Loaded Language

‘An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language’: Don’t Let Sneaky Rhetoric Get the Best of You

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Like its predecessor, An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language should be required reading in every high school. Learning how to think is, and should be, the ultimate goal of education.

Be very, very quiet—we’re hunting rhetoric.
—Ali Almossawi

People use words for many reasons. To share, to explain, to educate. But words can also be used for more nefarious purposes, such as to sell, to influence, to control, to indoctrinate.

About eight years ago, I reviewed Ali Almossawi‘s first book, An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. It was and remains an approachable way for adults and families to learn about logical fallacies, complete with whimsical illustrations. This book described almost 20 different logical fallacies, one per spread, lovingly illustrated by Alejandro Giraldo, giving us all a quick primer on how to not create or fall for illogical arguments.

Now, Ali has a new book in the Bad Arguments series coming out on November 9 that continues his effort to educate us all and make us better consumers and creators of information: An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language: Learn to Hear What’s Left Unsaid. Also illustrated by the talented Alejandro Giraldo, An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language continues the first book’s vintage picture book style that will appeal to most readers. The illustrations effectively disarm the reader somewhat, leaving them open to learning new things, considering new perspectives, and realizing where they fail when analyzing life’s many inputs.

“Loaded Language”

The term “Loaded Language” here refers to writing or speech that has a bias, an agenda, or hidden meanings that influence the reader or listener. Obfuscation, misdirection, and exclusion (and plenty of euphemisms) are commonly used when someone is trying to control the reader or listener’s opinions, values, purchases, or votes. From the book’s press release:

Here, passive voice can pardon wrongdoers, statistics may be a smokescreen, gaslighting entraps the downtrodden, and irrelevant adjectives cement stereotypes.

This book goes into the reasons why we all (yes, all) fall for this kind of trickery sometimes, or even frequently. It covers how this kind of language works on us, influencing us. We take in a lot of content, and our cognitive biases direct what we think, what we say, and how we interact with others.

But it’s important that we all question what we read and hear. What is someone really trying to say? Who is saying it? Who benefits from what is said? What is their agenda here? You can apply these and many other questions to news stories, politics, commercials, company slogans…

Woodland Animals Teach Us Lessons

In An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language, Mr. Rabbit is our narrator, guiding us through the heavy content. In the examples, rabbits stand in for regular citizens, and badgers are the ones we will try to not emulate. And various other woodland animals stand in for other humans.

Though sometimes actual people or publications are mentioned, this book is meant to be illustrative, not targeted. Real-life events are also included, though, in woodland animal style. Contemporary concepts (G Suite, anyone? John Mulaney?) are mentioned by name, so I hope these examples still hold up in the future. But they’re damned effective examples now, and Bad Arguments had a few contemporary examples and it’s holding up just fine.

This new book is divided into seven sections, each one tackling a notable method of bias, pulling apart “language that manipulates” so we can see how it works from the inside. Examples include “language that conceals with vagueness” and “language that creates feel-good associations.” It focuses on the words and methods used, rather than any particular stance on a topic, making it a useful and educational tool for everyone. It explains vocabulary that you hear every day but rarely stop to think about.

An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language tackles contemporary issues and vocabulary, and uses some of the principles we learned in Bad Arguments to illustrate some of the points, but most of the points made are brand new.

In this book, we learn such things as how passive voice can make something seem less severe, how metaphors and analogies can intensify how we might feel about a group of people or their actions, and how “feel-good turns of phrase” can gloss over a whole lot of evil done in the name of good. And don’t forget about subjectivity. And gaslighting. And…

Just as we crop photos to only show the parts of the image we want others to see, wordsmiths everywhere choose their words carefully to cause the reader to make assumptions, assumptions that favor the agenda of the writer. This book explains how people do that, and how to avoid falling for it.

Unlike Bad Arguments‘ small bites of information, this book has a more narrative style, giving example after example, illustrating the points made—literally, in some cases. I wish this book had been out before the last election (or the one before that), as it would have helped voters read between the lines of the rhetoric spewed on all sides. If the voters had been willing to read it, that is. Reading this book will, hopefully, help us all avoid such control tactics in the future.

A Worthy Successor

This book is a worthy successor to An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, tackling not-always-obvious ways of slanting content, usually to match an agenda. After you read this book, you’ll never watch news broadcasts or read news articles the same way again. And that’s a good thing.

An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language comes out on November 9, and is a not-to-be-missed book for learning and practicing critical thinking, both for you and to read with your older children. Paired with An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, these two books form the “Bad Arguments” series (so far). The acknowledgements section teases another book to come, though. I’ll be sure to share it when it does! I can’t wait.

If you’re also a fan of Ali Almossawi’s work, please do check out his other two books not mentioned above, Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier and The Point of Pointless Work, which I’ve reviewed on the GeekFamily blogs previously. They aren’t in the “Bad Arguments” series, but are worthy reads, for sure.

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes, but I’m such a fan of Ali’s that I would have bought it myself anyhow.

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