[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:

Pseudo-science

In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:

Anti-Science

I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.

-deniers

This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.

Anti-Business

Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.

Ideology

Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

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