As a lawyer, I deal in language. I read, write and speak quite a bit. I’ve learned that how I say things can be just as important as what I say. I have to write and speak persuasively. My job is to persuade or influence someone, be it a judge, jury or opponent, to see my side of things. To believe me. I get paid to do this, and try my best.
I am but a mere piker compared to the rest of the world. Some call it spin or wordsmithing. Regardless, there is one point–everyone wants me to think like they do, believe what they believe. Most things aren’t really subject to “belief.” For example, whether I believe that the sun is a giant star is irrelevant. It is, whether I believe it or not. I heard a guy say the other day that he doesn’t “believe in food stamps.” Well, that’s unfortunate, because they exist.
We take language and twist it for our own ends. Over the years, I’ve identified several of these tricks most of which bombard me every day.
WHAT’S THE GOOD WORD?
Sometimes, we can change a few words and change the import of what we say. Here are a few examples:
Entitlements: This term is used, mostly by politicians, to describe anything to which the speaker believes folks are not entitled. It’s a handout. It’s a pejorative term implying that the recipient believes he or she is entitled to it, like a spoiled child. On the other hand, the word “benefits” connotes something provided as bonus. You might deserve a bonus. You never deserve an entitlement, even if it’s like Social Security which you pay for.
Rain Forest: I never heard this term when I was young, although I’m sure there were rain forests. I think they were called jungles back then. Who in their right mind would want to SAVE THE JUNGLES? Jungles are dark and scary and filled with dangerous animals, maybe even cannibals. Rain forests are nice and rainy and full of beautiful foliage and kind woodland creatures. One can imagine strolling through a rain forest and being in awe of nature. A jungle, by contrast, could be certain death by deadly insects, natives or wild animals. Crazed tree monkeys, tigers, tse tse flies–you name it–stand ready to take you down. None of that could happen in a rain forest.
Undocumented Workers vs. Illegal Aliens: An undocumented worker isn’t a bad guy. First, he works, which is always good. He sounds industrious. Second, he’s the victim of some paperwork snafu. That’s happened to all of us at some point. An illegal alien, by contrast, is bad, maybe even dangerous. He’s illegal, which means he’s a criminal. He’s also an alien which is just spooky. Hard to believe they’re the same thing, huh? Just this week I heard a new one: U.S. Born Children of Illegal Aliens. That’s a mouthful, but it sounds awful. The translation: Natural born U.S. citizens.
Climate Change: This used to be known as Global Warming. Global Warming just isn’t ominous enough sounding. Everyone likes warm weather, right? Plus, when it gets super cold or snows a lot, Global Warming doesn’t make much sense. Climate Change, on the other hand, could mean anything. 500 degree Winters. Tornadoes in New York. You name it, it fits.
Mental Illness: There was a time when medical professionals used terms such as moron, imbecile and idiot to describe people with various afflictions. People like my father co-opted these terms and freely applied them to people like me. Thus, they fell out of favor. We had lunatic asylums. Imagine someone directing you to a Lunatic Asylum full of morons, imbeciles and idiots. Not a very pretty picture. A hospital for the mentally ill is much better. We don’t have much patience with idiots, but we do with people who are ill. That’s a good thing.
Homeless: I’d be willing to bet that if you look at contemporary writings from 40-50 years ago, it would appear that there were no homeless people. The world had plenty of deadbeats, bums, hobos, drifters and vagrants, though. Homeless is a better–and more accurate–term. I know people who have been homeless. Some of them, no doubt, were bums. Some weren’t.
Disabled: Here’s another example of the language adapting to improve. Remember when people were cripples? We had hospitals for “crippled children.” It’s not surprising that folks didn’t like that. Now, some folks don’t like “disabled.” I understand, but I can’t think of a better term. Someone will.
