The Red Flags of Persuasion

By Jacobs, Don Trent | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

The Red Flags of Persuasion


Jacobs, Don Trent, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


The rhetorical methods of Rush Limbaugh have previously received extended analysis in ETC. (See Chris Boyd's "Speaking Rushian" in the Fall 1994 issue). Yet, further scrutiny of Mr. Limbaugh's performance seems warranted, for he and his imitators continue to set the style and tone of much of the public discussion of politics, economic issues, and morality. We neglect this situation to our peril as we move into a new era marked by major shift in political perspectives and attitudes, by the emergence of new media forms (e.g., the Internet with its ability to equalize "center" and "fringe" viewpoints), and 16 the deregulation of broadcasting (including, apropos of Don Jacobs' trenchant examination, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine).

A rhetorically sensitive student of persuasion can check such threats to a democratic society.

Raymond Ross (Ross, 1981)

Words cannot be remote from reality when they create reality.

John Cowper Powys

An accomplished persuader knows how to use the tools of language to achieve his purpose. In particular, these tools include "persuasive words." Top salespeople, negotiators, and trial lawyers use them regularly. Most of us do not fully understand how or why their words wield such power, but university research shows that certain kinds of language can significantly diminish a listener's critical thinking. (Herd, 1984)

This does not mean persuasive language can always overcome reason, nor convince someone to do something against his or her will. It can reduce critical thinking, but it does not eliminate it entirely. Persuasive language does trigger mental processes that have more to do with memory, imagery, and emotion than with analytical thought. In extreme cases, especially, the right combination of factors can result in deadly persuasion. If a captivating speaker convinces people that a particular action will ultimately lead to a desired end, and if many other factors relating to the emotional stability of the listener come into play, an event such as Jonestown can occur.

To prevent being misled by such language, it is necessary to maintain awareness that it contains persuasive words. With this awareness, our critical judgment can remain alert. We can then make sure we carefully consider the persuader's message before we think or act in a particular manner.

1. Anecdotes, Stories, and Metaphors

Stories have been a vehicle for teaching and persuasion for thousands of years. They make people comfortable. After all, our parents told us stories when we were children. Story tellers weave ideas into a story so its characters come to the conclusions intended. By suggesting a likeness between a character and the listener, the speaker uses a powerful tool of persuasion, the metaphor. Stories stir emotions, create images, bypass critical thinking, and motivate the listener to associate with or against the character. A story doesn't have to be long to accomplish its goal. It can be "true," or it can be an invented anecdote. Instead of telling someone that an abortion could prevent someone from saving someone's life in the future, it would be more convincing to say:

A young man I met at recent pro-life meeting is a case in

point. He had just won an award for saving the life of a child

who almost drowned in a lake. During our conversation, he

told me his unmarried mother had considered an abortion

before he was born, but had changed her mind at the last

moment. The child's mother was also at the meeting. "I'm

sure glad John was here to save my child," I heard her say to

someone.

A single word can trigger a metaphor. Telling a person he is "burning his money up" is likely to prevent him from making a foolish purchase more than merely saying he "is better off not spending the money." A simple analogy can also work.

"The early pioneers tamed a wilderness. …

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