Language of Persuasion


Randal Marlin. Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview Press Ltd. Peterborough and New York, 2002.
library reference 303.3Mar

This book is a well researched, analytical, clearly written book examining the nature of propaganda. I give the chapter headings below to give some idea of its approach, and take some excerpts from it below. Eileen

Preface's Opening Comments:
"A primary purpose of this book is to arouse a critical spirit among readers against being corralled by forces and emotions of the moment into supporting actions that in conscience they will or should later come to regret. There are many special interests skilful at manipulating circumstances and communication in such a way as to benefit their own ends and not necessarily the public good. " (9)

1. Why Study Propaganda?
2. History of Propaganda
3. Propaganda Technique: An Analysis [This chapter treats, with examples, many of the deceptions of language, statistics, and logical fallacies dealt with in Theory of Knowledge.]
4. Ethics and Propaganda
5. Advertising and Public Relations Ethics
Freedom of Expression: Some Classical Arguments
7. The Question of Controls
Propaganda, Democracy, and the Internet
Selected Bibliography

excerpts from Chapter 3, Propaganda Techniques


Some Examples from Bolinger

Many forms of manipulation make artful use of language. The Harvard linguist Dwight Bolinger, drawing on the work of others, has provided some interesting examples, to which he has given useful names. [The list below is a series of excerpts, pages 100 - 102. The numbering on the list is mine. E.D.]

1. the deleted agent of the passive

In this we rephrase a sentence from active to passive voice and delete the suject of the the first sentence. Instead of "Jane kicked the ball," the sentence is written "the ball was kicked." Instead of "Willy broke the window at
5 pm," we get "The window was broken at 5 p.m." As can be seen it is a useful device for obscuring responsibility, and it is, not surprisingly, a favoured language for boardroom minutes where the aim is to avoid divisivenes or public recriminations. . . . Suppose Shanks and Shaughnessey dispute a medical bill. Shanks says that Shaughnessey sewed him up after an operation leaving sponges and a scalpel inside. Shaughnessey says that that is a dirty lie. Depending on whom an editor favours, the headline might read: "Shanks charged with slander," or "Shaughnesssey charged with malpractice." The other person's name does not appear in the headline, and the reader is primed to put the focus of guilt on the named person rather than on the namer.

2. experiencer deletion

Experiencing verbs are those such as believes, knows, feels, senses, touches, and so on. If we say, for example, "it is believed that over 10,000 people appeared at the demonstration," and leave out the relevant fact that the belief was held only by some wishful-thinker in the sponsoring organization, who did not attend the meeting and who notoriously exaggerates the numbers, we give a false impression. . . . Of course, the experiencer deletion can be replaced by an equally misleading substitute. For example, a foreign correspondent reporter may write, "Seasoned observers here feel that . . ." when the reference is only to a taxi driver, himself, or other journalists holed up in some hotel bar, with no real access to what is going on outside.

3. deletion of a qualifying performative
People with some expertise in a particular field of knowledge may be called on by the media to express their views to the public. Wanting to be helpful, they may say things like, "Well, I haven't looked into the matter, but my guess would be . . . ." It is a case of deleted qualifying performative if the report gives the rest of the sentence without including the first part. . . . Perfomatives such as "I think . . ." or "I feel . . ." are included precisely in order to signal to the listener that the speaker is giving only limited endorsement to what follows. To omit these qualifiers can mislead people, in some cases seriously and unfairly.

4. naming

Bolinger views the act of naming along with "favorable or unfavorable overtone" in the terms selected as "the favorite device of the propagandist and the ultimate refinement in the art of lying." Here we are reminded of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and the naming of the ministry where lies are continually reinvented as the "Ministry of Truth." Among examples Bolinger takes from Henry Steele Commager are the use of terms such as "surgical strikes" for precision bombing (often not so precise, nor so healthy), "pacification centers" to apply to concentration camps, "incontinent ordnance" for bombs that miss their target, and "friendly fire," which kills innocent civilians by mistake. A government may choose to title legislation that drastically cuts back on funding for education, as "An Act for the Improvement of Education," treating as a truth what is, at best, only debatably so. A great deal of effort and expense is often required to counteract impressions so formed.

Name-calling in general is a powerful force for influencing opinion because names are easily remembered. Words like "Uncle Tom," "demagogue," "racist," "sexist," "traitor," and the like carry powerful emotional overtones, but they also cause perceptions of the individual so named to be warped. It is sometimes said of such powerful terms that a person is "guilty if charged," such is the tendency of people to believe that there's "no smoke without fire," and that denials are only to be expected and not to be believed without further evidence."

Examples from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis

A compact, frequently reproduced list of "tricks of the trade" was furnished in 1939 by the New York-based Institute for Propaganda Analysis. In addition to name-calling, there are six common tricks, examined below. [Again, I quote excerpts, pages 102 - 106. E.D.]

