#OurWorld: Words as Weapons

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Being an effective writer is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can use our words to create dreams on paper. Beautiful, sweeping tapestries of plot and poetry, all to tell a story for entertainment or the greater good. Words are powerful tools of creation, manipulators of emotion. Well-crafted words can make readers swear at a novel, cry real tears, or leap for joy.

Unfortunately, words can also be used as weapons, employed to change a narrative, manipulate the unsuspecting. Words can bring down an empire, destroy relationships, and hide the truth. If we do not gird ourselves in the armor of wisdom, it can be all too easy to fall victim to malicious wordcraft.

That’s why I made this week’s #OurWorld about journalistic bias and our responsibility to quest for truth.

Believing a lie can be useful in writing, as I’ve lauded on several occasions. I delight in misleading a reader, or misleading the characters. I enjoy a perverse sense of glee as I destroy people with their own mistakes in my writing, but my dishonesty in prose is all in good fun. The same cannot be said for those that report what is blithely called The News.

If there was ever a time when bias and spin did not exist in the media, I must confess that I don’t remember such a time. The realm of politics, which seems to be swelling and consuming our lives (as it should, I’ve discovered), is rife with bias. In fact, any time an individual sets out to write an article, it’s rare for the writer to completely avoid bias. The entire reason a writer writes is to further an inner agenda.

Even me. When I write, my intention is to highlight our flaws as humans and make us all think about the deeper undercurrents of life. I want you to consider the motive behind the word and the action. I want you to see the consequences of your own choices on yourself and those around you. I want us all to understand the world and the infinitely diverse peoples upon it. I want to ponder the future and what effect each of us have on it.

“The whole tragedy of him just breaks my heart. I wanted him to find happiness even though I know this would only end in tears. He could have been so creepy and he does skip so close to it many times but somehow you handled him with such aplomb that the only thing I can feel for him is pain, and understanding why he wanted [the dream to last forever].” ~Reader, on my fanfic Forever

“Oh my God, why… what a situation to be in.” ~Reader, on my fanfic Forever

Every single word, particularly the most powerful words, are carefully selected to engineer a complex tool aimed at your brain and how it processes information. A well-crafted tool can peel your brain open like a tin can and dump all sorts of garbage in there.

But not if you’re smart.

So I implore you…when you read and hear words in your everyday life, consider the source. What’s the motive? Where does the voice speak from? What is the goal?

Here are several types of bias to consider:

  • Bias by Omission – Selecting a perspective to omit from the narrative; presenting one side of a story and leaving out the other.
  • Bias by Selection of Sources – Including more sources to further the narrative than sources to rebut the narrative. Falsely citing sources that don’t exist or vaguely citing sources that may be incomplete, disreputable, subjective, or false; also, leaving sources out entirely, but referring to ‘experts’ anyway.
  • Bias by Story Selection – Highlighting stories that agree with the agenda while ignoring stories that disagree.
  • Bias by Placement – Manipulating story placement, as in a newspaper, to take advantage of the fickle, brief nature of human beings who only read headlines.
  • Bias by Labeling – Assigning labels to groups of people that may be seen as unfavorable, often by assigning more favorable or milder labels to an opposition.
  • Bias by Spin – Perhaps the most prevalent and devastating for the current events, this is when a story only presents one interpretation of the subject material. The reporter uses subjective language to change the narrative of a set of facts, making one side of an argument appear more favorable than another.

A real-world example

I want to pick apart this article. A relative of mine posted this once upon a time, and I was so angered by it that I probably commented about 3,000 words on the fact that it had even been shared. Please note that this is one of the more extreme examples I have seen, but spin and bias are not always this blatant. Bias is more effective when it’s subtle and gets under your radar.

Muslim “Welfare Queen” Refuses to Remove Headscarf…Judge Puts Her in Her Place

Problems with this article:

  1. First and foremost, the title. The article is actually about whether or not this woman has the right to wear her headscarf in the courtroom. She’s in court because her son drove her car without a license. Even if she is on welfare, this is not relevant to the court case. The appearance of “Welfare Queen” in the title is deliberate. Its purpose is to inflame anyone who dislikes people on welfare and might read it, so that when they open the article, they are already angry. “Judge Puts Her in Her Place” is authoritarian. It’s there for anyone who dislikes Muslims, so that when you open the article, you’re excited by the idea that someone finally did something about that hatred. It vindicates you and justifies that behavior. If the judge can express aggression toward the Muslims, it should be fine if you do it, too.
  2. The diction. Diction is a writing term that means ‘word choice.’ This article is riddled with strong vocabulary, and all of it is selected to stir up ugliness.
    1. “had a rude awakening”
    2. “Arrogantly assuming that the court would bow to her beliefs”
    3. “started to give the judge excuses…but the judge would hear none of it.”
    4. “special pass”
  3. This phrase

    Just as liberal secular humanists don’t want to be judged under Christian principals, people of other religions must understand that they don’t get a special pass either.

