We’re surrounded with loaded language. Whether it’s mass media, politics, or the people around us, someone is always trying to use words and phrases to support their agenda and to change our minds in bad faith.
Ali Almossawi’s An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language uses beautiful pen and ink drawings by Alejandro Giraldo and a metaphorical conflict between badgers and rabbits to lay out some of the ways language is shaped by those in power to influence the way we think and subtly reinforce the status quo. And making the opposing forces into cartoon animals allows the reader to think about deeply ingrained prejudice expressed in language without taking personal affront, making the rhetoric easier to spot.
While the book is mainly concerned with public discourse — headlines, news writing, political speak — the rhetorical tricks described are rampant in our personal and professional lives too, whether it’s your spouse subtly gaslighting you with fake apologies, or your boss trying to get you to work on Sunday because your office is “like a family.”
The power of the passive voice
I’m sure your high school English teacher taught you to avoid using the passive voice in your writing. It makes your sentences weak. But if the point is to make your sentence weak, the passive voice can be a powerful tool, especially if you want absolve someone of responsibility.
Public relations arms of police departments do it all the time. A simple phrase like “a police officer shot a man last night” could be reworked to remove or lessen responsibility by using a passive construction: “An officer-involved shooting occurred last night in which a suspect was injured.”
Along with the passive construction of the police officer’s action, there’s a description of “an occurrence,” like the shooting happened with no actor, and the description of the man who was shot as a “suspect.” Both help remove responsibility. You’ll never see a police press release reading, “A citizen-involved shooting occurred last night in which an officer was injured.”
Employers use this tactic all the time, too. Rather than sending an email that says, “Management has changed break room policy to prohibit cooking fish in the microwave,” a company might say instead, “the policy regarding microwave fish-cooking has changed.” It’s an attempt to obscure who actually changed the policy, almost as if it was an act of God as opposed to a decision on the part of management.
We used to do this to my kid when he was three, putting up a poster that read: “bedtime is 8 PM.” If he didn’t want to go to bed, we’d point to the rules, and say, “Sorry, sport. The rules say you have to go to bed.”
Eventually, our kid wised up and said, “Wait, you made the rules!” I suggest you do the same. When you see this kind of language, ask yourself who made the rules? Who changed the policy? Who fired the gun? Then ask yourself why.
“Mistakes were made” and the non-apology
The phrase “mistakes were made” may be the ultimate weasel phrase. It’s generally used when someone can no longer deny a fiasco. It seems like an acceptance of responsibility, but it’s actually an attempt to deflect. It essentially attributes the mistakes to themselves, and obscures what mistakes were even made. The inevitable follow-up doesn’t even need to be spoken most of the time: “So let’s put this unpleasantness behind us.”
This might be a useful (if annoying) ploy for a company or politician to make to avoid political or legal repercussions, but on a personal level, it’s rarely effective. An oil company might wave away a crude oil spill by saying “mistakes were made,” but it only works because deep sea oil-drilling is a complicated endeavour (and they’re trying to avoid legal accountability.) Describing an unexcused absence from work or infidelity by saying “mistakes were made” isn’t going to work.
(It should go without saying, but: If you fuck something up, don’t try to disperse blame. It’s almost always better to fully own up to your mistake, apologise, and state how you’re going to prevent it from happening in the future. You’re probably not as good a liar as professional crisis PR person, and no one believes them anyway.)
Another tactic of the non-apology is to use phrases like “I’m sorry if what I did hurt your feelings.” Or even “I’m sorry you feel that way.” These seem like apologies, but if you read closer, yo can see how they aren’t. They take no responsibility, and instead put it back on the person who was wronged.
(Never qualify an apology. Never follow “I’m sorry” with “but.” Consider the most famous literary apology, William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just To Say.” Imagine if it included the line, “I’m sorry you’re so angry I ate your plums, but you shouldn’t have left them in the icebox to tempt me.”)
Omission of context
What people don’t say is often as important as what they say, and omission is often used to encourage readers to “fill in the blanks” with their own biases and preconceived notions.
If I write something like, “a Justice department investigation revealed that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russian intelligence,” a liberal audience is going to nod their heads vigorously while conservatives are likely to scream“witch hunt.” But if I said, “A Justice department investigation revealed that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign had ties to Russian intelligence,” conservative and liberal positions might be flipped.
The truth is both statements are factually true and based on the same Justice Department report. The only difference is how you feel about the politician involved.
In professional life, misleading through omission of context is rampant, but one of the most common situations you see professionally is on resumés. “I was instrumental in our company tripling sales goals” could be technically true, but if your instrumental contribution was sweeping the floors, it’s not going to work. It’s easy to see through, especially from people who read resumés all day, so HR will ask you what you did specifically to triple sales goals, and again, you’re probably not convincingly enough of a liar to pull it off.
Hidden negative assumptions in positive-seeming phrases
Billy Joel’s mawkish ballad “Just the way you are” has been played at billions of weddings since it dropped in 1977, but if you think about the lyrics, it’s passive-aggressive as hell. “I’ll take you just the way you are” subtly implies there’s something wrong with the way you are, and the speaker is settling for you anyway, because they’re such a great person. It’s akin to saying something like “I don’t care what anyone says, you’re a great person.”
If someone says something like “I love you no matter what” they might be totally innocently trying to say something nice, but it could be a poison pill, almost like a pick-up artist “negging” you. Either way, it deserves a deeper conversation. Relationships based on one person reminding you they are magnanimously ignoring your faults could be a precursor to gaslighting and the like.
Assuming a universality of opinion
The problem with phrases like “everyone knows” or “many people are saying” is obvious on its face — what do you mean by everyone? And who exactly are these “many people” who are saying this? — but it’s no less powerful for being transparent.
We seem to want to be part of a larger group that agrees with us, so we’re pre-disposed to accept that “everyone” already sees it our way. When you add in our increasingly online lives and the shadowy algorithms that define which opinions we see, it’s even easier to believe that everyone agrees with your opinion already (everyone that isn’t an evil idiot, anyway). This one’s so insidious because it’s easy to see when “the other side” does it, but so difficult to accept that “your side” is doing the same thing.
Keep your eyes open and tell us what you see
The war between the badgers and the rabbits at the centre of An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language isn’t going to end in our lifetime, but you can still recognise and call out bad-faith rhetoric when you see it. To that end, I’d love to hear some of your own personal examples of loaded language.