Language and Persuasion and Bush's War
Some of the commentors on my recent blogs have begun addressing the phenomenon of persuasive speech. I thought I would jump in with two feet since an interest in that was what led me to look at the language of television advertising. I focused on TV advertising because I was ahead of the curve in owning a video recorder and felt that I could be talking about things that others were not. Some questioned using TV as the primary source of data on the grounds that it is a visual medium, where language is of secondary importance, but to say that would be as wrong as saying that dramatic plays or movies are visual phenomea in which what is said is of secondary importance. In fact, TV advertising is doubly linguistic in nature because we have to deal with dual visual inputs -- pictures and language in the form of writing -- as well as dual audio imputs, speaking and music, which can include singing. Right now I can't think of an ad that has written language, speaking, and singing all at the same time but it has surely happened. So we get language in both channels, visual and auditory. Obviously, advertisers exploit this to the hilt, or, at least, they did back in the days I did my research by overloading us in the hopes we wouldn't notice the small print. Not much has changed.
Persuasive speech or writing consists of communication with the intent of reinforcing beliefs, changing beliefs, or adding new beliefs. Ads for specific deodorants are surely designed to cause users of that deodorant to stick with it, as well as getting some to change from another brand to the one being promoted. But there was a time before people started using them that such ads were intended to convince nonusers that if they didn't use them they would stink and therefore drive their friends away. Deeply implanted in my brain is a pair of sentences I got from ads for Dial soap, a deodorant soap, "Aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everyone did?" As a site for the Dial Corporation notes, in 1953 Dial became the leading anti-bacterial soap partially because of this line. This ad pissed me off back then which is probably why I remember it. Coincidentally, when I last ran out of bar soap, I looked in our cabinent and found a bar of Dial going unused (probably for years) and I am using it now. I smell as sweet as a spring flower. In a nutshell we can say that the purpose of persuasive communication is to affect belief formation whether or not what is communicated is true.
Purely informative communication can have these same three effects but that is not the intent of the informer. A professor says what he or she says in an effort to provide truthful information to students and the effect of that can be to reinforce some student beliefs, to change some student beliefs, and to cause some students to acquire some new beliefs. Advertisers will tell you that their intent is to inform but don't believe it for a minute. Their intent is to get you to purchase the products and services provided and that will often be inconsistent with telling the truth. I am not naive enough to think that professors don't sometimes engage in persuasive communications as well but I would hope that they did stick to saying truthful things.
While we are on the subject of being truthful, which, of course, was the topic of the last blog, let me note that a professor is obligated not just to provide truthful information but in fact to provide all of the relevant truthful information students are in a position to understand. I mean this to cause you to think of the courtoom oath that the person being sworn in promises to provde "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." We can be absolutely sure that advertisers would never tell us the whole truth, assuming that they tell us the truth at all, were they not forced to.
The manufacturers of Listerine once claimed that it killed the "dandruff germ." The Listerine people weren't the only ones that believed in a dandruff germ. Check out Newbro's Herpicide. Listerine moved on to be our first line of defense against cold germs. "Wet Feet? LOOK OUT FOR A COLD--Gargle with LISTERINE QUICK," a print bit which I got from a 1943 study. It took years for the FTC to force the company making this nasty tasting stuff to cease and desist and to run corrective ads. What they did was use this disclaimer, "While Listerine will not help prevent colds or sore thrats or lessen their severity, Listerine's strong formula keeps your breath clean for hours--it kills the germs that can cause bad breath." The problem with this is that they make no admission that they had lied for decades about killing cold germs. They moved on to the germs that can cause bad breath and have added the germs that cause gingivitis. Based on their labels, they seem finally to have a winner after their long trek though a fantasy world full of dred germs. What we can be sure of is that this company wasn't telling the whole truth, assuming they were telling any part of it during the dandruff germ and cold germ days.
Now, let us move on to George Bush and his administration. We know that one member of his administration has been indicted for lying to the FBI and to a federal Grand Jury and the prosecutor isn't done with them -- Karl Rove seems to be "Offical A" and he is still on the hot seat. But I am concerned about worse lies than outing a CIA agent, bad as that is, and that is the Administration's failing to the tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about such issues as Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's alleged dealings with Niger to acquire nuclear materials, and alleged intimate connections between Iraq and Al Queda (one of the fruits, I fear, of the use of torture). Read this drawn from this morning's Columbus Dispatch, which originated asa NY Times column by Douglas Jehl.
A high al-Qaida official in U.S. custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained al-Qaida members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.
The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for al-Qaida’s work with illicit weapons.
There are others credited with helping out the Bush war machine by such fabrications including a source called, quite appropriately, "Curveball."
Among others, an Iraqi exile whose code name was Curveball was the primary source for what proved to be false information about Iraq and mobile biological-weapons labs. And U.S. military officials cultivated ties with Ahmad Chalabi — the head of the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group — who has been accused of feeding the Pentagon misleading information in urging war.Did the Bush administration lie to the American people by citing such sources as "credible" or was it just guilty of failing to tell the American people the whole truth?
There is no question that the Bush Administration, including Bush, Cheney, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Rumsfield, and Wolfowitz deliberately deceived the American people -- only the most partisan brain dead Bush supporters could believe otherwise. I, for one, believe that anyone failing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to the American people to get them to support a war that has led to the death of over 2,000 American citizens and to injuries to many thousands ofAmerican troops and to the deaths and injuries inflicted on the many thousands of noncombatant Iraqis who got in the way of our weapons, is guilty of a war crime and should be prosecuted and that includes not just overt lying but also failing to tell the whole trugh which would have included informaiton available to the Administration from CIA reports questioning some of the "intelligence" they were relying on, Wilson's report on Niger, and dealing with arguments any college student could have constructed regarding what might go wrong when a predominently Christian and Jewish nation invades a Muslim one. We are now struggling with the aftermath of the initial hostilities, which is largely due to the fact that the Bush administration chose a rosy "best case" scenario for the aftermath of the war rather than the totally predictable, looting, the need to prepare to rehabilitate an infrastructure that was destroyed by Saddam's neglect and the war, and a totally predictable insurgency predicated on the fact that many Muslims would see us as engaged in a religiously motivated war, by the fact that the Sunnis who benefited from Saddam's rule had no alternative but to fight. These Sunnis had to know that they were the odd Iraqis out in a "new Iraq." I didn't actually claim above that Bush is guilty of a war crime but I hope I have caused you to think about the question. Which is to say that this was an effort to use language to persuade.