It’s a phased withdrawal, not a retreat. Except that the terms actually mean the same thing. But “retreat” sounds much worse, so savvy politicians avoid using it. That’s because they understand that there is a difference between the cognitive (or literal) meaning and the emotive meaning of a word. This lesson examines the ways in which terms that pack an emotional punch can add power to a statement – and also ways in which emotive meanings can be used to mislead, either by doing the reader’s thinking for him or by blinding her to the real nature of the issue.
In this lesson, students will:
- Learn to distinguish between different uses of language.
- Analyze the emotive impact of words.
- Examine the effects of euphemism in altering the meaning of arguments.
- Informative language: language that communicates information through statements that can be true or false
- Expressive language: language that expresses feelings or that attempts to bring about a feeling or emotion in the listener
- Directive language: language that gives commands or that requests a particular action be performed Performative language: language whose utterance constitutes the act itself
- Cognitive meaning: the literal dictionary definition of a word
- Emotive meaning: the emotions or feelings that a word inspires
- Euphemism: words used to hide the emotive impact of a particular word or phrase
Language can be divided into four different types: informative, expressive, directive and performative. Informative language, as the name implies, is language that communicates information. We use language informatively when we make statements that can be either true or false.
- Today is Wednesday.
- The Cubs won the pennant.
- Blue cheese is tangy.
- Heroin addiction is bad.
Arguments are always comprised of sentences that use language informatively. But of course not all sentences are informative. Some are expressive, meaning that they use language in a poetic fashion. Expressive language is intended to express feelings
and attitudes. That expressive function might be intended to describe one’s own feelings or to trigger a certain emotion in others.
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
- Now everybody do the propaganda./And sing along to the age of paranoia.
- In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile.
- Kobe has the hot hand.
Expressive language is not meant to be taken literally, nor is it meant to convey information, although it sometimes does.
Language might also be used directively. Directive language attempts to motivate some sort of action, either positive or negative. Usually, directives consist of commands or requests for action.
- Shut the door.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Walking on the grass is strictly forbidden.
- Beware of dog.
And finally, some language is used performatively. Performative uses of language are those uses in which the saying constitutes the action. A judge who says, “I hereby sentence you to prison for a term of no less than 20 years and no more than the end of your natural life,” has in uttering the sentence actually performed the action. Similarly, the sentence, “I apologize for my behavior,” actually constitutes the apology.
- I now pronounce you man and wife.
- I forgive you.
- Bless you.
- You are under arrest.
Real-life sentences, however, are rarely quite so cut-and-dried. In fact, a great many sentences contain elements of several different kinds of language. Consider this sentence:
Get your butt over here, you lazy jerk!
This sentence is informative in that it is expressing a proposition that could be true or false (i.e., “You are a lazy jerk”). It is also directive insofar as it gives a command (i.e., “Get your butt over here”). And it is expressive in that it conveys the speaker’s attitude toward the target of the sentence (i.e., “I’m quite irritated with you”). In effect, the sentence is really a condensed version of three distinct propositions:
- Get over here.
- I’m quite irritated with you.
- You are lazy.
We can accomplish so much with so few words because words have two different kinds of meanings. The first is a cognitive (literal) meaning, or the sort of meaning that one finds in the dictionary. But words also have emotive meaning, a term that refers to the emotional impact that a word might have. Words like “oppression,” “fool” and “Nazi” have negative emotive overtones (meaning that most people react negatively to them) while words like “free,” “spring” and “satisfaction” have positive overtones. Some words, such as “socialism,” “marijuana” and “God,” have mixed emotive overtones (some people react positively to them while others react negatively). Words like “is,” “car” and “prospective” have neutral overtones.
Emotive meanings can be used for good or for ill. Con artists, for example, may use the emotive side of language (a) to mask cognitive meaning by whipping up emotions so that reason is overlooked and (b) to dull the force of language so as to make acceptable what otherwise might not be. The latter task is often accomplished by means of euphemisms, which are less offensive or duller expressions used in place of more offensive or emotively charged locutions. There are lots of these that we use every day.
