Sunday, February 20, 2011

Labels and Loaded Language

Certain words and phrases evoke strong emotional responses, and effective writers use these words and phrases as tools of covert persuasion.

1) The death tax is the most unfair of all taxes.

2) History has shown that trickle-down economic policies never work.

What's intriguing about both of these sentences is the deliberate use of emotionally charged labels. The phrase "death tax" sounds macabre, ghoulish and deeply unfair. Likewise, something called "trickle-down economics" sounds so effete that, hey, it can't possibly work.

Readers attach meanings to these terms without necessarily understanding them. After all, nobody really knows exactly how or why trickle-down economic policies don't work, we just have a confidently-held sense that they, well, just don't.

Guess what? You just persuaded your readers of something without them even realizing it.

Is it insulting to your readers' intelligence to employ phrases like this? Yes. That's why you have an obligation to be ethical when using labels and loaded language.

As a reader, however, you have an even greater obligation: to recognize labelling when it's used against you. Never allow yourself to be persuaded against your will.