The Language of Persuasion

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

IN THE CONCLUSION TO HIS ESSAY ON POWER, Bertrand Russell says: 'just as we teach children to avoid being destroyed by motor cars if they can, so we should teach them to avoid being destroyed by cruel fanatics, and to this end we should seek to produce independence of mind, somewhat sceptical and wholly scientific …' Such a cast of mind has for a long time been recognised as essential in scientific studies; but as general aims educators have usually tended to emphasise the development of receptive rather than defensive attitudes. And similarly we find that the teaching of English, 'the central subject', hardly ever seems to start from the fact that language is today used with more and more significance and force as an instrument of persuasion, a means by which to shape ideas and tastes; and that wherever there is violence, hatred or ill intentions attempts are made to cloak, to justify or to inflame with words. Russell's essay was written twenty-five years ago and whilst this period has seen changes in the social structure and the decline of religious pressures the influence which political and commercial groups can exercise has grown steadily: on the one hand through the increasing skill of the contenders in manipulating public opinion by means of the newer media; and on the other by virtue of the abandonment of standards of honesty and responsibility, encouraged and accelerated by the more severe competition.

It seems naïve to say that if "democracy" is to mean anything the common man ought to be equipped to recognise methods of persuasion and signs of undue influence; for in theory this is agreed but in practice the political parties themselves, whilst asserting democratic values, increasingly exploit and focus the very methods and pressures of which we complain. Happily, we do not have to adduce reasons for wanting the provide the ordinary man, and therefore the secondary modern schoolchild, with some defences since, at present, lip-service is paid to the attitude we would have him show. It is good by definition and it is unlikely, in Britain at the moment, that anyone would dare come forward to object to a programme in the schools designed to help foster this "independence of mind". What we are advocating is simply the development of a critical and objective attitude to the language of everyday life. From one point of view it might be called better reading. But nowadays the child needs not only to learn his lines; he has to be able to read between them.

It might be objected here that English, as it is already taught, is intended anyway to instil just such sense of discrimination as we are urging. To this we have to reply that in the significant majority, at least, it never achieves this objective — the whole character of everyday life testifies to that. Or it might be suggested that the attitude we commend is simply the exercise of common sense. We have to say again that the quality of daily life shows how uncommon common sense is. So the question which arises is: how can we improve standards of evaluation?

The first possibility is that we might make the very ambitious attempt to teach some sort of theoretical framework, beginning with the nature of language itself, in order to help classify and interpret linguistic behaviour. We should find our principles, if at all, in semantics — using the word in the wide contemporary sense: the study of affairs pertaining to the relationship between words and whatever they represent. This approach would have the general disadvantage of introducing unnecessary, perhaps insuperable, difficulties and it would involve in any case problems of choice since semantics is still in its infancy and is not so much a coherent discipline as a number of schools. Indeed, it might not have occurred to us to make appeal to it at all were it not that its students have repeatedly raised our hopes by promising that their findings would have important consequences. Even when, sixty years ago, Lady Welby was drawing attention to the problems the word-thing relationship poses "in all forms of mental activity, including logic" she already saw "significs", as she called it, as ultimately becoming both a science and an educational method — "semantics" was then restricted solely to the study of historical changes in meaning. Unfortunately, in spite of an always increasing interest, these promises have not been fulfilled. The different analyses are still diverging and cannot easily be co-ordinated. And the clarifying of relationships with philosophy and psychology has taken attention away from the tasks of attempting to unite these analyses, of establishing an acceptable terminology, of trying to inspect the limits of language and of suggesting practical applications. So an attempt to find a theoretical framework for use by the teacher of English must involve an enormous amount of very difficult reading apart from the problem of deciding which approach might be most rewarding. Few secondary modern teachers would have the time or the inclination for this undertaking.

However, of those writers who have attempted comprehensive descriptions of language, two have distinguished themselves further in that their work has relevance at levels lower than the university: I. A. Richards and Alfred Korzybski. Richards, though by far the more familiar to teachers in England, is for our purpose the less important since the average or dull child never engaged his attention. The Meaning of Meaning, a study of 'the science of symbolism' written in collaboration with C. K. Ogden, the inventor of Basic English, even offended writers on language by its difficulty. Then came the well-known books on the theory and practice of literary criticism and applications in higher education; these books are full of ideas which we cannot avoid using. More recently, he has been associated with a series of paperbacks in which an attempt is made to teach foreign languages by an interesting pictorial method, without resort to grammar.

