“Man is the animal that speaks. Understanding language is the key to understanding man; and the control of language, to the control of man.”
– Thomas Szasz
Language is simply thought of as a way for humans to facilitate communication between each other, either through writing or speaking. But, language is much more than that; it is also used as a tool to control, exploit, persuade, reason, manipulate, subjugate, and terrorize.
Whether used for good or ill, the power of language in influencing the way people behave is often underestimated. There are basically two ways to control people: the use of violence or the the use of words.
Violence is risky, costly, obvious, and may result in retaliation if employed too readily and harshly. Using words, phrases, slogans, and other rhetorical tricks, however, affords the ability to influence, exploit, and control in a stealth-like manner.
In our current culture war between the legacy media and the alternative media (mostly online), the battle if ideas is intense and frantic, with Youtube videos, blog posts, tweets, and periscopes cranked out at a supersonic pace. Information is being disseminated left and right in such overwhelming quantities that abstaining from social media for even a day can make you feel that you’re out-of-the-loop (though unplugging from the online world once in a while is essential to maintain sanity).
The individuals and institutions that command the widest attention, and by extension, the most authority, are not the ones that offer arguments through the use of reason, logic, empiricism, and fair objective research, but the ones that are able to manipulate and appeal to emotion.
Mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein wrote a piece for Edge about a relatively obscure linguistic concept called Russell conjugation.
First defined by Bertrand Russell in 1948, Russell conjugation explains how our minds place more emphasis on the way certain words of phrases make us feel, rather than the actual meaning of the words or phrases. And how we feel ultimately impacts our opinions about a wide array of topics, the most fiery of which is politics.
Weinstein goes on to explain that words and phrases are defined not by simply what one finds in the dictionary, but by two attributes: the factual content and the emotional content.
Russell conjugation illustrates that the opinions we hold are not based on objective facts or rooted in conclusions reached through rational discourse. We form our own subjective interpretations when reacting to facts and figures because we unconsciously make decisions that appeal to our emotions, rather than our intellect.
In addition, we are also keenly aware of how we are judged and perceived by our peers, authority figures, and those we look up to and admire; this means that we not only base our opinions on our own emotional reactions, but on the reactions of others and what is deemed socially acceptable.
Two different words that are synonyms can elicit very different emotional reactions from people, even though it should be apparent that from a factual perspective, both mean the same thing.
Meanings reside in the brain – it’s individuals who give meanings to words. As time goes by, people update their meanings, create entirely new ones, or appropriate them to suit their agenda.
Weinstein uses the example of “death tax” and “estate tax.” Both convey the same meaning, but it’s been found that people are more likely to support such a tax when it is preceded with the word “estate” instead of “death.”
In Cracking the Code, author Thom Hartman gives an example of American political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz discovering this fact when a group of people where asked to give their opinion on this particular tax. When framed as an estate tax, pollsters found that 57% of people thought the tax should be kept unchanged or reformed, while 23% responded that the tax should be repealed. When that same group of people where later asked to express their thoughts on the “death tax,” 80% responded that it should be repealed.
Luntz was able to effectively reframe the estate tax as negative in the minds of people partaking in the poll, where they previously held a positive or neutral stance.
The phrase “death tax” provokes an emotional response from people that perhaps conjures up images of rapacious government bureaucrats preying on those who have passed, as well as their families, in what is easily a time of great distress (just the word “death” alone probably causes feelings of unease). On the other hand, the word “estate” does not provoke a strong emotional reaction and seems rather benign; it may evoke images of a wealthy land owner or someone who is simply being taxed on their property (we are all accustomed to paying property taxes on our homes).
Using the above example, a political candidate who opposes such a tax would use the phrase “death tax” to evoke images of greedy politicians extracting money from hard working people who wish to leave it for their children. A political candidate who is an advocate of such a proposal would use the term estate tax to evoke images of a corrupt plutocracy fleecing the middle class and not paying their “fair share.”
Both political candidates would frame the tax issue in one of these two ways to provoke certain emotions, thereby galvanizing support from voters. Proper framing is the key.
Consider the following words:
All of the above are synonyms; factually there is no difference. However, I’m willing to bet that they don’t elicit the exact same emotional reaction in people.
Let’s pretend there is a person running for political office named John Smith. We are also going to ascribe to John Smith the personality trait of stubbornness.
When describing a particular political candidate we can say the following:
- John Smith has proven to be a stubborn individual
- John Smith has proven to be an iron-willed individual
- John Smith has proven to be a headstrong individual
- John Smith has proven to be a pigheaded individual
Think about how each of the above sentences make you feel.
If you were running for political office it’s easy to see that being viewed as headstrong and iron-willed would make you be seen more in a positive light. These words evoke feelings of boldness, strength, and courage.
Being viewed as stubborn and pigheaded, however, would probably prove to be detrimental to your campaign; these words don’t induce the same type of positive reaction from people.
The above sentences can also be reframed in the following way:
- John Smith has proven to be a principled individual
By replacing the word “pigheaded” or “stubborn” with “principled,” we can reframe a negative characteristic of John Smith’s personality as something positive. Everyone trusts, admires, and has confidence in people who are principled. In the context of a political election, voters seek to rally behind a candidate who is most likely to execute their campaign platform once they enter the government, so any candidate who can position himself as principled would benefit.
However, we have reframed what could easily be viewed as a negative trait into something positive. John’s stubbornness is now a strength rather than a weakness; he is a principled man that adheres to his platform and committed to the wishes of his voters.
Note that the word “principled” is not even a synonym for “stubborn.” It does get the job done though.
Below is a list of more examples of Russell conjugation and how the deliberate choice of certain words and phrases can be used to influence, control, exploit, manipulate, persuade, and terrorize by targeting people’s emotions (not all of these would be considered definitive examples of Russell conjugation, but they do provoke emotional reactions in people and have tremendous influence in forming their opinions).
Pay attention to how these words and phrases are used in government, academia, media, and other institutions. Also, be cognizant of how these they make you and others around you feel. You will gradually become more aware of people’s motives, agendas, and political biases when when you begin to scrutinize what is coming out of their mouths.
- “Illegal alien” vs “undocumented immigrant”
- “Personalizing” vs “privatizing” social security
- “Energy exploration” vs “offshore drilling”
- “Radical Islamic terrorism” vs “extremism”
- “Online harassment” vs “online criticism”
- “snitch” vs “whistle blower”
- “Hate speech” vs “controversial speech”