Monday, February 25, 2013

Don’t allow election propaganda to short-circuit how you vote

Every national election year in the Philippines, a lot of well-meaning people despair at the paltry qualifications of not a few of the candidates as well as the perceived low quality of the political discourse. In the campaign for the midterm polls this coming May, in particular, there’s understandable indignation against family members fielded by well-entrenched political dynasties and against candidates whose main preoccupation these past many months is to subvert the ban on premature election campaigning, assiduously endorsing all sorts of consumer products in various advertising media (herbals, house paints, generic drugs, instant noodles, dressed chicken, luncheon meat, even designer tea) to boost their face-recall and name-recall. Indeed, there’s hardly any effort to compare the comparative merits and demerits of the candidates as well as any intelligent discussion of the political platforms of the parties to which they have attached themselves. It’s clear that the campaign is largely being run on the basis of family ties, media visibility, and popularity.

This is not to say, of course, that boycotting the midterm elections as advocated by some extremists is a logical option. From among the whole lot of candidates in the national, provincial, and local level, there will always be the better candidate or the lesser evil. We thus can pin our hopes of good governance on these worthy candidates, but choosing them may not be that easy in the thick of the propaganda war that will be waged in this electoral campaign. This is why as this Forum’s contribution to the quality of this year’s midterm vote, I am again posting here an essay that I wrote way back in 2004 for my column in The Manila Times in the context of the presidential elections that year. I think that essay, “A primer on political propaganda,” remains as relevant as ever as a cautionary guide for preventing propaganda from short-circuiting the decision-making process in choosing our country’s leaders.

A primer on political propaganda

Propaganda did not start as something undesirable or downright evil. In fact, it had its origins in what many of us would consider the holiest of causes. Almost four centuries ago, in 1622, Pope Gregory XV was confronted with a twin-horned problem: heathens were fiercely resisting Christianity in the new lands that the papacy wanted to evangelize, and where the faith had already made a beachhead, heretics were attacking its very genuineness and patrimony.

Alarmed, the 68-year-old pope, once a fiery and outspoken doctor of laws but now afflicted by a dreadful bladder stone barely two years into the papacy (he died of the illness a year later), decided to form a special task force. He called it the Congregatio de propaganda fide, or “the Congregation for propagating the faith,” and gave it the task of putting more teeth to the worldwide missionary activities of the Roman Catholic Church.

That congregation’s successes and failures are today firmly etched both in the world’s religious geography and in the inscrutable, sometimes shockingly irrational ways that people on both sides of the great religious divide view that world. That, of course, is a fascinating subject crying for an intelligent discussion, but at this time, we will limit ourselves to how the entirely new word “propaganda” crept into the language, first into Latin and later into English, and how its practice evolved into a deadlier hydra than the twin-horned devil it was originally meant to vanquish.

Today, as most of us know, the word “propaganda” has become a noun that means “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” In plain and simple English, it is a one-sided form or persuasion seeking to make people decide and act without thinking. This blight on the logical thought process becomes virulent when serious clashes in religious, political, and ideological beliefs become inevitable. And what makes the once pious word and activity even more unchristian and linguistically anomalous is that it is waged as fanatically by the really bad guys as by the presumably good guys on our side.

The essential problem with propaganda, of course, is its single-minded goal of short-circuiting rational thought. As practiced in the Philippine election campaign, for instance, it is excessively bigoted in agitating our emotions, in exploiting our insecurities and ignorance, in taking advantage of the ambiguities and vulnerabilities of the language, and in bending the rules of logic whenever convenient or expedient. Propaganda can delude both the ignorant and intelligent alike, and the even greater danger is that even astute people could become its victims and crazed believers, as we are witnessing right now.

To fortify our defenses against political propaganda, we have to do two crucial things ourselves: (1) know at least the most basic tricks used by political propagandists to subvert rational thinking, and (2) cultivate an open and objective mind to counter their deceptions and sleighs of the mind.

A practical first step for this propaganda-defusing process is to critically scrutinize those aspiring for the top national positions. For our own and this country’s sake, and no matter what the poll surveys and the TV or radio commercials say, we must cut the candidates down to size. We must for decision-making purposes think of them simply as applicants for a specific job, or consider them as nothing more than branded products on the supermarket shelf.

By looking at a candidate as just another job applicant, we can greatly loosen the grip of his or her propaganda on our senses. That will allow us to dispassionately go over his or her application and résumé and make a reasonably sound judgment on the following basics: (1) communication and writing skills, (2) quality of mind and self-appraisal, and (3) qualifications and job-related work experience. Anybody who skips this elementary procedure for hiring entry-level stock clerks and senior corporate executives alike is obviously an incompetent, irresponsible fool who deserves to be fired outright. And yet, as we can all see, skipping this very basic process is what many propagandists of national candidates would like the Filipino electorate to do.