Korzybski, a Polish mathematician who settled in America, had quite different interests. He claimed that many of our linguistic habits are misleading and represent the real world inaccurately; that 'linguistic maladjustment' is almost universal and is a serious threat to sanity and to the safety of society; and that simple safeguards, usable in everyday life, can be devised for improving communication. He believed his work to constitute an epoch-making advance and called his theory and practice, rather unfortunately perhaps, General Semantics. Some points of weakness in the presuppositions of General Semantics must be ignored here. What is important is that Korzybski would have claimed that his system, correctly taught, would secure exactly the attitudes Russell required; and that it has been taught in America at all levels but, most significantly, to children comparable with our secondary modern children, over considerable periods of time. The course of study in one such programme, including theoretical background and practical work, may be examined in Caroline Minteer's Words and what they do to you. The main failing of this programme seems to be that, perhaps in attempting to relate the material as closely as possible to the children's lives, it doesn't deal sufficiently directly with the quarters from which the gigantic pressures come and it keeps collapsing into Interpersonal Relations — the examples sometimes seem rather strange to an English reader. One also senses a tendency to encourage a person to fit in, to adjust himself to his condition, rather than, after evaluation, to consider what changes in the environment are called for and how they might best be effected. At the same time the book gives an interesting scheme of work and the presentation is admirable, a model of helpfulness to the teacher. The claims made at the front of the book for the success of the course look extravagant though it is improper to say so without experiment. At any rate, developments in this field are certainly worth watching. Korzybski's work has been found valuable in the most surprising studies and through the agency of the Institute of General Semantics, the International Society for General Semantics and such liberal-minded expositors as S. I. Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson and Irving J. Lee it is reaching a wider public.

The second and more promising possibility is that we might start at the simplest descriptive levels and gradually provide common sense with a minimal vocabulary with which to describe practical situations efficiently: on the principle that to have a name for a thing makes recognition, definition and handling easier. This approach would remain close to the examination of the mass media and simple questioning about ways and purposes. Simpler terms would have to be invented to replace several of the expressions at present in use — this calls for a good deal of circumspection. This sort of programme might aim to cover as much as possible of the following ground: statements of fact, checking, mistakes, lies, inferences, statements of opinion; promises, requests, commands; emotive and 'loaded' words and phrases; slanting by selection of facts, of words, of both; persuasion by flattery, threats, rhetoric, etc.; evasion, irrelevance, verbosity; either/or choices, hidden assumptions, contradictions, non-sequiturs, etc.; beliefs, stock responses, guilt-by-association; 'levels of abstraction and high-order abstractions', identification; arguments about names; nonsense questions; over and under generalisation. It is true that some of the ideas involved in this programme — verification and the emotive use of language, for instance — have been the subjects of furious academic battles but they can be used without embarrassment at the simple levels at which this work begins. If a well-ordered progression could be devised and suitable terms established it ought to be possible to cover a good deal of this programme with children of low verbal intelligence, using examples and material incomparably more interesting than that found in the average text-book for English studies. And as this work progressed it ought to be possible to talk meaningfully about the mass media, beginning with analyses of space in newspapers and magazines and going on to examine advertising methods, reports, public announcements, propaganda techniques and those form of persuasion which are partly or wholly non-verbal.

We don't go far enough with this sort of work for reasons any secondary modern teacher can list. And, in several directions, a great deal of help might be given. What is needed is, firstly, a teacher's book on the lines of Caroline Minteer's: one that in each chapter bridges the gap between a defined theoretical principle or aim and the actual words that a teacher might consider using. The translation of theory into practice is an exacting job and it is impertinent to expect practising teachers to examine masses of generalised prescriptions. Secondly, we need a range of children's text-books loaded with useful and interesting suggestions, rich in diverting and elegant exercises and devoted entirely to this aspect of English. This is necessary in order to save time and mental energy and because in this work it is very easy to make up examples which illustrate a point but very hard to make up examples which isolate that point satisfactorily. It is easier to adapt than to invent. Thirdly, we need a clearing-house to bring together details, at the lesson level, of any really successful work and to make note of any relevant literature. Fourthly, we need to be able to get adequate supplies of topical material without administrative difficulty and without incessant begging from the children. In this, the BBC schools programmes could give valuable help.

Finally, and above all we have to encourage an interest in this approach with the teachers, presumably by developing the study of communication and persuasion much more intensively at the Training Colleges. A stimulating beginning might be to let the student teacher start his language studies by examining the extreme views of Benjamin Lee Whorf: the hypothesis that our languages shape and actually distort our views of the world and that the background phenomena of a particular language or family of languages are not evident to its speakers. The truth is that many teachers of English have not even thought about these affairs and so are hardly likely to assist much in the development of independent-minded children. As teachers we want men and women who are not only able to look critically at the language of the mass media and to see the ideas and intentions in suspension in it but who also feel some spirit of inquiry about language itself. 'To ask about the meanings of words is to ask about everything.'