Persuasive Language


Two of the priceless rights of our democracy are perhaps the two we hold dearest of all; to guarantee the freedom to speak and publish what we want. (with-in the limits of decency and the libel laws). However, this freedom of speech provides a scope for propaganda for those unscrupulous enough to exploit it for their own ends.

The word Propaganda itself used to be a respectable term, originally meaning the spreading of good news.¹  When Goebbels, Hitler and other Fascists began to use the word to describe their promotional activities, propaganda started its slide into disrepute. Today propaganda is associated with the insidious and subversive means of moving a person to predetermined ends.

¹*the word propaganda, incidentally, started with the Catholic Church when in 1622 Gregory XV set up a Commission of Cardinals, which became a sacred congregation de propaganda fide although its connotation then was not the same as current day usage.   *Noel Turnbull, 21.10 10.

Anyone who attempts to influence your opinions or actions is guilty of propaganda even if they may have your interests at heart; parents who want you to be responsible, teachers who try to get you to work harder, ministers of church who want you to live a clean life, or policemen who want you to travel safely all use persuasive techniques.

Hilary Mantel: “This is something much stronger than repression. It is the deliberate construction of one reality out of the denial of another.

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors.  To be persuasive you need not just more facts but a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust.

Casuistry, Sophistry, also known as Eristic or Specious arguments; involve the use of subtle, sophisticated, and sometimes deceptive argument and reasoning, especially on moral issues, in order to justify something or to mislead.

Socrates considered the debate in such settings unedifying, pointless and unworthy—in a word, “eristic”. Eris was the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia). It was Eris who cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it and thus launching the ten-year Trojan War.

Eris is present in presidential debates, in court rooms and wherever people are talking not to discover truth but to win.

Socratic dialectic attempts a search of honest discussions that lead to truth

Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it.

Even Socratic dialectic can be misused in an attempt to persuade.


Brain-washing, Spin, indoctrination, dis-information , language of conviction or prejudice, manipulation of emotions/opinions.

Demagogues are leaders who resort to “dog whistle” issues that appeal to our gut instincts and divide the community against “the other” – people who are different. They appeal to our fear of enemies, outsiders, and we become xenophobic (afraid of foreigners).

* Emotional appeal to basic fears, instincts rather than reason.

* Language used to colour or bias our thinking

* A deliberate distortion of facts in an attempt to control minds.

* Language used in a dishonest way.

* Addressed to the masses.


* Unfavourable labels (pejoratives):

(Hun, slopehead, slant-eyes, warmonger, fascist, commo, reactionary, wog, lackey, autocrat, Bolshie, Poofter, tyke, dyke, Westie, Weed, Wax-head, yippie, Greenie……. )

* Attempts to make people think in stereotypes by use of generalisations and abstractions. (as above)

* Use of: - Cliches

- Slogans “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer’ or “It’s Time!”

- Catchcries

- Shibboleths

* Selective use of facts.

* Outright lies, misrepresentations

* issues are black or white, no shades of gray

* imperatives “must” and “have to”

*Appeals to authority, tradition, pomp and ceremony.

Public Awareness Campaigns

Not all propaganda has a malign motive.  Many issues require a public interest motive to counteract the persuasive influence of advertising that has an adverse effect on the greater community.  Public awareness campaigns are needed to make us conscious of danger.

There are two opposing approaches; positive wholesome health promotions or negative scare tactics, summarised as the carrot or the stick. Positive approaches can be effective for some while negative shock and fear are required for other issues.  Generally a combination of the two can be also be effective.

Here are some Public Health and well-being awareness campaigns:

  1. **Anti-smoking
    **Positive campaigns have had little effect, but persistent shock and terror campaigns including doctor’s views of what happens to our bodies have created revulsion and been more effective.  However the use of mandatory legislation is a prevailing factor in reducing the level of usage dramatically.

  2. **Drinking and drink driving
    *It is hard to believe that prior to the 1980’s the public believed it was not only acceptable but considered an entitlement to drink and drive. * “I was too drunk to walk, so I drove” went an unchallenged assertion. 
    It required courageous legislators, appalled at the carnage of innocent lives wantonly destroyed by drunk drivers that slowly changed public attitudes by introducing tough Random Breath Testing enforcements, supplementing them with advertisements to influence public opinions.


