How words manipulate you into conforming

by Annelise Mitchell September 25, 2016

How words manipulate you into conforming

You know when you’re being manipulated. Your family do it to you all the time. Not because they don’t love you, or have any sinister intentions, just because they have their own needs.

It does not matter how old they are, or how close they are to you, they are always engaged in shaping you into the person they want you to be.

Their objective is to take your mind off what they are really doing or saying, and to shape and mould you away from the truth, especially your inner truth.

How do they do get away with such trickery?

They do this very subtly and cleverly, making it often appear like it is not happening at all. They practice the art of manipulation through using clever euphemisms. Words that sugar-coat or cloud over what they are really talking about.

I’m sure you can recognise the following seemingly innocent scenario?

A family member says to you, “I know you’re busy, but no one has your magic touch.”

When decoded, what they are really saying is: “I know you need to work on your project, but if you don’t do this for me, I will be forced to do it.”

What your loving family member is doing is blunting your perception to what they are really talking about. Through using euphemisms, they’re trying to remove the emotion that would ordinarily be associated with your self-sacrifice and working so hard. You are even distracted by their high praises, and may even laugh at their attempt to butter you up!

What is harder to see is how these seemingly innocent words are really covering up the speaker’s intentions, especially in those we are not so close to. If we cannot recognise it is happening, we will be lulled into their trap, thinking that we are acting on our own wishes and desires but really we are conforming to what others want us to do.

This is why we need to recognise how the words others use, within and outside our family, shape our behaviour, and even encourage us to conform.

Political leaders, the media and other authority figures are very guilty of using language to manipulate our behaviour. They will often make bad actions seem good or at least not so bad and distract us from what is really going on. Because we look to these individuals for advice and guidance, their deliberate softening of what is happening is often disguised manipulation, otherwise known as doublespeak.

George Orwell, a famous twentieth century writer of dystopian novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm declared in the “Politics and the English Language” that when politicians and marketers use vague or obscure language, it causes us to think less. He says we enter a “reduced state of consciousness” that leads to “political conformity.” In other words, the use of doublespeak can make us begin to think the same as everyone else.

These insidious euphemisms deliberately deceive and mislead. They make the bad seem good, and the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. The outcome, according to many wordsmiths is that we think less.

Don Watson calls the euphemisms politicians use “weasel words” and Geoffrey Hughes calls it “verbicide.” Their primary objective is to avoid igniting our emotions. I like to call it bamboozling the brain.

Orwell said you can recognise doublespeak by the deliberate vagueness of the language. For example:

The pacification of civilians really means that defenceless villages were bombarded and cattle were machine-gunned.

Transfer of population really means that millions of people were forced to leave their homes and have their property confiscated.

Elimination of unreliable elements really means to imprison or kill people without trial.

Steven Poole, author of Unspeak (2006), says that doublespeak “smuggles highly charged political opinion.” Words like “final solution,” “coalition forces,” “transportation of live cargo,” and many others are forms of propaganda that cause us to not think about the underlying issues, and thus buy into the speaker’s message.

See if you can recognise these more recent euphemisms:

Prohibited maritime arrivals, otherwise known as illegal refugees.

Human degradation and misery, otherwise known as desperate people on overcrowded and dangerous boats.

Transportation of livestock to processing facilities, otherwise known as taking animals to the slaughterhouse.

Should we avoid euphemisms completely if they hide the truth?

Not entirely. It is okay to use them as they help us be polite and avoid offending those we love and the people in our lives. We don’t want to always be blunt. When someone makes a mistake, it is far kinder to say, “You didn’t intentionally cause harm,” rather than “You stuffed up!”

The problem with using euphemisms is when they become doublespeak, deliberately misleading us about unpleasant realities that we are better off being aware of. In fact, it is dishonest and dangerous.

Doesn’t “climate change” sound a lot less threatening then “global warming.” Or “ethnic cleansing” in contrast to “mass murder of innocent people.” In each case, the use of doublespeak provokes far less emotion, muffling our ability to think. We hear what is said, and because it masks reality, we think, “Oh, that sounds reasonable.” But a closer analysis, which doublespeak seeks to avoid, would reveal are far nastier truth. A truth that we have been blinded to, helping ensure we conform to popular opinion.

When we think less, we are far less inclined to act. We’re just where we should be. Powerless and controlled.

But is this wise?

Confucius, a Chinese thinker and philosopher didn’t think so – he paints a world of chaos when the naming of things is not correct. He says that it results in all sorts of injustices but worst of all, a powerless citizenry. The conflict between Bosnians and Serbians during the crisis in the early 1990s is only one powerful example, where politicians and the media on both sides made it appear that one side was innocent and the other evil.

The discussion on global warming is another example. The U.S. government and other states lobbied to have the term “global warming” changed to “climate change.” The word “warming” suggested that human beings might be the cause of the globe’s change of temperature. To avoid accusations against companies that have an interesting in burning coal, oil or gas, and farming animals for food production, these governments were trying to avoid finger pointing. Climate change helps remove responsibility from humans and make it appear that there is controversy over whether there is any warming happening at all.

So, as you can see, the use of euphemisms, especially doublespeak, shapes how we see the world, our role in it and the impact of events and issues on our lives. When we listen to the media we expect to be told the truth, and don’t realise that very often, in order to serve the interests of those in power, or to make one group look good and another bad, the truth is manipulated.

By manipulating the truth, those in power are covering or clouding it. Through applying positive labels to what they are doing, the public, meaning you, are lead to their preferred conclusion, and that conclusion may in the long run completely go against your interests, but how are you to know when it is so unclear?

The worst outcome is when we maintain an uncomfortable illusion that helps us maintain our pride, making us blind to the fact that our society is turning sour. If continued, we can start to lose our freedom, and conform to groupthink.

Thus, under this system of thinking, some people can be led to believe that who they are, and what they have to offer the world is not valuable. Who determines this conclusion. You guessed it, the people who define what is valuable and what is not through seemingly innocent language.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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