27 June 2019

The use of language to manipulate people

The use of language to manipulate people

The function of language is to manipulate people. But what do we mean by manipulate? This issue was highlighted by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene where he gives a scientific definition of manipulation in the context of communication.

Basically the argument is that when we want to communicate with someone we send them a message with information so that they do something either directly for us or to change their mind about something. Thus manipulation might mean in this technical setting changing the mind set of people with information. For example, today like most of Europe we had a heat wave and the news announcers and weather reporters kept repeating how necessary it is to stay in the shade, not to exert ourselves and drink a lot of water. This advice was given not to manipulate our freedom of movement or to increase the profits of water bottlers. Since we know the context of this advice we know that this advice was given to help us avoid injury to ourselves. We can safely assume that this is a form of technical manipulation.

The other meaning of manipulation is the everyday meaning of getting people to act in some way or belief in something that does not reflect reality (or maybe the truth) and thus might act in such a way that maybe they would not do if they knew the real facts. In a way this malicious form of manipulation attempts to change or distort our context so that we would not believe we are being manipulated. We might be manipulated in different contexts from morality, politics, consumer products, history and so. I will argue that malicious manipulation is not subject dependent, but rather our awareness and knowledge of the given subject.

Natural languages, and maybe even other forms of language, are the most efficient means we have to transfer information, true or false, amongst us. The drawback of natural languages is that they tend to be very localised languages with a defined group of people who speak the language.  The implication of this disadvantage is that those who do not speak the language are excluded from the language games (Wittgenstein’s games) speakers of the language engage in. And by the same token speakers of a language have practical problems in sharing their information in their language with the rest of humanity. Sure, one might say that we can more or less translate many languages to reach a larger population, but the emphasis here is on the less in the "more or less" condition. How would one translate British expressions such as “a sandwich short of a picnic” or “the wrong type of snow”?

So what is it about our language that can either be used to manipulate us benevolently or malevolently? As I said language is very efficient at conveying information, but meaning and knowledge can only be conveyed if we understand the context and we have the skills to participate in the specific language games. If we heard two doctors talking to each other on a medical problem we might hear all the words they said but we still won’t understand anything because we don’t have the necessary medical language.

But there is another condition that is important for language: we are emotionally affected by the messages and information we receive. I don’t mean emotionally as in falling in love, or feeling sad or angry although some poor language structures of the King’s or Queen’s language might make us cry. By emotionally I foremost mean we are driven or motivated to do something about that information. Change our beliefs, become interested in the subject, go out and demonstrate or even give a lot of money to religious charlatans. I would argue that we are not manipulated by the information unless or until we do something about it; we might call this state of affairs language inertia, maybe even information inertia. Something similar when we want to do something on our mobile phone but nothing happens. An example would be when our non philosophical partner asks us to do the dishes and we just ignore them: that would be language inertia.

An important aspect of language is that we use it to learn: we gather information, add our input and then exchange it with others and wait for the feedback. This process goes on until we get the right feedback. Indeed this is the traditional form of teaching at schools; we did our work, the teacher was happy or disappointed accordingly and then we tried again. Except the problem here is that the manipulative language of our teachers signalled whether we were good or bad students. But this did not tell us whether the information the teacher wants us to learn is true or false (fact or false fact).

It seems that a necessary condition for malevolent manipulation is that the manipulative information must itself have an emotional force which matters-of-fact type of information does not usually invoke. This is why maybe religious ideologues spend a lot of time and effort trying to convince the population that the theory of evolution is false; who on Earth wants a monkey as a distant relative? Indeed, look at the emotional impact of the word “monkey” rather than primate. So why do these very same religious zealots not object to advice to drink water during a heat wave?  Especially when both the advice about drinking water and evolution are the results of the scientific method. I am inclined to argue that, as I said, advice on drinking water during a heat wave does not elicit an emotional up surge for the simple reason that we know instinctively that we need to drink water when it is hot. And we won’t readily change our minds about the necessity of drinking water.

The role of language in manipulating people is in providing the necessary tools to activate action or emotions or both in people depending on the intentions of the speaker. Although language is very efficient and very effective at manipulating people we still require mastery and skill of the use of language to achieve our manipulative objectives.

Best Lawrence

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