The Emotional Power of Language


What I am about to attempt to do is going to seem like a complete contradiction. It may even seem like something out of Inception. The question of whether or not authors need to write about the “truth” has been in the background of literature throughout its history. To defend both sides of the claim, there are many arguments, which are my focus. One school of thought is that authors that write well enough can either make their readers look past the falsities of the writing or convince them of another truth altogether. For readers like us, people with a decent amount of experience with literature and language in general, this is a scary thought. No one wants to admit that they are gullible enough to fall for a false reality, but we have come to find that words have more power than we originally imagined. The contradiction that I want to argue, then, comes when I try to convince you that I am telling you the truth when I say that you have been forced to believe total lies through literature and other articles just like this one.

To start, it is important to realize just how gullible and impressionable the human race is. There have been countless examples of the blind leading the blind throughout history, but there are none better than those of Germany and Russia during World War II. In their respective countries, both Hitler and Stalin were able to rise to power through their mastery of rhetoric and oration. Despite their arguments being based on complete fabrications, they connected to the hungry, tired, and generally unhappy populations of their nations and promised to bring them out of their despair. The important point is that both leaders made their moves after revolution and war when life for the average citizen was at its worst. Times like these are when people just want to hear what someone else can do for them.

The exact same scenario can be seen in George Orwell’s Animal Farm in which a group of animals stage a revolution to take over their farm from the abusive owner, Mr. Jones. In the aftermath of the revolution, it is the pigs, the wisest of the animals, who assume the positions of leadership. As the story progresses, one of the pigs, Snowball, is forced out by another, Napoleon, leaving a power vacuum that Napoleon is more than happy to fill. As the sole leader of the group, Napoleon begins to lie about everything to make his life better and to keep the rest of the group under his control. He makes claims that Snowball was the enemy the entire time, that food rations were up, and that everyone was working less, but these were all lies to keep the others in check.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It should because every character in Animal Farm represents a person or group from Stalin’s Soviet Union. Napoleon is, of course, Stalin himself. Boxer, the faithful work horse, is the ignorant proletariat. The sheep that constantly chant whatever the pigs want represent the means by which the Stalinist government spread propaganda. If you kept going through the rest of the animals, you would find as equally accurate examples for each of the rest of them, so given the disastrous nature of this novel, it is clear what Orwell was trying to comment (Fadaee 23).

Just as Stalin did in Russia, Napoleon used his words to convince the rest of the group to follow him. Although he often worked through Squealer, the pig known for his talent with words, it is through language in general that he won the trust that he later took advantage of, as shown by Boxer’s mottos of “I will work harder” and “Napoleon is always right”. There were two aspects of farm life after the revolution that catalyzed his rise to power, the first being that the animals on the farm became just as desperate as the Soviets were after the Russian revolution. Even if it was just by giving the dogs an extra biscuit, once Napoleon proved that he could improve the quality of life in even the smallest ways, they were willing to listen to anything he had to say. It was from this point on that everything he said carried the same joyful tone as always but now contrasted the world around them. Rations were down but the statistic sheets said they were up; they worked harder but should now be “proud” of the work they were doing, and the good of the pigs began to come before everyone else for the most convoluted reasons. The common animals, though, were blinded by the excitement and accepted these lies as truth.

What you could probably notice is that I have used the word “truth” a number of times already, but what does that really mean? Truth is inherently a difficult idea for us to pin down because of the limitations that we have to explore and describe it. Other than through language, there is no way to describe truth, which could become something that goes far beyond the capacities of words and sentences. As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in his essay “On truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” it is entirely possible that there is no “truth” that humans could hope to achieve because humans try to impose themselves on the world to force it to make sense in their terms. This, he argues, cannot lead to anything even close to an overarching truth. As proof, Nietzsche writes, “The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages” (116). Should this hold true, I need to be willing to accept that the truth that I am going to talk about is confined to one that humans have created, one that is inherently human-based, and one that humans therefore can change at will. And that is perfectly fine, for if we do not accept it, everything that I am about to write and everything we have all ever said, read, or heard means nothing. I set this limit because the truth for our intents and purposes should be considered something not only as equally flawed as humans, but that can also be played with and molded by humans through words.

The second aspect of farm life that proved beneficial to Napoleon comes from this very idea; the pigs’ mastery of language gave them the greatest advantage. All of the animals could speak, some could read at a very modest level, and some could memorize and remember about as well as a two year old, but the pigs could do it all with adult human proficiency. Their grasp on language is what ultimately gave them their overwhelming control. It was said that, “The birds did not understand Snowball’s long words, but they accepted his explanation, and all of the animals set to work to learn the new maxim by heart” (Orwell 25). Later in the novel Napoleon was able to alter the animal commandments because no one could read or remember them well enough to prove that they were changing, and when they caught Squealer fall off his ladder while painting them, no one wanted to. One of the most surprising parts of this story is that none of the other animals ever put a stop to any of this.

