The most persuasive words in the language

How much would you pay for the most persuasive words in the language? And what do you think they would be? Are there really words that can get people to do anything you want?

Reality check: there are no magic words, and we cannot always get people to do what we want with words alone (though some persuaders are much more successful than others). But there are words that make it more likely.

At an early age, we are taught social forms – please, thank you – that lubricate the mechanisms of getting things done. But the persuasive words I’m about to show you go way beyond politeness. They subtly influence the way the audience sees reality.

Today, in the era of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” “disinformation,” and other malicious abuses of language, control of the portrayal of a particular version of reality (or “narrative,” as the contemporary buzzword has it) is more important than ever. These words help you do it, so you are warned to use them carefully and ethically (see advice in Part II).

These “push-words” are not exotic; they are very common – in fact, they’re right in front of your nose now. You’ve probably used them a dozen times already today to get listeners to accept your view of the world, but you’re hardly aware that you’re doing it. From my observation, the effect of the hearer/reader is similarly subtle. You don’t know you’re being pushed unless made aware of it.

Here are the first four:

— fact/factual/in point of fact
— real/really/realize
— actually/actually.

These words put the speaker’s stamp of approval on his/her characterizations of reality. We all see realty from an individual perspective, but the push-words imply an objective reality to which everyone would attach the same words.
That’s the ideal in science, technology, and the law. Let us agree on the proper names for things and events. It’s rarely enough accomplished in those fields – and impossible in the everyday maelstrom of news, fake news, lies, opinion, opinion about opinion, websites and blogs in the hundreds of millions, and the incalculably vast amount of impromptu back-and forth (much of it vile, under cover of anonymity) that goes on in the social media.

The phrase “alternative facts” deserves special mention. As others have no doubt observed, there are alternative perceptions, alternate interpretations, even alternate eyewitness accounts. There are no alternative facts any more than there are alternate realities (I am excluding such exotica as parallel universes and Schroedinger’s cat). For practical purposes, there is only one reality, though lots of scholarly debate about what it is.

Were there, as Trump claims, thousands of NJ Muslims cheering 9/11? Where is the evidence? Without evidence, anyone can believe anything. Similarly, when rhetoric becomes utterly unhinged from reality, anyone can believe anything.

In the absence of evidence-based reasoning, the push-words have special power. Along with the authority of the speaker, they say, “My version of the world is the right one.”

Note the way I said “in fact, they’re right in front of your nose” and “the way things really are” a couple of sentences back. They probably went right by you. I urged you, not without reason, to accept my version of reality.

Here’s another category: clear(ly), evident(ly), obvious(ly). These push-words reinforce the writer’s the writer’s observations or conclusions. They say, “This is clear to me – and therefore to any other intelligent, right-thinking person.” Obviously (get it?) they’re subject to misuse by someone whose statements aren’t backed by hard, intersubjectively verifiable evidence or logical thinking processes.

Finally, we have practically, virtually, and basically. The message here is “if there’s any way in which the words I used seem not to apply to the reality, it doesn’t matter.” Observe a few cases of these words in action, and you’ll see how neatly speakers and writers use them to slide past situations in which someone else might call them on the accuracy or appropriateness of the words they’ve used.

TO COME: Part II — The power of Push