  1. **Drugs
    **In this area, positive methods may have better long term effects rather than scare tactics.  Appreciating the miraculous intricacies of our bodies and its internal organs and their precarious vulnerability to chemicals can be an effective persuasive method of keeping poisons out of it.  Early educational programs that instil values of personal hygiene and health can have lasting effects.

  2. **Obesity and healthy nutrition

    Fast food franchises and processed food outlets using sugar, fats and other additives have saturated the markets extolling the virtues of their products and created a world of unhealthy bodies. 
    To counteract the detrimental effects of this marketing to the young, governments are forced to set up their own campaigns.

    5. ****Litter and Environmental degradation
    In earlier times, nature was considered resilient and indomitable.   Science fiction showed great prescience or foresight warning us about the long term effects of pollution and environmental degradation. 

It was only after the publication of  Rachel Carson’s (An American writer and scientist) Silent Spring,  that people began to recognise the potential of human disaster through the vandalism  perpetrated by  improved technology.  Rather than resilient, nature was fragile and vulnerable when fundamental natural rhythms were ceaselessly destroyed by ruthless exploitation by ever increasing mammoth technology.  If Ecosystems are repeatedly defeated, human life will be diminished and likely extinguished.

As a Canadian Indian Chief queried; “When we kill the last fish, what will we eat – money?

Man has not only subdued the earth but conquered and utterly defeated it. 

The overuse of packaging and the lack of responsible disposal of it results in tons of litter strewn over much of the country creating visual pollution.  In past times fast food companies took some responsibility in encouraging their costumers to dispose of responsibly.  Governments have in the past sponsored campaigns like “Don’t rubbish Australia” to encourage pride in our surroundings.

  1. **Speeding

    **Campaigns showing the devastating consequences of killing loved ones complemented with ones where speeding drivers are ridiculed may have had some effect in demonising speeding.

  2. **Gambling

    **Depictions of families devastated by the effects of gambling addiction have dubious effects.

  3. **Racial discrimination

    **Somehow we need to convince the public that discrimination of any kind is not cool.

  4. **Aids and STD

    **From about the mid 1980’s as the Aids epidemic spread throughout the world, the threat of rampant s*xually transmitted diseases provoked health authorities and educationalists into addressing these issues in both publicity and educational campaigns to encourage the use of safe s*x practices.

  5. **Skin Cancer awareness

    **Widespread advertising campaigns “Slip, Slop, Slap” have raised awareness and young people are more conscious of protecting themselves from the damaging effects of over exposure to the sun.
    Quotes on Propaganda:

*“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”        *Joseph Goebbels - originally from Nietzsche 

*Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”   ***Noam Chomsky ** 

*Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”     *** Adolf Hitler ** 

*The goal of modern propaganda is no longer to transform opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief” * Jacques Ellul

*Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.”      * Oscar Wilde 

The Demagogue’s Ruse

(How mass persuasion manufactures consent)

Patriotism may indeed be, as Dr. Johnson said, “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but it’s also the tyrant’s first resort. People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated.

 The warrior caste, supposedly society’s protectors, often become protection racketeers. In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security. The more elusive or imaginary the foe, the better for manufacturing consent.

The Inquisition did a roaring trade against the Devil. And the twentieth century’s struggle between capitalism and communism had all the hallmarks of the old religious wars. Was defending either system really worth the risk of blowing up the world?

Now we are losing hard-won freedoms on the pretext of a worldwide “war on terror,” as if terrorism were something new. (Those who think it is should read The Secret Agent, a novel in which anarchist suicide bombers prowl London wearing explosives; it was written by Joseph Conrad a hundred years ago.)

 The Muslim fanatic is proving a worthy replacement for the heretic, the anarchist, and especially the Red Menace so helpful to military budgets throughout the Cold War.

From Ronald Wright’s  A Short History of Progress  2004 Massey Lecture Series  (Canada)