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Don't Be Manipulated by Loaded Language

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Tuesday Jul 28, 2015 12:00 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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Recently, the proposition that marriage can be between two men or two women has been a hot topic in social media, with people both for and against speaking out aggressively on the issue. If you are for the proposition, you would likely refer to the issue as "marriage equality," which implies fairness. If you are against the proposition, you might call it "gay marriage" or better yet, refer to your position positively as in the term "traditional marriage" (assuming, of course, that traditions are good). The way an issue is phrased can influence how you feel about the issue, especially if you have little prior information on the issue. In addition, catchy slogans and clever word play can have a powerful influence over your views on complex issues. This is an example of loaded language, which is often used as a common form of persuasion. While any persuasion technique can be benign, loaded language is most commonly used to associate powerful feelings with an idea, prior to the idea being critically evaluated. This can reasonably be classified as manipulation. Using critical thinking, you can recognize loaded language, analyze it for its true meaning, and neutralize the language by rephrasing it in an honest and direct way.

Let's have a look at a meme that recently came up on my Facebook news feed:

Giving someone else equal rights does not infringe or take away rights from you.

It just makes it illegal to enforce your prejudice and hate.

It's that simple.

First we need to recognize loaded language when we see it, which usually involves overcoming our own confirmation biases. For me, I am very pro-gay rights, so my initial reaction to this Facebook meme is an instant "like" or maybe even a "share". Our confirmation bias deactivates our usual skeptical / critical thinking filter. By acknowledging the bias, our skeptical filter is once again engaged, and we can proceed by analyzing the language loaded with implications, connotations, and moral values, (loaded language). Only then can we recognize that the phrase "equal rights" is not neutral, but used to imply fairness and make it difficult for anyone to argue with. Next we need to ask ourselves what this really means, or analyze the phrase.

If straight people can marry who they love, why can't gay people have those same rights? In other words, why can't gays have equal rights? That is a fair question. Again, confirmation bias usually makes us stop there when the loaded language supports our position. However, as critical thinkers, we need to use the same logic and apply it to other scenarios that might either support the other position or demonstrate that it is not beneficial to our position. For example, should people who fall in love with their siblings have the right to marry them? What if that was the intent of the person who created this meme? Would you be as excited to share it? Clearly there is more to "equal rights" that need to be considered, specifically how any right might contribute to the well-being or suffering of individuals or society. What exactly do we mean by "equality"? What exactly do we mean by "rights"? These are the kind of questions we need to ask before neutralizing the language.

To neutralize the language, we say what we mean with no implications. This usually requires expanding short and catchy phrases to be more descriptive but less persuasive. In this case, by "equal rights" we actually mean allowing consenting adult gays to legally marry their consenting adult partners of the same sex. This is phrasing that neither side should have a problem with accepting. It is specific enough that it can't be used for an argument with which we may not agree (such as allowing brothers and sisters to marry) and free from words that carry moral value or words that are highly emotionally charged.

Here is some commonly used loaded language emotionally charged with implications, connotations, and moral values. These word or phrase pairs can be used to describe the same actions, especially not having access to the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. The language chosen is a result of the person's opinions, feelings, and views.

Murder / Kill
Fat Shaming / Encouragement
Terrorist / Patriot
Religious Freedom / Bigotry
Flirt / Sexually Harass
A euphemism is a form of loaded language. It is defined as "a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing." For example, companies might "downsize" employees rather than fire them. In everyday conversation, we want to use euphemisms to avoid social awkwardness and promote diplomacy. We don't ask our host if we can poop in their toilet; we ask them if we can use their bathroom—the details of what we will do in the bathroom are insignificant to our host (TMI - too much information). However, when it comes to critical thinking, we need to translate euphemisms into the direct and accurate meaning with all the details, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us feel. If a military operation will result in "collateral damage," we need to understand that hundreds of innocent civilians will die. Euphemisms, like other loaded language, are often used to enhance the style of weak arguments where substance is lacking.

When thinking critically, we cannot allow loaded language to go unchallenged. Recognize, analyze, and neutralize. After we go through this process we are far less likely to be manipulated by bad arguments, far more likely to see the flaws in our own arguments, and far more effective at helping others to understand the flaws in their arguments—all benefits of critical thinking.

Podcast Episode: Don't Be Manipulated by Loaded Language

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