“Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones, But Words…”
I’m the sort of teacher who very frequently gets bored with the tediousness of routine lecturing (must be the students’ short attention spans rubbing off on me); thus, whenever the opportunity presents itself, I like to experiment with different approaches to getting the lesson’s relevant point across to my class. For example, in today’s English Literature class, I was lecturing on the methods by which writers persuade (or, I should say, manipulate) their intended audience by means of strategic phrasing and tone placement in the text. The lecture itself is meant to be complete gibberish; or put more generously, just filler to fluff up my intended demonstration on how dialogue manipulation works.
I spent the first 10 minutes discussing the importance of a writer’s freedom of expression, and how to curtail this essential right is to stunt the literary development of, not just the one writer, but the cultural development on the audience in question. Then, I casually stated, “Limitations on free speech need to be avoided in literature, at all times, to allow a writer’s creative growth to productively flourish. How many of you agree with this statement?” Almost everyone raised their hand [and by almost everyone I mean roughly 90% of the class, with 2 or 3 outliers who are probably not even paying attention to what I'm saying]. However, once I finish with this class opinion poll, I switched up the tone in my lecture, and spent the next 15 minutes emphasizing the importance of appealing to the audience’s sensibilities in order to connect and foster a level of respect with the reader. At the end of which I casually said, “Without allowing restrictions on free speech in literature, we can’t nourish the creative productivity of the author. Agreed?” Again, almost everyone raised their hand in agreement.
Spot the conflicting positions being accepted here. How about now?
- Limitations on free speech need to be avoided in literature, at all times, to allow a writer’s creative growth to productively flourish.
- Without allowing restrictions on free speech in literature, we can’t nourish the creative productivity of the author.
I’ve done variations of this class experiment in every English class I have ever taught in, and not one person has yet to call me out on the blatantly contradictory statements I’m making. It’s not until the last ten minutes of class, when I admit to what I’m doing, that people suddenly notice that they’ve simultaneously agreed to two wholly incompatible assertions. And, as is always the case, the majority try to rationalize away how, in fact, they were not manipulated at all, but assumed there were more variables involved in what I was saying (meaning that they were adding their own context to my words, which still doesn’t remedy the obvious incompatibility of the words I actually said), or that they didn’t really understand the questions being asked (yet, still gave a positive response to despite their ignorance of the subject-matter). The post hoc justifications to why we allow ourselves to be manipulated are largely irrelevant. To me, there is nothing strange about the fact that people can hold two opposing opinions at the same time (adopting a different stance on things whenever it suits our interests to do so). We compartmentalize these incompatible views to varying situations, hence (unless someone forces them to be put side-by-side for us), it’s unlikely we’d ever even notice (and if we do, we’ll probably find some way to rationalize it away as completely consistent for some obscure reason or another).
You might be ready to laugh at my students’ flaw in reasoning here, but what you’re forgetting is that the two conflicting statements were phrased within the context of a greater narrative that surrounded them. I’m confident that had I just put the two sentences on the board next to each other the result would have been very different. But manipulations of this sort–whether they are found in literature, advertising, politics, or whatever–are never that obvious. Our reasoning is more circumstantial, than constant. By which I mean that we are more likely to respond within the context of the information that we have just received, rather than some overextended logical structure, where we try to mentally weed out all the contradictions and incompatibilities in our reasoning. The point I wanted to get across to my students was to simply draw their attention to how easy (and common) it is for someone (anyone) to direct their thoughts to one mode of thinking or another, if they aren’t paying sufficient attention to the words presented to them.
Which goes to show that, while sticks and stones can break your bones, words will just majorly fuck with your head.