Dorfmeister's Dream

Know your weapon!

Nov 18, 2021

Weaponisation is a hot media topic, but general public understanding of how rhetorical weaponry works is low. Which presents interesting opportunities for progressive leaders, and their organisations...

Public discourse is a blood sport, and in 2021 the rhetorical warheads fly particularly thick and fast between us. The sport itself is also the subject of scrutiny. Who hasn’t read a thought leadership article lately about the ‘weaponisation’ of language, ideas, concepts or even cultures?

However, such articles frequently gloss over the fact that language itself has always been a weapon, and that while our communication mediums may have evolved there is nothing that new about a brutal public battle of words. Indeed, many pieces of journalism discussing weaponisation are themselves clearly weapons, albeit deployed in the mundane cause of the writer’s career aspirations.

Weaponisation debates bring the Illusion of Explanatory Depth to mind – a theory which describes our near universal over-estimation of our understanding of the familiar. Ergo: because we all flush the toilet many times a day we also believe we understand how the flush toilet mechanism works. But when we’re put to the test, most of us fail it. Familiarity easily breeds a false sense of understanding, and this is surely often the case with rhetoric.

Rhetorical weapons training is a thing

My experience is that most people benefit from an active exploration of how rhetorical weapons are constructed and utilised.

First off, it’s important to recognise that exploring weaponisation in theoretical terms can be a surprising amount of fun, provided the hot button topics of the moment are avoided (thankfully, this isn’t a huge problem, because the most interesting techniques of rhetorical weaponisation are ultimately ideologically neutral).

Also, technical understanding has a curiously diffusing emotional impact. In other words, when your nemesis fires a bomb in your direction whose mechanics you recognise, there’s a tendency for your fear and anger to be matched by a level of appreciation for the construction of the device itself. The corollary of this is the simple fact that, as any military specialist will tell you, fighting a war is easier when you know how the gun in your hand works.

Understanding can equate to inoculation

The growing academic fields of Inoculation Theory and Psychological Inoculation support this view. They frame misinformation, the spread of conspiracy theories and language weaponisation in similar terms to a biological virus – as something which can be inoculated against by forcing an individual to develop antibodies.

The Bad News Game is interesting to consider within this context. Originally developed in 2018 by the Dutch media platform "DROG" in collaboration with University of Cambridge scientists, the alluringly low-fi online game interface challenges users to develop their own misinformation empire by taking on the role of a fake news creator, who is rewarded for deploying the many tricks of the trade. Recent iterations feature Covid-19 misinformation tropes, and academic studies show that Bad News Game players reliably improve their ability to both spot and resist conspiracy theories and general misinformation.

There is a case to be made, then, that language weaponisation training can help individuals and organisations overcome the Illusion of Explanatory Depth to reach a position where they are in more control of – and responsible for – their ideological trigger fingers.

How it works

I’ve taught weaponisation content in corporate workshops informally over the years, through the prism of writing training, and I can testify that most white collar workers are unusually captivated by it.

One concept everyone loves is how words can be deployed to fill space, and smother meaning. I use clips of Boris Johnson in full media flight to illustrate the point, and after twenty minutes the group’s perceptions of the suffocating power of language are forever altered. This is empowering on a personal level, but it also has implications for organisational culture and how teams set about managing the tyranny-potential of a life of relentless communication.

Ditto with the power of passive voice. This is a trick we all feel when we experience it, but it’s surprising how few people (including communications professionals) recognise the device to the point that they can identify it in action in the real world. I never tire of watching course participants discover the implicit self incrimination in an ‘it is deeply regretful that so much pain was caused…’ media statement.

You don’t have to stick to the simple surface, either. Most of us are rightly fascinated by how Exclusion Via Nominal Inclusion functions, and by learning how to identify examples of what is surely one of the darkest of the communications arts. Whether it’s government launching a commission to stifle an investigation or a corporation announcing a research programme to avoid taking action in a particular area, understanding the techniques at play can change one’s view of how the media functions, and what’s actually going on behind all the headlines. (Interestingly, Exclusion Via Nominal Inclusion isn’t a popular or Google friendly construct. I stumbled onto it while reading a paper on the development of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum narratives, but to my mind there’s no question it’s a core component of PR and reputation management.)

At the moment, it’s only the brave...

So, why don’t we see more organisations engaging in weaponisation training? Why aren’t most office workers required to at least play The Bad News Game?

My sense is that as much as we bemoan the perverse state of the world around us, equipping employees to understand these weapons will feel, for many organisations, like it risks sparking even more inter-personal conflict than perpetually plugged-in employees already deal with.

Then there’s also the fact that many leaders will be a bit nervous about having their own words, actions, debates, positions and such viewed through new eyes. This is an age-old arms race issue: the desire for the world to become a better place is always, it seems, accompanied by fears of what happens if others get more, or better, guns than us.

These are, however, ultimately fear-based emotional concerns. Leaders who are genuinely interested in finding ways to help their people and organisations negotiate the tumult of public discourse could undoubtedly do a lot worse than helping them figure out how the increasingly large arms caches at all of our disposals work.

Literacy is, after all, one of life’s foundational prophylactics.


No one knows how toilets work

The Bad News Game

Inoculating against fake news about COVID-19

Controlling for Consensus: Commemorating Apartheid in South Africa

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