Most of persuasion doesn't happen overtly, but under the radar of a conversation. A good persuader doesn't make his case on the record, but makes his adversary tacitly agree to important points merely by being in conversation. This is actually pretty easy to see and use yourself if you need to, and there are plenty of examples possible.
Here I'm going to illustrate some of these linguistic tricks, and to be topical, I'll use the example of Donald Trump as theme. Scott Adams, for example, has dubbed Trump as a "Master Persuader" who has an impressive arsenal of persuasive techniques, but I want to focus on some of the linguistic tricks used against Trump. None of them are specific to him, but he's a good example because the press has used some of its most effective tricks against him, many of them to some success (at least to convince certain people).
Languages have these things called "quantifiers" that express how much of a certain noun we're talking about. These are words like "all," "every," "some," "a," "five," "most," etc. etc. When these words appear in sentences they can make sentences mean more than one thing. Here's a classic example:
- Everybody loves someone
This sentence can mean "Everyone in the world loves at least one person" or "There is one particular person who everyone loves." This is called scope ambiguity and can make for sentences that can have many totally different meanings.
Now let's talk about manipulating. If you're a good manipulator, you'll realize that you can say an ambiguous sentence like the one above when it is technically true in one sense, while you intend for others to interpret it in the sense it's false in. You've probably heard stuff like this your whole life and it kind of grinds your gears when people do it, but you can never quite put your finger on why it's wrong.
Now for a real-world example with Trump. Think about all the times you've heard something like this said of Trump:
- "Donald Trump has said horrible and disrespectful things about women."
Like the other sentence, this can mean two different things. One reading can be paraphrased as "There are some women that Trump has said horrible things about." and the other reading is "Trump has said horrible things about all womankind."
Now the above statement is only true in the first case, but when someone says it, they want you to interpret it in the second way, and in fact, there are other reasons that that reading is more natural in the context. This makes exploiting scope ambiguity a great way of feeding false generalizations in people's heads.
Trump is usually pretty adept at controlling the press, but he stepped in big doo-doo when he quoted a study showing that around a third of the women entering through the southern border are raped. Trump made a huge mistake saying something maximally ambiguous like "Many of them are rapists." An honest paraphrase of what Trump meant in context was that "There are many Mexican human-traffickers that are rapists," but this quickly turned into "Trump says all Mexicans are rapists." which is still being repeated unthinkingly.
What do all of these sentences have in common?
- Does your mother know that you're a pedophile?
- Billy finally acknowledged that the Jews did 9/11.
- We must renounce Trump's racist, misogynistic and homophobic rhetoric!
Each sentence says something innocuous, but makes you assume something much heavier. I call this presupposition smuggling. If you want to make another person forcibly concede to a statement, just say a sentence like this that assumes it as a presupposed truth.
A presupposition is the information that is inferred to be true even without saying it. In the sentences above, whether they are true or false, you must be a pedophile, the Jews must have done 9/11 and Trump must say racist/misogynistic/homophobic things. Even if you respond to these sentences saying "Well that's not true!" it doesn't even deny the presupposition. Even if Billy didn't acknowledge that the Jews did 9/11, the sentence simply implies that they did.
I'd say about 95% of article titles alone on Trump force you to swallow some kind of presupposition just by reading them. It's a great way to manipulate people into conceding something without even noticing, and in a day where people just see non-stop article titles all day on their Facebook feed, this technique has never been more effective. Here's a more obvious, but still real example:
- "MSNBC hosts destroy Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson's pathetic attempts to justify her candidate's racism."
This one is a doozy. Think about all the things that this article title alone presupposes:
- Donald Trump is racist.
- Defense of Donald Trump isn't motivated with principles, but is simply justified.
- The attempt to justify was pathetic.
These are the presuppositions forced on you, even if you think the statement in the title about the MSNBC hosts "destroying" her arguments is false. And this one sentence is just the title of the article kids!
You connect the dots!
A lot of times you have to be quick an pithy in life, especially journalism. You don't want to have to explain everything, so you abbreviate and let the reader put the pieces together.
Of course, leaving out information is a great way to manipulate as well! Just leave out just enough to nudge the readers in the desired direction. When it comes to Trump, this is tactic is simply ubiquitous, first, take a look at these headlines and see what they make you think about Trump supporters:
- "Why America better prepare for an onslaught of violence at Trump rallies."
- "Violence reemerges outside a Donald Trump rally."
- "Violence as Trump brings immigration rhetoric to the border."
- "Trump protest in San Jose descends into violence."
- "Obama rebukes Trump protestors for violence at rally."
Now what is left unsaid or ambiguous in each article title? The people committing the violence! The media leaves it out because they want you to associate violence with Trump and want you to think that Trump supporters are attacking others in the street. Based on what you hear elsewhere, they expect that to be your assumption. But each and every of the stories above (and really all others like this) talk about violence committed by Sanders or Clinton supporters against Trump supporters. The titles are simply worded in a way that makes it ambiguous.
Take "Violence as Trump brings immigration rhetoric to the border." Your brain will automatically confabulate the missing information here. You "know" from the presuppositions you've been fed that Trump and his supporters are racists, so you see the collocation of "violence" and "the border" and assume that there is a connection: probably skin-headed Trump supporters bashing innocent brown people's heads in. And now the media has just lied to you without even lying! You put the pieces together yourself and you inferred a conclusion which is most contrary to the reality.
As for the article titles, I just picked out the top couple from Google News, no cherrypicking. This is simply the main way the media convinces you of what they want you to believe! It's not specific to Trump either!
Alright, I don't want to make this another Luke-against-the-media rant, but those are the tricks of the trade. Presupposition smuggling is pretty easy to do on the fly, as can be making another person connect the dots in a deceptive way. Scope ambiguity is more subtler, and usually only easy to use when talking about aggregates (like the examples mentioned), but there are many other kinds of scope ambiguity that can be no less persuasive.
Anyway, you can actually kind of think of this article as being a kind of presupposition smuggling, because I've fed you the presupposition that "basically everything bad said about Trump is ruthless and deceptive manipulation." That is a truth, but a truth which is probably more apparent to you now than it'd be if I worded this essay as "Trump is misrepresented by the media." You resisted it far less because I snuck it in as a presupposition.
But anyway, now you know the basics of linguistic manipulation. So go ahead! Try it at home!