Noam Chomsky quotes quotes about society
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60 Noam Chomsky quotes that will make you question everything about society

Have you ever heard of Noam Chomsky?

If not, you might be surprised to hear that he is one of the most quoted scholars in history. The NY times also described him as the “top intellectual alive”.

Considering his groundbreaking theories on linguistic psychology and politics, why haven’t the majority of the American population heard of him?

The answer is simple. He goes against mainstream thought and has frequently criticized the actions of the US government and mainstream media.

As most of us consume our information through mainstream media, it’s easy to see why he isn’t as popular as he should be.

Below are some Noam Chomsky quotes. It is a selection of his most biting quotes on society, politics and human life.

On Ideas

“We shouldn’t be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas.”

(Want to see more quotes on ideas? Check out these Schopenhauer quotes.)

On Education

“The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

“Education is a system of imposed ignorance.”

“How it is we have so much information, but know so little?”

“Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds. But if children[‘s] … normal interest is maintained or even aroused, they can do all kinds of things in ways we don’t understand.”

“Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt. It’s a trap for the rest of your life because the laws are designed so that you can’t get out of it. If a business, say, gets in too much debt, it can declare bankruptcy, but individuals can almost never be relieved of student debt through bankruptcy.”

“Descriptive grammar is an attempt to give an account of what the current system is for either a society or an individual, whatever you happen to be studying.”

On Keeping the Population Passive

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”

“The more you can increase fear of drugs, crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all of the people.”

“That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.”

“If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, “You’re an asshole,” which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, “That’s idiotic,” when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.”

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

“You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption.”

On Creating a Better Future

“If you want to achieve something, you build the basis for it.”

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.”

“In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.”

“If you look at history, even recent history, you see that there is indeed progress. . . . Over time, the cycle is clearly, generally upwards. And it doesn’t happen by laws of nature. And it doesn’t happen by social laws. . . . It happens as a result of hard work by dedicated people who are willing to look at problems honestly, to look at them without illusions, and to go to work chipping away at them, with no guarantee of success — in fact, with a need for a rather high tolerance for failure along the way, and plenty of disappointments.”

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On Terrorism

“Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it.”

“For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”

“It’s not radical Islam that worries the US — it’s independence”

“It’s only terrorism if they do it to us. When we do much worse to them, it’s not terrorism.”

“The number of people killed by the sanctions in Iraq is greater than the total number of people killed by all weapons of mass destruction in all of history.”

“Terrorists regard themselves as a vanguard. They’re trying to mobilize others to their cause. I mean, every specialist on terrorism knows that.”

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“Violence can succeed, as Americans know well from the conquest of the national territory. But at terrible cost. It can also provoke violence in response, and often does.”

On Life, Humanity, and Hope

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.

“Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.”

“Growing up in the place I did I never was aware of any other option but to question everything.”

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“I did used to have nightmares about the idea that when I die, there is a spark of consciousness which basically creates the world. ‘Is the world going to disappear if this spark of consciousness disappears? And how do I know it won’t? How do I know there’s anything there except what I’m conscious of?'”

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“The principle that human nature, in its psychological aspects, is nothing more than a product of history and given social relations removes all barriers to coercion and manipulation by the powerful.”

“You never need an argument against the use of violence, you need an argument for it.”

“It is true that classical libertarian thought is opposed to state intervention in social life, as a consequence of deeper assumptions about the human need for liberty, diversity, and free association.”

“If you’re working 50 hours a week to try to maintain family income, and your children have the kinds of aspirations that come from being flooded with television from age one, and associations have declined, people end up hopeless, even though they have every option.”

“Rational discussion is useful only when there is a significant base of shared assumptions.”

On Authority

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.”

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“That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.”

“If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I’m a professor at MIT, that’s nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it.”

“Some may remember, if you have good memories, that there used to be a concept in Anglo-American law called a presumption of innocence, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Now that’s so deep in history that there’s no point even bringing it up, but it did once exist.”

“International affairs is very much run like the mafia. The godfather does not accept disobedience, even from a small storekeeper who doesn’t pay his protection money. You have to have obedience; otherwise, the idea can spread that you don’t have to listen to the orders, and it can spread to important places.”

“History shows that, more often than not, loss of sovereignty leads to liberalization imposed in the interests of the powerful.”

On Science

“It is quite possible–overwhelmingly probable, one might guess–that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology”

“Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.”

“In fact, the belief that neurophysiology is even relevant to the functioning of the mind is just hypothesis. Who knows if we’re looking at the right aspects of the brain at all. Maybe there are other aspects of the brain that nobody has even dreamt of looking at yet. That’s often happened in the history of science. When people say that the mental is the neurophysiological at a higher level, they’re being radically unscientific. We know a lot about the mental from a scientific point of view. We have explanatory theories that account for a lot of things. The belief that neurophysiology is implicated in these things could be true, but we have every little evidence for it. So, it’s just a kind of hope; look around and you see neurons; maybe they’re implicated.”

On Capitalism

“Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless. In sum, neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy, not just in the United States but across the planet, and will be for the foreseeable future.”

“How people themselves perceive what they are doing is not a question that interests me. I mean, there are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster’; instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. If you ask the CEO of some major corporation what he does he will say, in all honesty, that he is slaving 20 hours a day to provide his customers with the best goods or services he can and creating the best possible working conditions for his employees. But then you take a look at what the corporation does, the effect of its legal structure, the vast inequalities in pay and conditions, and you see the reality is something far different.”

“It’s ridiculous to talk about freedom in a society dominated by huge corporations. What kind of freedom is there inside a corporation? They’re totalitarian institutions – you take orders from above and maybe give them to people below you. There’s about as much freedom as under Stalinism.”

“The beauty of our system is that it isolates everybody. Each person is sitting alone in front of the tube, you know. It’s very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. You can’t fight the world alone.”

In his riveting book, Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power, Chomsky talks about income inequality and the economic facts of life. A powerful read.

On Our Responsibility

“Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege. People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police; we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things, then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving seventy hours a week to put food on the table; a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that, it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.”

“There are two problems for our species’ survival – nuclear war and environmental catastrophe – and we’re hurtling towards them. Knowingly.”

“One of the problems of organizing in the North, in the rich countries, is that people tend to think – even the activists – that instant gratification is required. You constantly hear: ‘Look I went to a demonstration, and we didn’t stop the war so what’s the use of doing it again?'”

On Politics and Elections

“It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars.”

“Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary and for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two, it’s an assault on democracy.”

“As a tactic, violence is absurd. No one can compete with the Government in violence, and the resort to violence, which will surely fail, will simply frighten and alienate some who can be reached, and will further encourage the ideologists and administrators of forceful repression.”

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

“Our only real hope for democracy is that we get the money out of politics entirely and establish a system of publicly funded elections.”

On The Media

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”

“Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”

“Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.”

“Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.”

On Whether You Should Vote For Clinton or Trump

“If I were in a swing state, a state that matters, and the choice were Clinton or Trump, I would vote against Trump. And by arithmetic that means hold your nose and vote for Clinton.”

NOW READ: 20 Naomi Klein quotes that make us question the world we’re living in

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibility.

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