April 2022 Newsletter: How Word Choice Influences Policy and The Power of Personal Essays

Note: This originally appeared in newsletter form. I send these out monthly to my list. If you’d like to receive emails like this that will help you become a better reader, learner, and thinker, then subscribe here.

Wow. Here we are. We did it. An email list.

This is the inaugural email.

Let’s get right into a few books I’ve read, how I’m thinking about them, and how they can make you a better thinker.

Words That Work by Frank Luntz

In 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich approached the political pollster Frank Luntz about helping Republicans sound more environmentally friendly.

(Yes, the key word there is sound.)

At the time, Republican politicians wanted to seem like their policies were supporting the environment, while in reality continuing to ramp up ecosystem-destroying practices, like oil drilling, for economic gain.

With the help of Luntz, party leaders spearheaded the charge to replace their language from “drilling for oil” to “exploring for energy.”

In 2004, several years into these intentional language shifts, polls showed that voters viewed “exploring for energy” 10% more favorably than “drilling for oil…”

Even though two phrases referred to the exact same (bad) policies.

What made this shift effective?

In his 1939 book, Language in Thought and Action, S.I. Hayakawa coined the term, “The Ladder of Abstraction” to describe this.

Imagine a ladder leaning against a house. The bottom of the ladder is, literally, grounded. We can touch the dewy grass it rests on.

As we get higher up the ladder, closer to the clouds, all we feel is air, and the phrases used higher up this ladder can have unclear meaning, or multiple meanings without clear images.

In this situation, “exploring for energy” was more effective because it was higher up the ladder of abstraction.

George Orwell said in his essay Politics and The English Language that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Often, those defending the indefensible will intentionally use abstract language.

Here’s another example of the ladder of abstraction at play:

When Putin invaded Ukraine, he called it a “Special military operation.”

I mean, that sounds like the plot of a cool action movie, NOT like the horrifying, murderous war that it really is.

Even as vague language can emerge from a conscious, calculated public relations campaign, more often it occurs unconsciously. And we all do it.

I personally am reminded to heed the guidance of every writing professor I’ve ever had, who at some point, discussed the importance of using images in writing over abstractions.

If there are times when we use words high on the ladder, it might be time to pause and reflect.

To quote Orwell’s essay again, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Has our thinking itself because so high up the ladder we no longer use words that truly describe?

This practice will not only help you defend against sinister rhetorical techniques, but it will also help you clarify your own thinking.

Getting Personal – Phillip Lopate

All right. Enough about my existential dread and how sinister marketing decisions are literally burning our planet.

Let’s talk about something fun, like personal essays.

I wrote in this IG post why I think creative nonfiction is a great intro into story-driven reading if you mostly read nonfiction/personal development books.

They’re my personal favorite genre to both read and write in.

I think this quote from The Catcher and The Rye sums up why I love them…

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

That’s how I feel reading personal essays.

Unlike any other genre, we get to hear an author’s deepest, most confessional, and often most insightful thoughts.

As Lopote says in the introduction to his collection..

“I am endlessly interested in the wormy thoughts and regrets and excuses and explanations that people have for their behavior.”

In personal essays, we have that in its most exposed form.

While I love Lopate’s essays, they are dense, and probably not a great place to start. 

If you’re interested in personal essays, my recommendation is to think of authors you admire, who you’d really wish “was a terrific friend of yours” and see if they have essays. 

Or, if you’re looking for something more broad, The Art of The Personal Essay is an anthology with dozens of dozens of great writers featured.

I’ll even share one of my own: Of Dragons and Dreams: My Battles with Envy.

I originally wrote this for a creative nonfiction class in Spring 2020, and I published it two years ago today. It’s on how I struggled with jealousy in my junior hockey career.

I’m not even going to reread it, because I’ll probably hate it now, but I remember being proud of it. At the least, I think it’s a decent representation of the genre of the personal essay.

My #1 Tip for Getting the Most Out of Email Lists

I had two other books I wanted to write about, but this email is already longer than some articles, so instead I’ll leave you my advice on how you can consume and apply information from email lists.

We all have overflowing inboxes and are subscribed to tons of lists we don’t really read. Maybe we even want to read them but don’t have a good system to do so.

So here’s what I do…

When I get an email newsletter I know I want to read, I move it to a “read later” folder.

Then when I’m on the subway…

Or waiting in line at the grocery store…

I go to the folder and read the newsletters.

This way it’s not a distraction from your main tasks. And it’s probably a much better use of phone-scrolling time than being on social media.

That’s all for this month. Thank you for reading.

Un abrazo,

~David

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