Learning Disability: Now, this one is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it uses “disability” but it’s okay. In this context, it’s not out of favor, yet. Second, there is no doubt that we’ve learned that some people have real, identifiable learning disorders which can be treated or at the very least addressed. I believe that stupidity remains the number 1 learning disorder; however, we no longer accept that. I once read of a football player in a prominent college whose “disability” was the inability to understand the written word. He had to have pictures to understand things. This brings to mind the old adage “I’ll draw you a picture.” One might suggest that this unfortunate fellow was actually illiterate, which sounds harsh and judgmental. He was disabled.
The above examples are either politically correct or propaganda, depending on one’s view. Both are considered bad, of course. Political correctness denotes simple-minded vacuity, while propaganda is evil conjuring up images of jack-booted Hitler Youth.
Besides trying influence the listener, words are sometimes changed for the most obvious of reasons–to obscure or misrepresent the true meaning. Here are a few:
WORD OR PHRASE: REAL MEANING:
Visually impaired: Blind
Scrappy ballplayer: White ballplayer
Alternative Energy: Energy which won’t work
Collateral damage: Dead people
Exotic dancer: Stripper
Adult cinema: Porn
Limited potential: Loser
White trash: White trash
THE DUBIOUS ATTRIBUTION
An otherwise unimpressive statement can be prefaced or qualified to sound plausible or even authoritative. Let’s say I make this inane statement: “Anthony Weiner should run for President.” You laugh, as well you should. Now, let’s put a little different spin on it:
“Many political observers believe that Anthony Weiner could be a viable third party candidate for President.”
Now, this is just as imbecilic as the first statement. You want to dismiss it out of hand, but you think: Hmm. What is it about Weiner that makes him a viable candidate? What do these observers know that I don’t? Of course, this improved statement says nothing of substance. What does “many” mean? More than one? What is an “observer?” Probably anyone.
My brother had a friend who liked to preface outlandish comments with “Experts has proven…” That way, he could say something like “Experts has proven that Big Foot lives in Harlan County.” That sounds plausible.
People say things like “Many economists believe that a 0% tax rate would actually increase government revenue” or “Many economists believe that huge government deficits will result in a strong U.S. economy for years to come.” They want me to agree with them and their many authorities. Surely that many economists can’t ALL be wrong?
You might wonder if this isn’t actually a cleaned up version of lying. Good question. Perhaps, but no more so than when we cite “they” for some proposition. They say that dog is man’s best friend. They say that you can’t serve two masters. They say that we’re going to have a bad winter. They say all kinds of things. They have credibility.
There are many variations of this technique. If you ever want to bolster an otherwise baseless opinion preface it with “Research has shown…”; “Studies reveal…”; “Leading scientists agree…”; or even “Experts has proven…” Few will dare argue with such authoritative sources. When desperate, you can even use “According to scripture…” or “I believe it was Paul who said….” You can think of many more.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
One of the best ways to win folks over to your side is to be sure you or your cause aren’t threatening. Say that you belong to a group dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government. Do not name your group something like The Anti-American Anarchy Society. You’ll be so busy dealing with search warrants that you won’t get anything done. Try something like The American Society for the Protection of Liberty. That’s perfect.
The Patriot Act is a great example. How could anyone oppose an act–regardless of how heinous it might be–that promotes patriotism? What are you, a communist? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act sounds much better than The Government Health Care Act (which is really what it is). Some groups come up names that make little sense like The Tea Party, evidently named after the Boston Tea Party which dealt with taxation without representation which isn’t a problem now….but I digress.
As a rule of thumb, be suspicious of any group, cause or law which includes one or more of the following in its name:
These are but a few examples of the way words fool us. There are many other tricks out there, such as misquoting, quoting out of context, embellishment and outright lying. Lying, in particular, can be effective but requires great skill. It is best left to politicians.
The next time you listen to a talking head on radio or TV or read an article in the paper or on the Internet, remember: They might be trying to fool you. Research has shown that as much as 90% of all information we receive is deceptive. See how easy it is?