Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tell The Truth, But Tell It Slant...

Indulge me. 

Please take a moment and read the sentence below.  I'll even put it in bold for you, so that it stands out.

The President arrived today and was greeted by the jubilant crowd, who chanted loudly and waved signs while the police struggled to maintain order.

Before you continue on, can you please take a moment to picture the scene?  Imagine the faces in the crowd.  Imagine the demeanor and body language of the president.  Imagine what is written on the signs held up among the throngs of people.  What are they chanting?

Take a minute to construct the scene in your mind.  

What did you see?  What were the people saying?  How did they look and behave?

Most likely, you envisioned a very happy set of people and felt that sense of happiness - regardless of any political leanings that you may entertain.  In addition to this, you also most likely imagined the president looking triumphant and showing signs of enjoying the occasion.

You may even have felt something akin to patriotism.

Now, read the sentence below:

The president arrived today and was greeted by the crowd, who chanted loudly and waved signs while the police struggled to maintain order.

Take a moment and envision this scene.  How is it different from the first?

Most likely, you imagined the crowd to be tense.  You probably sensed trouble brewing, but were uncertain as to why.  Did you even see different factions of people arguing within the crowd?

And finally, please read this sentence and imagine the scene:

The president arrived today and was greeted by the unruly crowd, who chanted loudly and waved signs while the police struggled to maintain order.

You will, no doubt, have created a scene in your mind in which the president was greeted by contempt and anger.

You will also have noticed that the three unique mental images that you created changed dramatically even though the sentence you read underwent very minor changes through each subsequent iteration.   In fact, the majority of each sentence was repeated word-for-word.

I'm trying to demonstrate here the power of words and to illustrate that their choice has a tremendous impact on what you feel and think.

Look again at the first sentence:  the word "jubilant" was employed when describing the crowd.  One word.  And that word made you feel that the crowd was overwhelmingly happy and proud of their leader - so much so, that the police could hardly contain them in their enthusiasm.

But the word "jubilant" is absent in the second sentence.  Gone. 

Now the piece is ambiguous and uncertain, and the reader is left to try to infer the mood of the crowd.  In situations like these, we tend to think the worst - especially as the police (defenders of the peace) seem to have their hands full.

The third sentence substitutes the word "unruly" for the word "jubilant", and the mental image is left in no doubt as to the fact that the president has received a very ugly reception.

I can hear you now:  "Yes Atlas - we take your point...words are important...Why does any of this matter?"

Well, two reasons - one of which is relatively trivial, and the other that is hugely important.

The first reason is that in my profession, I use words to influence your choices and decisions and I get to look amazing for it.

The second is far more important than the first, and that is that others use this power as well - though not (as I do) to entertain - but to tell you what to think.

Consider the three sentences again, only this time, imagine that they form a part of an article that you are reading in the newspaper.  Each form of the sentence colors how you feel about the situation described, yet each seems innocent enough on its own.  In every situation, you not only read the "news", but you are very subtly told what to think.

In fact, a closer look at the sentences will tell you how the reporter who wrote them feels about the president.  In the first sentence, the word "president" was capitalized to convey a respect of office.  Each of the subsequent sentence variations printed the word in lowercase letters, which helped the reader to interpret the sentence as desired. 

Again, why is this important?  Because any situation in which you form an opinion is decidedly crucial as it shapes your outlook and interaction with the rest of the world.

Think of it this way:

Imagine that you are a general on a battlefield and a scout returns with a report on the enemy positions.  You will formulate your plan of action based upon that data.  But what if that scout is an enemy spy?  Or lazy?  Or corrupt and seeking an outcome for his own ends?  To err here may mean certain disaster.  Yet, how can you tell whether to trust this scout?

There are a number of ways to determine if the information you are given is trustworthy.  The foremost is the consistency of the source.  If you trust this scout and they have reliably reported back in the past, you can likely trust them in future - though history repeatedly notes that using the past to forecast the future is fraught with peril.  A better way is to use your brain and consider what you have been told.  Scan any communication and look for colorful adjectives and then analyze them and the meaning they convey.  If they were removed, how would the piece look?  Then look for similar communications from other authors and examine their use of language. 

You will learn a lot about the individual biases and slant put on different topics.

If you are listening to the radio, you can hear it as well - even from sources that you would expect to be unbiased.

I listened to one public radio station and heard them describe a labor dispute between an employee union and a corporation.  While reporting the situation, the corporation was described as "impersonal" and the term "Goliath" was also used.  Whether the intention was there or not, careful wording within the piece let the listener know who they should support in this industrial struggle.

I'll now change my question from "Why is this important?" to "Does it matter to you?" 

Your own answer will vary, but I hope that it does, and that this post helps you to rediscover the importance of critical thinking within your life.



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