by Matthew Chase
Truth is a privileged voice. We come to know it in the mass media, authority figures, literature, and everyday conversation. It’s in the language that we use to communicate with each other, for the purpose of both clarifying the truth and distorting it. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with the truth but it is not always accurate or substantiated. The truth can be framed to serve an agenda, an ideology. We commonly see it in advertisements and the news, with generalized statements like “many experts agree….” or “some people argue…” These are better known as weasel words, which are language tactics to imply something as factual without having to explicitly state it. The responsibility of substantiating the fact is instead placed on an ambiguous authority.
Weasel words are by no means unique or new, but our constant exposure to them has desensitized us to their presence in our lives. We no longer hear them when spoken and more importantly, we do not question them. They may seem benign, as we often find them in commercial advertisements, but they are also regularly practiced among mass media and political figures. Weasel words have become so pervasive that there is even a hashtag for it. #ManyPeopleAreSaying is a recent trending hashtag that emerged in critical response to Donald Trump’s excessive use of the phrase, “Many people are saying,” to support his otherwise unsubstantiated opinions and so-called facts.
— Scott Wooledge (@Clarknt67) August 9, 2016
While it may not be immediately identified as harmful, the use of weasel words can be dangerous in promoting hateful agendas. Their true brilliance (and insidiousness) is that they grant the speaker a certain kind of immunity from being challenged or questioned about their baseless claims. By framing their claims as “other people say…”, the speaker is able to distance themselves from having to defend their argument or even be held accountable for their actions. This effectively gives them a freedom to say what they want without having to cite specific and credible sources. This is increasingly problematic, seeing how figures and organizations with mass social influence like Donald Trump are able to convince their audiences with hate-mongering and fundamentally hollow rhetoric, superficially disguised as some kind of truth.
#manypeoplearesaying that original draft of the Declaration of Independence ended with “Believe me.”
— Jesse Barnett (@rightarmjesse) August 8, 2016
Weasel words are only part of the larger problem of deception and misinformation in mass media. Other deceptive language tactics include the drawing of false correlations, burying and omitting contradicting evidence to one’s argument, and making otherwise vague and over-generalized statements. These tactics are how many stereotypes and prejudices are created and reinforced. They are a privileged tool of the influential and the powerful to (mis)inform the public about important issues and our social realities. Social influencers have the responsibility to their audiences to provide well-substantiated arguments. Yet perhaps more importantly, we as the audiences have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to discern the real facts from the doublespeak, to challenge the language of the status quo. We must become critically aware of what exactly is being said and question the credibility of its source. Truth has often been used as a site of privilege, but it can become a site for vocalizing our resistance as well.