Sunday, December 4, 2011

The serious lack of civility that afflicts public discourse

At this time in our country when civility appears to be vanishing from the public sphere, when many traditional seats of power in our society seem to be going out of control or under assault or both, and when every threatened vested interest or emboldened rabble-rouser is now viciously aiming for the enemy’s jugular, it should be of great public interest to closely examine the kind of language being used by the protagonists and antagonists. Are they speaking and acting in keeping with who they think, presume, or pretend they are? Are they using language that conveys their thoughts and desires in ways that validate and support their own self-concept or projection of ourselves? Or is their language going out of bounds, eroding instead of giving a touch of authority to their public pronouncements?

I recall that towards the end of 2005, the country was being buffeted by the same lack of civility, a situation that prompted me to write an essay about suasive diction—the deft use of language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts—for my English-usage column in The Manila Times. I think that essay, “Giving a touch of authority to our prose,” has become even more relevant today so I thought of posting here today. (December 4, 2011)

Giving a touch of authority to our prose

“Oh what a pair we make,” whispered the Prince of Wales to the pilloried presumptive royal knight William in the riotously charming film A Knight’s Tale, “both trying hard to hide who we really are, and both miserably failing to do so.” For those who have not seen the movie, the prince was constrained to shed off his disguise as a monk among the lynching mob to save the disgraced knight, who a few days earlier had spared him from the ignominy of certain defeat by refusing to joust with him in a tournament. The knight, through the machinations of a villainous duke, was thereafter unmasked as a lowly thatcher’s son masquerading as a member of royalty, thus leading to his arrest and humiliation on the pillory.

This medieval morality tale gives a powerful insight into the crucial need to speak and act in keeping with who we think, presume, or pretend we are. When we write, in particular, we must use language that conveys our thoughts in ways that validate and support our own self-concept or projection of ourselves. The wife of the Caesar must not only be chaste but must look and sound chaste. The professor must really look and sound professorial. The presidentiable must really look and sound presidentiable. To fail to do this in both civilized and uncivilized society—or not to have the wisdom or guile to at least sustain the charade—is to invite catastrophe, which is precisely what brought the presumptive knight to the pillory for public lynching.

Be that as it may, our most potent tool for becoming credible is what the linguists call suasive diction. This is using language to persuasively convey facts and the speaker’s feelings toward those facts. No instrument is more potent for doing that, of course, than the writer’s or speaker’s vocabulary. Our words define us. Whether armed with excellent research or dubious information, whether motivated by good or bad intentions, we can turn off the audience with awkward or leaden words, or hold it in thrall with engaging words and well-turned phrases. It is largely through word choice, in fact, that we establish our credibility and rapport with our audience. Short of coercion or the force of arms, rarely can persuasive communication take place without this credibility and rapport.

The most basic technique for suasive diction is the proper use of the pronouns of power, namely “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them.” These innocent-looking pronouns can confer a sense of authority—the illusion of authority, if you may—to our written or spoken statements far beyond what the first-person singular can give. The first-person “I” and “me” speak only for the solitary communicator; the collective “we” and “us” speak for an entire group or institution, which people normally take for granted as less fallible and less prone to vainglory than the individual—hence more credible, more authoritative.

This is why, for instance, newspaper editorials routinely use the institutional “we” although they are usually crafted by a solitary writer not so high on the paper’s editorial totem pole; it’s also why tyrants and despots of every stripe and persuasion always invoke “the right vested in me by God/ law/ the sovereign people” to seize power or hold on to it, and why candidates of paltry qualification and virtue invariably invoke “the people’s great desire for change” or “divine signs in the sky” as their passport to public office.

Of course, “we,” “us,” “our,” “they,” and “them” work just as well as pronouns of solidarity. They foster a stronger sense of closeness and intimacy with the audience, and can more easily put audiences at ease with what the speaker has to say. In contrast, the first person “I” often comes across as too one-sided and self-serving, particularly in writing, while the second person “you” can sound too pedantic and intimidating. We stand a much greater chance of getting a fair hearing from those antagonistic to our position by making them think that we are actually on their side.

Even if we are good at using the pronouns of power and solidarity, however, we must not for a minute believe that they are all we need to achieve suasive diction. The facts supporting our contention must be substantial and accurate. Our opinions must be truly informed, not half-baked. Our logic must be sound and beyond reproach. Our delivery must me convincing. If not, we might just end up like that otherwise seemingly enlightened prince in A Knight’s Tale, lying to the lynching mob that William the thatcher’s son was actually descended from an ancient line of kings, then justifying that claim by nonchalantly invoking royal infallibility: “I say so by the authority of my father the King, and that’s beyond any contestation.”

Royally said indeed, but utterly illogical and absurd. (November 14, 2005)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 14, 2005 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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