The Problem: Emotional Manipulation

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            In my recent blog post, A Reflection on Truth from Thomas Merton, I offered a challenge for readers

            The Problem: We are emotionally manipulated to choose things which are contrary to what is good for us as human beings.

            What do I mean by emotional manipulation? I’ll begin with a personal example.

            There are certain stories that get me emotionally charged. Everything related to education is fair game. Most recently, the abuse of political authority to legislate ethnic studies based on a curriculum of racial bias against white Americans of European descent drove me to respond as a resident of California.

            My post, California Ethnic Studies: Education or Agitation, contained the comment I submitted in August of 2020 to the Instructional Quality Commission of the California Department of Education. This represented my research on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that began in 2019. The post Ethnic Studies or Ethnic Cleansing?(August 13, 2019) was a response to a Wall Street Journal op-ed, California Wants to Teach Your Kids That Capitalism Is Racist by Williamson M. Evers, which appeared in the print edition dated July 30, 2019.

            A particularly charged paragraph in Mr. Evers’ editorial was: Begin with economics. Capitalism is described as a “form of power and oppression,” alongside “patriarchy,” “racism,” “white supremacy” and “ableism.” Capitalism and capitalists appear as villains several times in the document. Given the attacks on fatherhood that have been unrelenting throughout my adult life and tying patriarchy to forms of power and oppression hit a major nerve in this father of three young adults, two of whom are married with children.

             Although my personal philosophy on this issue already aligned with Mr. Evers, the language of the editorial is designed to elicit emotional reaction, not reflective thought and analysis. The carefully selected quotes from the Ethnic Studies document and the association of capitalists as villains may be expected in an opinion piece, but I caution the use of emotional appeal over objective narration. Emotions may provide energy for action, but reason and personal will power provide focus and direction for constructive responses when solving problems.

            Ironically, Mr. Evers op-ed is actually an example of a fairly objective narration on the ethnic studies issue. The specific paragraph which I chose simply illustrates the type of media technique used to capture the reader’s attention. Another technique uses incendiary phrases and words like “fashionable academic jargon”, “faddish social-science lingo”, “radical university professors and activists”, etc.

            I have chosen this example for a couple of reasons.

            First, in an effort to provide a balanced view, self-reflection is essential. If we don’t acknowledge our failures, we can’t honestly accuse others of being at fault. A review of my blog posts will reveal my emotional language which could be equally manipulative of my readers. I’m working to be more objective and more balanced in my presentations (i.e. making my position clear with respect to opposing views by objectively presenting those opposing views)

            Second, the overemphasis on partisan loyalty has destroyed the hope of civil dialogue. If we hope to contribute to humanity’s legacy of being human, we need to engage in truly civil discourse. Emotional manipulation will continue to destroy any efforts for reasoned discourse.

            As I prepared to post this for publication today, I took a few minutes to read Information as a Problem for Human Freedom: Jacques Ellul’s Contribution to Library Science, by Lisa Richmond in the Ellul Forum Number 65 Spring 2020, pages 35 – 43. Ms. Richmond highlights a number of points from  Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Ellul. The following four essay headers provide some insight on Ellul’s view of the relationship between information and propaganda.

  1. Propaganda Uses (True) Information
  2. Information is Necessary to Propaganda
  3. In Turn, Information Renders Propaganda Necessary
  4. Propaganda Ultimately Triumphs Over Information

            Given today’s unlimited access to multimedia communications, everyone contributes to the information that supports propaganda. As Lisa Richmond notes, “Democratic societies cohere not primarily by force but by the cultivation of public opinion.”

            Let’s focus on “cultivating” and communicating “opinions” that generate dialogue, not emotional reaction.

            And again, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night and good luck.”

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