1. Glittering Generality

This is defined as "associating something with a 'virtue word' . . . to make us accept and approve the thing without examining the evidence." Glittering generalities "mean different things to different people; they can be used in different ways." A prime example of such a word is "democracy," which in our day has a virtuous connotation. but what exactly does it mean? . . . The ambiguity of the term is such that Nazis and Soviet Communists both felt they could claim it for their own system of governance, despite the fact that many in the West saw these systems, with reason, as the antithesis of democracy. . . . The expression "free speech" is another glittering generality, which can be used to deny free speech to others.

2. Transfer.

The Institute defines this term as follows: "Transfer carries the authority, sanction, and prestige of something respected and revered over to something else in order to make the latter acceptable." . . . Transfer is a very common device. A younger, aspiring politician has a photograph taken with a senior political icon in order to share the latter's prestige. Photographing a politician against the background of a revered institution, such as Parliament, can have the same effect. Having the flag as background is a frequent form of transfer. Always, the aim is to be seen in the company of persons, places, or things that will resonate well in the minds of voters.

There are legitimate and illegitimate uses of transfer. It is legitimate when transfer is used to represent fairly what a candidate stands for. It is illegitimate when this or any other propaganda device is used unfairly, to pretend that the candidate favours something which he or she does not.

3. Testimonial.

In the Institute's definition, "Testimonial consists in having some rspected or hated person say that a given idea or program or product or person is good or bad." This appeal to authority encourages us to accept ideas without subjecting them to critical examination. . . . Deception occurs when the supposed authority never said what is attributed to him, her, or it; when the views of the authority are distorted; or when the authority is untrustwothy. A popular film star may lack the expertise to speak competently on scientific, economic, or complicated political issues, or a famous scientist may pronounce on something outside his or her field, without the lack of competence being communicated to the audience.

4. Plain Folks.

This device is defined as "the method by which a speaker attempts to convince the audience that he and his ideas are good because they are 'of the people', the 'plain folks'." In practice, it is put into action by presenting oneself to the public as a homey type, "just like you"; for North American politicians, it may involve such things as showing devotion to little children and pets, attending church services, pitching hay, and going fishing. Aristotle understood the reasons for such a device: people will vote for a friend, someone who values the same kinds of things they do, not for an enemy.

5. Card-stacking.

This is defined as "the selection and use of facts and falsehoods, illustrations or distractions, and logical or illogical statements in order to give the best or the worst possible case for an idea, program, person or product."

. . . The complaint is often heard that radical viewpoints are left out of political reporting and that, with only a few non-threatening exception, speakers are chosen because they support the existing power structure. Alternatively, voices on the right will often complain that the reporters are on the whole more "liveal" than the mainstream population. By choosing an appropriate mix of speakers, one can ensure that a given viewpoint will be likely to emerge as strongest in debate. It is card-stacking to ignore or under-represent important positions on issues with a view to preordaining that one's own favoured view will be dominant. . . . What is true of choosing speakers or experts is true also of scholarly sources. It is card-stacking to select as evidence only those writings that agree with certain of one's preconceptions and to ignore contrary opinions, no matter how well argued they may be.

6. Band Wagon.

This is the attempt to persuade based on the premise that "everybody -- at least all of us -- is doing it." The idea is that the group addressed should therefore accept the propagandist's program, follow the crowd and "jump on the bandwagon."

Mass rallies and demonstrations give people the sense of overwhelming support for the party, program, cause, etc., on whose behalf the rally is being held. This will help undecided people to join, on the grounds that the movement is unstoppable and that it is better to share in the benefits of joining than to be left out. . . . To combat this form of propaganda, the Institute recommends asking, first, precisely, what is the program that the propagandist wants us to accept? Second, what is the evidence for and against the program? And third, does the program serve the interests of one's group? One might also question the motives of others who show up to a rally. Has free beer, pizza, or other benefit been promised? Are they going because they like the music, the colour, and the excitement, rather than because they
have a strong commitment to the cause?

Rallies have a legitimate role to play in a democracy. . . . It becomes propaganda when efforts are made to artificially boost the numbers by extraneous inducements or hinted threats of some kind.

Use of a term like "American," when addressing an American audience is often calculated to promote bandwagon effects. To say that Communism is un-American is to promote a herd mentality, "us" versus "them." Such an appeal is insidious, because there is no single set of characteristics that defines an American as American, or a Canadian as a Canadian, and so on with other nationalities. . . . There is no good reason to define [dissenters] as not belonging to the given nationality merely because they do not share the prevalent views. The defense the Institute offers against this propaganda, as with the other devices is simple: "Don't let yourself be stampeded, beware of your own prejudices, suspend your judgement until more sides of the issue are presented, and analyse them."

(The remainder of this chapter deals with further tricks of persuasion, logical fallacies, and manipulation of statistics, covering material we deal with in class in ToK.)

Critical Thinking Skills main page (with readings on media

Should I believe it?: A Guide to Evaluation
bias and manipulation of language
bias and manipulation of photographs
bias and manipulation of statistics
bias and manipulation of maps
logical fallacies