Thursday, February 1, 2007

Frank Lutz on Diane Rehm

Today on WAMU's excellent show, Diane Rehm, Frank Lutz appeared as a guest to talk up his new book, "Words that Work" . You can hear the segment at http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/07/02/01.php#12645 . The book is the newest in the trend to write about how rhetoric works. Talk-Lab is probably the smallest musician on that bandwagon, and the biggest on the left might be George Lakoff. His book, "Don't think of an elephant" is all about how communication is all about framing and creating associations. If you want to convince someone of something, craft your argument to get them to link the conclusion you Want them to make to something they already think. For example, if you want people to oppose a tax on large estates when they are being passed from a deceased individual to her heirs, call it something people already think is bad. By association, the tax will be bad too.
I haven't read "Words that Work", so I'll only talk about what Mr. Lutz said in the interview. He talks about the same issues as Lakoff. People make decisions in large part based on emotional reactions to stimuli. So effective language, rather than being geared to convince through reason, will inspire emotional connections that produce the right decision. [There was an article in the Washington Post about a Women Studies expert who complained that women don't make sufficiently rational political choices. Maybe she's right, but men aren't any more rational!]

Many of the callers were upset by what Mr. Lutz had to say. "It's manipulation" they said, to use language to get emotional responses from people. Listeners are being played with. They are being used, and they don't even know how they are being led to decisions advertisers and politicians are making for them. Mr. Lutz's response was a little disappointing. He could only question where the difference between manipulation and honest talk lies [pun intended].

He ignored real concerns. He ignored that people really don't like being messed with. His attitude is like Gorgias' (see an earlier post). To the one who can talk the smoothest belong the spoils. But that is no way to run a country. And there are alternatives. Banning rhetoric is not one of them. As long as people speak there will be rhetoric. But we CAN even the playing field by recognizing in our social discourse and our education system that communication involves tools that can be learned and taught. So people watching commercials can have a chance to know how their emotions are being played. So they can decide if they want to be played or not.

It would be a multi-lectic. One group learns some rhetorical tricks, and another counters them. A third group one-ups the first two and so on. It'd be uneven. But instead of relying on a small elite to own the tools of the rhetorical trade, our language will belong to all the people.

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