Saturday, July 26, 2014

The danger when most everybody must speak with a forked tongue

Once in every little while in our national life, but much more frequently in the past four years I must say, the public sphere gets subjected to a torrent of suasive language—whether in English or Tagalog or in both—that mercilessly and methodically subverts the truth. One such time is now. After the Philippine Supreme Court declared the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) and then parts of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) as unconstitutional, we get the sense that most everybody still passionately defending the latter is speaking with a forked tongue, and that those steadfastly opposed to it are going for the overkill by demanding nothing less than the severed head of its proponents and implementors. Surely the opposing forces here could find a more honorable and less gruesome approach to this impasse, so perhaps they should tone down their rhetoric and be at least a little more truth-seeking, get together as honorable men and women, and work out a mutually acceptable resolution to the festering political crisis.

To help clear the air for such a meeting of the minds, I thought of posting in the Forum an old essay of mine, “Using Grammar as a Tool for Persuasion,” that discusses the mechanisms of suasive diction in subverting the truth to promote one’s personal agenda. It’s a long shot for sure, perhaps a quixotic effort even, but reading that essay just might help moderate the mindset of headstrong or highly partisan individuals who have begun to believe their own propaganda at the expense of the truth and the national well-being. (July 27, 2014)

Using Grammar as a Tool 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 “physician,” 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 to denigrate people per se, but only to quickly indicate our attitude and feelings toward the subject. Without labeling our subjects, it would take us an unduly long time to put them in context for our audiences. Rightly or wrongly then, the idea behind labeling in suasive diction is simply to achieve economy in language. We label things simply 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” and “as sure as the sun sets in the west” 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 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.

There are, however, 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 the political propaganda, we need not dwell on them here since we are in the midst of a viciously fought national election season. It is enough that we are forewarned against taking them 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? 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 candidate will score a landslide victory.” 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 sleight 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)
This essay originally appeared in the author’s weekly column “English Plain and Simple” in The Manila Times, March 18, 2004 issue, © 2004 by Manila Times Publishing.