It would be even more instructive to treat the candidates simply as products on a supermarket shelf. We can then proceed to mercilessly strip them of their elaborate branding and packaging to see the intrinsic worth of the actual product inside. It would shock many people to know that the cost of the packaging of certain shampoos in glitzy sachets can run to as much as 85 percent of their total selling price. How much more profound their shock would be to find that some highly touted candidates, when stripped of their glitzy imaging and positioning, have less probative value for the national positions they are seeking than the paper their faces and names are printed on.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 29, 2004 issue © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The seductive power of repetition in fostering acceptance of ideas

Since it’s election campaign season again in our part of the world, I thought of again offering as food for thought an essay that I wrote for my “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times way back in March 2004. I came up with that essay both as a basic lesson in communication as well as a cautionary guide for appreciating the campaign messages of the candidates in the Philippine presidential elections in May of that year. The earliest members of Jose Carillo’s English Forum will probably recall that I posted that same essay here in the Forum in July 2009 as a grammar lesson in creative repetition. This time, in the context of the campaign season for the Philippine midterm elections in May this year, I am posting it once more in the Forum and here for precisely the same twofold purpose that I originally wrote it. I hope it will help forearm the public against deceptive or downright false blandishments of certain candidates and—it is profoundly to be desired—help the electorate come with an intelligent vote.

When saying it once isn’t enough

Each one of us wants to make a deep impression on our readers or listeners. Whether we are a teacher teaching an inattentive, rowdy, or recalcitrant class; a priest or preacher preaching to a flock of insensate, glassy-eyed believers; a lawyer making logical or semantic convolutions to convince judge or jury that a guilty defendant is innocent; an advertising person hawking an old, jaded product as something excitingly new; or a ward leader trying to pass off a thoroughly unworthy candidate as the best there is for an elective post, we will always want to emphasize the things we want to be accepted as true and de-emphasize those we want to be rejected as untrue. The objective is the same in all cases: to convince the audience of the wisdom of the position we have taken, whether we are speaking with the light of truth or with a forked tongue.

The easiest way to emphasize things, of course, is to embellish them with such off-the-rack qualifiers as “new and improved,” “the one and only,” “especially,” “particularly,” “most of all,” and “the best choice,” as in this sentence: “X Facial Cream is especially designed for tropical use, but best of all, it gives 100% expert conditioning for wrinkle-free cheeks.” As tools to snare the unthinking mind, however, such self-serving adverbs could be persuasive for at most only one or two hatchet jobs apiece. Discerning audiences can only take so much of words that demand acceptance not on the basis of logic but on blind faith.

A much better way to emphasize the things that we deem important is creative repetition. This is the technique of repeating in speech or in writing the same letters, syllables, or sounds; the same words; the same clauses or phrases; or the same ideas and patterns of thought. When done just right, this time-tested rhetorical strategy beats most other devices for achieving emphasis, clarity, retention, and emotional punch.

Just to see how this strategy works, take a look again at how the first paragraph of this chapter tried to hook you to the subject of repetition. In the first sentence, the word-pair “teacher teaching” deliberately repeated the first syllable “teach”; the phrase “a priest or preacher preaching” used the “pr-” sound thrice and the syllable “preach” twice (this figure of speech is known as alliteration); the phrase “judge or jury” repeated the first syllable “ju-” sound (alliteration, again); and the five clauses that carry the examples of people wanting to make a great impression repeated the same structure and pattern of thought (parallelism). 

This reiteration of the same grammar and semantic patterns certainly didn’t come by accident; the patterns were intentionally constructed in the hope of making a human-interest appeal strong enough to make the reader read on. (Did they succeed? You be the judge.)

A staple device to achieve emphasis by repetition, of course, is to use the same key word or idea in a series, as in this statement:

At Village X, enjoy cosmopolitan living with a touch of country: a life with all the amenities but without the inconveniences of the big city, a life amidst lush farmlands fringed by pristine mountain and lake, a life that someone of good taste who has definitely arrived truly deserves.

You will probably recall that “a life” in the passage above functions as a resumptive modifier. Its repeated use of “a life” as key words emphasizes the promise of “cosmopolitan living with a touch of country,” progressively building up the imagery and giving it a strong emotional appeal. This kind of repetition is actually what most advertising in the mass media routinely uses to persuade us, for good or ill.

Even more powerful than simply repeating key words or phrases is suddenly breaking that pattern once it is established:

Airline X is first in passenger comfort and amenities, first in both in-flight and ground service, and last in delayed departures and arrivals.

The disruption by the word “last” of our expectation of a series of all “firsts” dramatizes the airline’s claim of being the industry leader in flight reliability. It’s a neat semantic device that rarely fails to catch immediate attention.

Persuasion by repetition is a powerful device for inducing audiences to identify, recognize, and respond to our messages, but we have to do it with an eye and ear and feel for words and sentence structure. Uncreative repetition, like the ones that regularly assault us during election campaigns, are too predictable, awkward, tedious, and boring—if not downright untruthful. But when done purposively and competently, like the mesmerizing prayers and chants that we live by and the melodious songs, poems, mottos, and credos we love to sing or recite ad infinitum, repetition could shape our beliefs and likes and dislikes for life, Pavlovian and unalterable.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 8, 2004 issue © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved. This essay later appeared as Chapter 126 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.