Words
If you want to become a tyrant and transform your fellow citizens into slaves, all you really need are a few good mush words. “Mush words” are words with vague definitions. They’re slippery, hard to pin down, elusive, ultimately unknowable—and, for budding tyrants, extremely useful.
The word “racist,” for example, is a superb mush word. “Sexist” is outstanding as well, as is “(whatever)-aphobe.” Better yet, accuse someone of being full of “hate.”
But how do they work? Why are mush words powerful enough to achieve tyranny?
First, you don’t need to understand why they work, only that they do. It takes no talent or intelligence to just sling these words around and reap the rewards without understanding the dynamics involved. That said, for those who want to dig deeper, here’s a brief summary:
The two keys to good mush words are 1) unknowability and 2) accusation.
Unknowability (#1) is the magic ingredient that gives mush words their mushiness. The essential element is slipperiness. A mush word is like a verbal greased pig, or Proteus, the shapeshifting Greek god who could change forms at will. Vagueness is critical. Clarity is the enemy.
It’s interesting to notice that hardly anyone accuses anyone else of having six fingers or being nine feet tall.
Why is that? Because those can be easily verified. They’re clear, objective, and open to the public. There’s no uncertainty, no controversy—a complete lack of drama. For budding tyrants, they’re useless.
Good mush words, on the other hand, point to things that are impossible to quantify, measure, see, hear, know objectively, or disprove. While nearly everyone can easily verify six fingers or measure height, no one can conclusively “see” that you’re “racist” or harbor “hate” in your heart.
These can be argued about, of course. But arguing requires effort, which creates opportunity. As Bertrand Russell said, “The most savage controversies are those matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.”
Since there’s no objective, public, scientific way to verify mush word accusations one way or another, these areas are beyond the reach of fair-minded, reasonable people. This sets the stage for a confidence game, which allows anyone to bluff their way in. Whoever can pretend to have certainty on the matter wins.
If you can pretend to be certain of something ultimately unknowable, chances are the other person won’t be certain precisely because it is unknowable. It isn’t hard. Just pretend to be psychic and act confident about it. If the other person even seems less confident, the battle is essentially won.
The trick is to weaponize uncertainty.
If it’s done properly, it creates a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose, house-always-wins scenario. If anyone gets close to clarifying things, the mush word changes definitions, escapes into vagueness, and the game can continue.
The best mush words are so slippery they can be applied to practically anything. Math, for example, could be described as racist—or pancake syrup, coffee, golf, sleep, grades, “assault weapons,” or wanting honest elections. It’s the mark of a great mush word: anything and anyone can become “wrong.” To some, this might make the word meaningless. But with proper salesmanship and coercion, it becomes all-powerful.
But that requires the second ingredient.
Accusation (#2) makes mush words truly lethal.
Publicly blaming someone for doing something “wrong” is powerful because we all want to be “right.” (Even the rebellious and humble—both of whom describe themselves as wrong—do that because they think it’s “right” in a bigger sense). The ethical framework involved might be real or imaginary. It doesn’t matter, so long as the target believes it.
Use a mush word to accuse anyone of doing something “wrong,” and they’ll panic and scramble around like terrified children, trying desperately to prove that they aren’t whatever you accuse them of being. They’ll fail, of course—which means they’ve fallen right into your trap.
Take, for example, accusing someone of being “racist” (or whatever-aphobic, hateful, etc.) They’ll likely—and desperately—start naming dear friends and family members of different races. Whatever they do, you can laugh at them and mention how ridiculous—and racist—they look, even in their attempts to deny it. The more they try to escape your spell, the more they’ll often find themselves enmeshed. Informally, they’re guilty until proven innocent unless they can definitively clear their name—which is usually difficult, if not impossible because the burden of proof is on them.
It’s all-powerfully effective and often hilarious to watch.
But is that person actually racist? That brings us right back to slippery definitions (“What is a “racist”?) More importantly, it’s irrelevant. The aim isn’t to discern truth but to eliminate political enemies, create an outlet for real hatred, or cow people into submission.
Once a person has been accused and is squirming, offer a way out. People will often do anything to “prove” that they aren’t whatever you accuse them of being. So, you can point them in any direction, such as telling them to donate money to your pet organization, make public declarations, join a cause, etc. To the degree that your ploy has been effective, you own them, and can point them wherever you want.
Why does this work?
Deep down, many of us carry around a secret sense of guilt or shame, as if we’ve done something wrong in the past (even if we aren’t clear what that was, exactly). That guilt can come to the surface and get activated quite easily. Tyrants exploit this. Those who constantly accuse others of racism have essentially rediscovered “sin” (something Judeo-Christianity and other religions described thousands of years ago, now dressed up to look secular and therefore socially acceptable).
That’s how this con game hijacks human nature. We often don’t know ourselves. Human motives can run deep and are often mysterious. So, when someone loudly accuses us of having a specific motive—especially if they seem confident or have a clever argument to back it up—many of us will collapse into gullible puddles of goo. “That person accused me of being (insert mush word)? Maybe it’s true! I should do some introspecting and try to better myself so I don’t get accused of being (insert mush word here) again.”
The Salem Witch Trials demonstrated this well. The formula was simple. Accuse someone of being a witch. What’s a “witch,” exactly? Nobody knew. (They pretended to know, but their answers were absurdly tragicomic.) Ultimately, “witch” was simply a mush word. Today’s witch trials work the same way.
The process is like casting a magic spell. A dark sorcerer chooses a mush word, picks a target, accuses them of being guilty in some mushy way, and then watches them squirm and scramble. Unless they can break the spell, they’re yours.
So, what breaks this spell?
The game collapses when someone assertively stands up against mush words. If people insist on being judged by clear, objective, publicly available measures—or if they simply know themselves well—then they’ll see through it all. (Or worse, they might go on offense and accuse the accuser of slander). When that happens, the gig is up. The spell will be broken. It’s time to find a new mush word and an easier target and start over.
Luckily, few do this. Laws, cultures, and even entire societies are built around mush words. People are imprisoned, impoverished, and executed based on mush words. The fact that it’s based on a kind of verbal sorcery made up of senseless, hysterical, impossible-to-verify accusations is beside the point. For most humans, mush words rule.
And that’s why they’re so easy to enslave.
Steve Rose is a pseudonym.