Monday, December 19, 2011

The need for rational thinking in the battle for the public mind

There’s now a ferocious battle for the public mind among three major independent branches of the Philippine government, namely the Executive and the Lower House on one hand, and the Supreme Court, on the other, with the Senate as sole judge of which side is in the right or in the wrong. The issue to be resolved is the recent impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Renato C. Corona. The bones of contention here are without doubt highly political and complex, but I believe that as enunciated by a 20th century American jurist, “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” But that dictum is perhaps too one-dimensional in this particular case, so it might be advisable to add to the equation the possible elements of patriotism, vainglory, hatred, anger, or ambition in whatever measure they might come—elements that inevitably breed partisanship and biased thinking.

So, in the heat of this ongoing political battle, how do we figure out which side is rational, correct, and just? Which side is propping up its position with a forked tongue or with the sword of truth? Which side, indeed, is worthy of public acceptance and support?

To help us discern truth and falsehood in the vicious war of words that’s now engulfing the public sphere, I thought of posting in this week’s edition of the Forum an essay on language and logic I wrote in 2003 for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I have updated the original essay by replacing references to topical examples during that time with more current and more relevant ones. I trust that you’ll find the essay helpful in arriving at an intelligent and informed perspective about this raging political conflict. (December 18, 2011)

Using words and labels as tools for persuasion

Most of us will be in familiar territory when we talk about using vocabulary as a tool for persuasion. To begin with, hardly ever are we neutral in our choice of words. Parents slant their words in particular ways to reinforce their parenting. Children do the same things to get what they want or get away with things. Our enemies do it to denigrate us in the eyes of others. Religious fanatics do it to make the faithful suspend their disbelief despite overwhelming evidence that they shouldn’t. Advertisers do it to make us part with our money gladly or without guilt. Ideologues and seekers of public office do it to prime us up for their political agenda. With no exception, all of us subtly stamp our words with a personal bias to persuade others to believe what we believe and to do what we want them to do.

First on our language agenda is, of course, to label people, places, and things. Depending on our intent, biases, or predispositions, for instance, a medical doctor becomes a “health professional,” a “lifesaver,” a “cutup artist,” or a “quack,” and a public relations man becomes a “corporate communicator,” a “spin master,” a “hack writer,” or a “flack.” We do this not necessarily to denigrate people per se, but only to quickly indicate our attitude and feelings toward the subject. This is because if we don’t label our subjects, it often takes us an unduly long time to put them in context for our audiences. Rightly or wrongly then, the idea behind labeling in suasive diction (“Giving a touch of authority to our prose,” December 3, 2011) is primarily to achieve economy in language. We label things because time is short and we don’t have all the time in the world to explain ourselves. 

Using labels is only the beginning of how we slant our language. Even without meaning to or often without knowing it, we take recourse to idiomatic expressions, clichés, slogans and metaphors to drive home our point more efficiently. Most of us know, for instance, that “it’s water under the bridge,” “as sure as the sun sets in the west,” and “at the end of the day” are horribly timeworn clichés, but we still compulsively use them to emphasize our point. We have no qualms of running clichés to exhaustion, unless we happen to be professional speakers or writers who must come up with new ways of saying things as a matter of honor. In fact, the only time we are much more circumspect about using them is when we write something for the public record or for publication under our names. Like most everybody else, we don’t want to have any evidence of lack of originality or of shameless copycatting to be taken against us.

However, there are two major disciplines that methodically and ruthlessly use clichés, slogans, and metaphors for mind-bending purposes: advertising and politics. Here, we enter that region of language where hardly anything said is exactly what it means literally. We come face-to-face with “double-speak” or rhetoric exploited to the hilt, language that often teeters at the very outer edges of the truth and carried out by incessant repetition. It is suasive diction that, for good or ill, seeks to build niches in our minds for all sorts of marketing or political agenda. We can see, of course, that the mass media is chockfull of advertising that uses this kind of slanted language; as to particular specimens of political propaganda, we need go to specifics here since we are in the midst of a propaganda war that’s being viciously fought among three supposedly independent branches of a democratic government.1 It is enough that we are forewarned against taking their tirades against one another at their face value, and that we forearm ourselves by learning how to appreciate their messages critically and intelligently. As they say in Latin, caveat emptor, a warning that what we are dealing with here is language that’s barbed all over inside.

These thoughts about advertising and politics bring us to the use of grammatical ambiguity as a tool for suasive diction. Remember our lessons for using “it”-cleft sentences to achieve emphasis? (“When Even the Passive Voice Isn’t Enough,” June 26, 2009) By definition, we defined the cleft as one that “cleaves” or splits a single-clause sentence into two clauses for semantic emphasis, and the “it-cleft” is that variety that uses the function word “it” to highlight an object of special focus or theme, as in this statement: “It appears that our camp will triumph in this fight.”2 In advertising and political propaganda, this sentence construction is often designed to artfully hide the source of the statement of the “experiencer” to make it appear as a fact rather than a conjecture. That sleigh of language gives the semblance of certainty—a deliberate distortion of language to create what we all know as the “bandwagon” effect. 

In suasive diction, therefore, it behooves us not only to watch our own language, but also the language of those who would deliberately subvert it to promote their agenda at our expense. (March 18, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 18, 2004 issue © 2004 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.
1I have taken the liberty of revising this particular sentence to make the context of its reference to particular forms of political propaganda more current and relevant. In the original essay, the reference was to the fact that the country was “in the midst of a viciously fought national election season.”
2For the same reason stated in the first footnote above, this sample quote replaces this quote in the original essay: “It appears that our candidate will score a landslide victory.”

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