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Five Rhetorical Tricks That Can Manipulate People, Including Your Kids

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One thing that can really mess with kids’ heads (well, it can really mess with anyone’s head, adult or kid) is rhetorical gaming. Linguistic sleights of hand and what the late Antonin Scalia called “jiggery-pokery” are flung to and fro like hot cakes at Denny’s.

This is the stock and trade of mass media, but it happens a plenty in the classroom and in every day conversation too.


In home discipleship, training to recognize, neutralize, and reject the wordsmithing voodoo out there can fall by the wayside. We tend to think of rhetorical maneuvering as an academic pursuit, so it can easily be pushed to the sidelines when instructing our children.


Yet it is important that we include this--instruction on how mass media and rhetorical gaming works--so that our kids aren’t fooled. Given that there is so much claptrap out there, and pundits go to such great lengths to hide and obscure it, a good working baloney detector is a necessary survival tool in this day and age.

We must give our kids the tools to recognize the game afoot. We must help them fight back.

Here are seven of the more common tricks to be aware of. Point them out to your kids and help them recognize their sheistyness:

1) Repetition
In her book The Mama Bear Apologetics Guide To Sexuality, author Hillary Morgan Ferrer points out “Advertisers have long understood the effects of repetition on consumer behaviors…As psychologist Daniel Kahneman states in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, ‘A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth…The media is reinforcing their secular worldview through constant repetition…many of the secular worldview components (are being) repeated to (our kids) ad nauseum.” (103)


The denizens of the sexual revolution (among others) will *constantly* bombard kids and adults alike with falsehoods and half truths, through media, schooling, and general culture. Most of the time these ideologies will not be clearly and straightforwardly presented and argued--they will simply be assumed in the background or subtly presented through symbols and such as obvious.


These lies will be in the air and therefore it will be hard to see them, parse them apart, and reject them, simply because what a person hears again and again he usually starts to believe.


Eventually in 1984, Winston came to believe the idea that 2+2 equalled 5, and he began to love Big Brother.


One example of this is pretty much any Disney movie ever. Take a look at the lyrics to the song “Let it Go” from Frozen as exhibit #1--I decide what my truth is and the good life is liberation from unchosen boundaries. It’s not stated baldly like that, but the idea is there.


Another example is any sort of LGBTQIA propaganda. This was on repeat during the Olympics, through small and big ways. Celebration and affirmation of sexual desire as a core identity is the zeitgeist of the times, and you will be made to care.


Teach your kids to see and expect repetition, and to remember: just because an idea or value is repeated over and over and over, doesn’t make it true.


2) Motte and Bailey
The “motte and bailey” tactic is incredibly sly and hard to spot. This tactic is named after parts of a medieval castle--the bailey was the outer courtyard where citizens would live and move and do their daily business; it was where they wanted to be. However, when foreign armies or marauders attacked the castle and breached the outer wall, citizens would retreat to the motte, a heavily fortified yet pretty uncomfortable higher tower that would allow them to parlay the attack.

When the invaders left, everyone would then go back to the bailey where they wanted to be.


The rhetorical strategy involves switching back and forth between two positions, one a more extreme position that the person really wants to advance (the bailey), and the other a less extreme but easier to defend and uncontroversial position. When criticized, the person switches to the motte position, and then returns to advancing the bailey position when attention on it dies down.


The goal is to get people to accept the bailey without noticing by advancing the more palatable motte right next to it.


A great example of this in the wild is explained by Mike Young, aka “Wokal Distance” on Twitter. He explains further here in his Counterweight article.


3) Kafka Trap
The Kafka Trap is when expressions of innocence are taken as evidence of guilt. Also known as a “double bind,” there is no way out for the person who accepts the terms of the debate.

The classic example of this is accusations of “White Fragility,” first brought to popular consciousness through activist educator Robin DiAngelo.  White fragility is when white people display emotional fragility during discussions on racism, becoming easily offended and put off.


Sounds legit (sometimes white people *can* be emotionally fragile in discussions on race), but the devil is in the details. DiAngelo calls pretty much *any* pushback, denial, or criticism of racism accusations as evidence of white fragility. In other words, if a minority person accuses a white person of racism, and the white person pushes back, that is white fragility. This puts the accused on the horns of a dilemma: either admit to racism, or deny it, which means he’s a racist.

Yes, that is manipulative. Mike Young again takes apart a real life example here.


4) Vague Words That Sound Good

Using vague feel-good words that hide the unsavory reality and woo people to sleep are a dime a dozen. Euphemisms are one specific kind, where softer words are used to describe a harsher reality.


An example is a government calling assassination a “direct positive action” or a “neutralization operation.”  Another is when Planned Parenthood calls abortion “women’s healthcare” or the “termination of a pregnancy.”  


The reverse is also common, using overhyped words to describe something, for example, claiming a person simply objecting and disagreeing with a certain ideology is “erasing _______ people.”

George Orwell’s words from “Politics and the English Language” are appropriate here:
“A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”


Wokal nails it again by pointing out and analyzing a few particular examples on social media (I recommend him as a follow if you are on Twitter. He is *really* good at seeing these tactics in the public square and revealing them for what they are)


5) Social Power Moves

Lastly, so much of the pressure they will experience isn’t logical or argumentative, but social. This isn’t really a rhetorical tactic, but it is something to point out to them, often, because it is real and powerful. 


People will not try to defeat ideas with evidence and logic; they will simply shame those who hold them and socially ostracize them with social power moves, similar to high school lunch room social dynamics. It’s the same thing but just more complicated


Some thoughts about how you and your kids can deal with that are here.  


J.D Vance powerfully points out one way this can work. He walked away from the faith for a time, and he notes how social dynamics played a key role:


"…my abandonment of religion was more cultural than intellectual.  And the truth is that I discarded it for the simplest of reasons: the madness of crowds. Much of my new atheism came down to a desire for social acceptance among  American elites. I spent so much of my time around a different type of people with a different set of priorities that I couldn’t help but absorb some of their preferences. I became interested in secularism just as my attention turned to my separation from the Marines and my impending transition to college. I knew how the educated tended to feel about religion: at best, provincial and stupid; at worst, evil. Echoing Hitchens, I began to think and then eventually to say things like: 'The Christian cosmos is more like North Korea than America, and I know where I’d like to live.' I was fitting in to my new caste, in deed and emotion. I am embarrassed to admit this, but the truth often reflects poorly on its subject.

And if I can say something in my defense: it wasn’t exactly conscious. I didn’t think to myself, “I am not going to be a Christian because Christians are rubes and I want to plant myself firmly in the meritocratic master class.” Socialization operates in more subtle, but more powerful ways. My son is two, and he has in the last six months—just as his social intelligence has skyrocketed—transitioned from ripping our German Shepherd’s fur out to hugging and kissing him gleefully. Part of that comes from the joy of giving and receiving affections from man’s best friend. But part of it comes from the fact that my wife and I grimace and complain when he tortures the dog but coo and laugh when he loves on it. He responds to us much as I responded to the educated caste to which I slowly gained exposure. In college, very few of my friends and even fewer of my professors had any sort of religious faith. Secularism may not have been a prerequisite to join the elites, but it sure made things easier."

My point here is that this tacit attitude that is present on college campuses, in the world, heck even in high schools, can be overwhelming if your kids are not prepared for it.


There are lot of ways to teach your kids to combat these tactics, but perhaps the best and first way to do so is to simply point them out. Define the tactics, point your kids to particular examples, and then when you see them at work in the world, narrate the situation to them.


Sometimes more than half the battle is simply learning to see what’s going on. Defining it makes it visible. If its visible, your kids can fight it.

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