The real question, though, is whether they ever really could have stopped it. For one thing, they did not have the linguistic power to know what was being written or said most of the time. For another, they could not remember a time before the revolution, so no one knew if life was better or worse. But above all, they were too deeply involved in what Napoleon had been telling them to be willing to go against it. A similar phenomenon can been seen in our society right now with a certain political candidate running for president. This is in no way becoming a political discussion, but those of you who do not agree with Mr. Trump will easily agree with this argument. I also know that many of you who, like me, are moderately on Mr. Trump’s side will agree as well.

What Mr. Trump is saying, whether it be true or not, is fundamentally controversial, and to put it nicely, his delivery is rough. As worldly adults, we notice this, but it does not have the profound impact on us that it has on children. There is something called the “Trump Effect,” which is affecting the more impressionable and gullible younger generations, and it has been well documented in schools across the country. On one hand, “It’s producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported” (SPLC). On the other hand, the same source writes,

Other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric in the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.

The first part of the Trump Effect shows that when people hear something they like (in this case, scared and ignorant Americans hear that he is going to deport minorities), they repeat it to everyone, including their children, who go on to repeat it to others. Even though he almost never says anything with any style or grace, what he says proves to have a big enough impact to stick in people’s minds. The second part goes a bit deeper; these children wonder how anyone could support a man saying such horrible things about them and their families. But even the children could understand an argument that Socrates made in Plato’s Gorgias.

Imagine a court room where the judge is a chef, the jury is a group of kids, and the defendant is a doctor. The chef/judge wants to lock up the doctor because he hurts the children by poking and prodding them and making them ingest disgusting liquids while he, the chef, makes the children good food that is pleasurable to eat. The children do not understand that it is through the discomfort that the doctor causes that they are healthy enough to eat and enjoy the food the chef gives them, but of course, none of the children want to hear that. The children, in real life terms, represent how Socrates views human nature in general. (Gorgias)

The main point that we have to understand is that even though Mr. Trump may not be a good speaker, he is the judge in the metaphor. He speaks to people’s emotions, and that is what reels them in. They hear what they want to hear, and this is good enough for them, just like it is for the children that do not want to listen to the doctor. If we accept, therefore, that people are gullible to what they want to hear because it plays to their emotions, I want to examine more thoroughly how Napoleon does this. From the beginning the reader is told that Napoleon is the type of speaker that is very direct and to the point, contrasting his more outgoing enemy, Snowball, who speaks with a more colorful style. There are numerous examples of this style, such as the moment after the windmill falls when he simply says, “Comrades, do you know who is responsible for this? Do you know who has come in the night and overthrown our windmill? SNOWBALL!” (Orwell 50). So what is most impressive is that he garners the same type of emotional response from the animals from this short discourse that another, lesser leader, would hope to get from a prolonged speech. In some aspects, but certainly not all, he and Mr. Trump have this in common; they speak very directly to the ignorant hearts of their listeners because they know this will get a reaction. There is no need for fluffy decoration.

Then you might ask if that goes against everything I have been arguing this entire time, that you need to be a master of rhetoric to be persuasive against the truth, but the answer is no. In reality, it alters my argument to show that you do not always need “good” writing to convince someone of lies, something politicians prove every day. Plus, there are many different forms of “good language” shown by the contrast between Napoleon and Snowball. It is also, however, not enough to just tell the truth in many cases because the idea of truth is so ambivalent. We saw an example of this when the doctor could not speak his argument well enough to the children to convince them. Therefore, if truth is not good on its own and if you do not necessarily need good language to be convincing if you speak to affect emotions, the best way to write about something that is not the truth might be to use good language that plays to the emotions of those receiving the language because that takes the truth out of play. At that point, whether the author is writing truths or lies makes no difference to the reader because they are too captured by the literature to want to make the effort to find the difference. Emotions are powerful, and although they help us in many situations, they also cause us to make the wrong decision countless times in our daily lives in everything from the food we eat to the people we fall in love with. Emotions could not care less about the truth, so it makes perfect sense for literature to use them against you to bypass the truth.

Works Cited

Costello, Maureen B. Splcenter. Rep. Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Fadaee, Elaheh. “Symbols, Metaphors and Similes in Literature: A Case Study of “Animal Farm”” Journal of English and Literature 2.2 (2011): 19-27. Academic Journals. Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus, 2012. Print.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Plato, and Malcolm Schofield. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Trans. Tom Griffith. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.