- Fired / Laid off or downsized
- Died / Passed away
- Land mines / Area denial munition
- Unemployed / Job seeker
- Genocide / Ethnic cleansing
- Prison / Internment camp
- Fat / Full-figured
- Liberal / Progressive
Now, emotive language is not bad in and of itself. Indeed, sometimes the emotive impact of language is crucially important. But we should be aware that emotive language can cloud good reasoning. Some emotionally loaded words can distract us from the real
claims being made. Truly loaded language is highly unlikely to help at all. Consider, for instance, the following:
- George Bush has been endorsed by a number of conservative Evangelical Christians.
- George Bush has been endorsed by right-wing, fascist Bible-thumpers.
Both sentences convey the information that conservative Christian activists have endorsed George Bush. The first sentence does so in a neutral way, while the second does so in a very emotionally loaded manner. The second sentence does little to produce
- Text of Cohen v. California
- Student Handout #1 Uses of Language
- Student Handout #2: Examples of Emotive Language
Exercise #1 – The Emotive Power of Words
To the teacher: Constitutional law scholars frequently consider Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), to be among the most important Supreme Court decisions on free speech. At its heart, the case is about the relationship between profanity and free speech. The Court specifically examines the emotive impact of profanity and argues that the emotive impact of the profanity was an important part of the political nature of the speech in question. The topic does, however, require some delicacy. Discussion can take place in small groups, though many teachers may prefer to conduct a class-wide discussion so as to ensure that students do not take the case as a license to swear freely. Teachers may also wish to advise students that in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Court ruled that high school students do not have unrestricted free speech rights. Disruptive speech can still legally be censored.
At the height of the Vietnam War, Paul Robert Cohen was arrested for wearing a jacket that read “F— the Draft” (though the uncensored version of the profanity was on Cohen’s jacket). Cohen appealed his conviction for disturbing the peace all the way to the Supreme Court. He won. In Cohen v. California, Justice John Marshall Harlan (writing for the Court) noted that the profane word carried a significant emotive impact that was a crucial part of the message. Read through the case and, with students in small groups or with the class as a whole, discuss the following questions:
Justice Harlan argues that “words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.” Do you agree that the emotive force of the profanity on Cohen’s jacket is an important part of his overall message?
Is there a way to rewrite the message on Cohen’s jacket in such a way as to retain its power without resorting to profanity?
Exercise #2 – Think About Language…or Else Language Might Think for You
To the teacher: Emotive meanings of words are an important part of communication, but they also carry risks. Unscrupulous pitchmen can use the emotive meanings of words to mask their true intentions. When a politician frames an argument in excessively patriotic terms, an unwary reader might be led to support that position without examining the details.
Look at the arguments on Student Handout #2, Examples of Emotive Language. Divide students into small groups of 3 to 4. Assign each group a passage. Have the students identify the emotive language in the passage. Then ask students to rewrite the passage with emotively neutral terms. Ask the groups to share their revisions with the rest of the class.
Exercise #3 – Detecting Euphemism
To the teacher: The words that we choose are important for more than just their literal meanings. Words can have emotional impacts as well and those emotional impacts can sometimes change the meaning of an argument. Language can also be used to sway inattentive readers. Euphemism can mask the badness of an act – or it can just as easily paint neutral ideas in much darker shades. Students are often not consciously aware of the impact that certain words have on them. A more analytical approach to language can help us to avoid potential pitfalls in reasoning.
Divide the class into groups of 3 to 4 students and have each group use the internet to research one of the following euphemisms:
- 1. Soft targets (military euphemism) 2. Outsourcing (corporate euphemism) 3. Urban (social/cultural euphemism) 4. Enemy combatants (legal euphemism) 5. Physical persuasion (law enforcement / military euphemism)
In performing their research, students should ask the following questions:
- What does the term/phrase actually mean?
- Where does it originate?
- Is the term/phrase more or less neutral than the term it replaced?
Find some examples of arguments that make use of the term. Why do you think that the speaker chose that particular phrase rather than some other phrase?
Why do you think that the speaker is using the phrase?
Ask the students to report their findings to the class.
About the Author
Joe Miller received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He is a former staff writer at FactCheck.org, a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Before joining FactCheck, he served as an assistant professor of philosophy at West Point and at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he taught logic, critical thinking, ethics and political theory. The winner of an Outstanding Teacher award at UNC-Pembroke and an Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award at the University of Virginia, Joe has over 10 years of experience developing curricula. He is a member of American Philosophical Association and the Association for Political Theory.
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