    1. This smacks of “But Maaaaaa!” It suggests that because of one thing, it justifies another. That’s a fallacy.
    2. This statement is irksome to many (note: not all) Christians, who are constantly embroiled in a battle of whether or not our country should be governed by Christian ideals. And because religion is so important to those that believe in their religion, it gives them a righteous foundation to stand upon to judge others.
  4. This phrase

    Immigrants to another nation should be ready to assimilate to their chosen country’s laws, language, and culture if they wish to live there.

      1. This is exclusive.
      2. This is entirely subjective.

     

But what I believe is the most important point to make from this article is from the following phrase:

Of the incident, El-Alloul says that she now lives in fear. “What happened in the court made me afraid. I felt that I’m not Canadian anymore,” she said.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism. By definition, not by spin.

TERRORISM
[teruh-riz-uh m]
noun
1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.
2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.
4. the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal
Furthermore, my relative was using this as a “Get out of the USA if you won’t learn English” argument (always a fun one). This is a flawed argument on so many levels, starting with the court case being situated in CANADA, not the United States, and the fact that the lady in question was already speaking English in the article. This isn’t relative to my relative.
Not going to lie…I was pretty ashamed of my relative. This is a pretty clear-cut case of “I hate Muslims so here’s this angry article I completely agree with.”
But it’s also a pretty clear case of how the written word is influenced by the smith behind the pen (or keyboard, so to speak). And in the age of social media, when news and rumor can cross the international webspace at unfathomable speeds, it’s more important than ever to make sure we aren’t furthering bad information, lest we further a narrative that is both incorrect and harmful to #OurWorld.
There are some excellent fact-checking sites out there, but be wary that even these can sometimes have some spin and ill intentions. Humans run those, too.
My advice
If the truth is important to you–as it is to me–I recommend investigating all sources of information related to topics that are important to you. Watch the news from the other side. Listen to the voices that are struggling the most to be heard. Question the motive. Question the source. Pay close attention to the words and how they are phrased.
I’ve been trying to spread the word about productive dialogue, and I’ve filtered it down to these basic rules:
  1. Accept the possibility that your view may be incorrect.
  2. Be willing to listen to the opposition, considering that it may be correct.
  3. Care about everyone you speak to, and try to understand why they believe the way that they believe.
  4. Commit to seeking the absolute truth, even if it is difficult to find.
  5. Be willing to change your stance, and more importantly, admit that you have changed it.
  6. Be willing to state when a conclusion cannot be determined due to incomplete or questionable information.
  7. Endeavor to read between the lines…wonder what isn’t being said.

90% of America’s media – newspapers, news channels, radio stations – was owned by a mere 6 companies in 2011: GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS.

I’ve yet to see corruption separate from money and/or power. I find it interesting that we, as a people can almost unanimously agree who the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) are in any tale. We understand who is in the wrong, can watch the story unfold, cringing when the hero makes fatal mistakes. Sometimes, we want to leap through the pages and shake the protag, willing them to see reason because we, as the readers, simply know better. It’s so obvious, we think. And yet, when such injustice and flagrant disregard for social and moral order occurs in our own world, we seem to turn a blind eye. It’s all the more terrifying, though, because the stakes are much higher in #OurWorld. We stand to lose in this world, but for some strange reason, mostly believe that our modern human is above the depravity of a storybook villain.

I leave you with this quote:

“If you want to understand any problem in America, you need to focus on who profits from that problem, not who suffers from the problem.” ~Dr. Amos Wilson

Stay vigilant.

S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS.

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About oneofthedragons

Samantha K. Balk and F. R. Donaldson met on An Archive of Our Own, one of the many fanfiction sites online, when Sam asked Frankie to illustrate the fanfiction that would one day lead to Sam's first novel. They've been friends ever since! This blog was created as a way to share the oftentimes difficult journey any new author experiences on the uncomfortable quest of an introvert for attention to his or her most personal work. It is meant to remind you that authors don't just appear fully fledged like a George R. R. Martin, that all of us start out unsure and feeling inadequate. Feel free to ask us anything. Sam: sammykaye9@gmail.com Frankie: reluctant.fraggle@gmail.com

Posted on June 21, 2016, in #OurWorld and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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