Factual Deception

“I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.”

“I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.”

“I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.”
-Bertrand Russell

The above quotes were all examples that Bertrand Russell gave of what he called “Emotive Conjugation”, which has also come to be known as “Russell Conjugation” (clearly in his honor).  If you are unfamiliar with the term, allow me to try to explain.

Look at his first example above.  Firm, obstinate, and pig-headed are all synonyms.  That is to say, factually, they all mean the same thing.  However, they all have emotional connotations as well, and despite the shared meaning, the interpretation of the person who hears or reads it will undoubtedly be effected by the word chosen by originator.  That is to say, if I tell you that someone is being “pig-headed”, you would likely come away from that statement with a negative impression of the person…  but the negative interpretation is my own, and had you had a conversation with another person in the know, perhaps you would have come away thinking of them positively, that they were firm and steadfast in their actions.

Laying out all the words in direct succession illustrates the point rather well, because when you are looking at them all laid out next to each other, the emotive differences are readily apparent.

The choice of labeling the positive emotion with self and the negative with a completely removed person also seems meaningful.  We are of course almost always understanding of our own actions, and see ourselves in the most positive light. (Of course this isn’t always true, some of us have moments of self-loathing and well, then we might be more negative in our interpretations of ourselves than anyone else is).

Something I have noticed from time to time in my own life is that I will hear something on the news for the first time, and I will come away feeling a certain way about it.  I might even feel like I have a strong opinion about whatever it is at that point.  And then, I start to think about it more, and hear about it from more sources, and generally start to deconstruct the information.  When that’s all done, I’ve ended up on the other side of the issue, probably confounding anyone who I spoke to about it early on in my process.

Consider this clip about pollster Frank Luntz from Penn & Teller’s Bullshit (it’s an old clip, from around 2007 I believe):

As a pollster, he uses language and this emotive conjugation very carefully in order to shape the results of his polls, or as he puts it “get the right answer”.  If you word something properly, people are much more likely to agree (or disagree, depending on what you’re going for). He’s still doing it today, and it isn’t unique to Frank Luntz.  Polls simply aren’t reliable… except perhaps if you know precisely how the poll was conducted and are sure that there is no manipulative phrasing throughout the poll.

Think about some of the emotive political phrases that we have.  Illegal immigrant vs undocumented immigrant is a clear-cut example of opposite emotive phrasing.  Politics is full of emotive phrases, such as “common sense” (often applied to gun control or other regulations), or  pro-life/pro-choice, both of which have implications that the other side is anti-life/anti-choice.

As emotions are a core part of our being, it’s simply not possible for us to stop using this kind of language and speak in neutral language to each other at all times in our daily lives, but, I do think we need to learn to be cognizant of it.  When emotional language is being thrown around we should be careful to deconstruct it before forming concrete opinions.

We should be at our most alert when consuming the mainstream news media.  It has never been more apparent than now that they have failed at being a reliable and trustworthy news source.  It would not be too much to ask for these organizations to refrain from using highly emotive language, after all, they are supposed to be delivering the facts and letting us decide, but as soon as they start speaking in emotive language, they are delivering their opinion along with the facts… and they almost surely know that they’re doing it.

Leave a Reply