Words can be a charismatic river of deceit that quickly reaches flood stage with their manipulation of our emotions, even as they overwhelm and swamp our critical thinking. Here are a few bricks of critical thinking and discernment to help build a flood wall to contain that river.
The integrity of the speaker is the most important thing to evaluate and gauge. Thomas Sowell pulls no punches when he leads off Listening to a Liar by saying:
“The most important thing about what anyone says are not the words themselves but the credibility of the person who says them….”
Words can be used for good and for evil—to benefit the listeners or to empower the speaker. The character of the speaker is our best clue to his intent.
Character is the proof of words. Who is he? What does his life and his acts tell us ? What does he think of himself? What does he think of his audience?
Critique the substance of his words. Sort between how he speaks and what he speaks. What does he presume to be true? Are those things true? Does he build his case on its merits? Are those merits accurate? What are his conclusions? Do they make sense? What would be their effect? What is the purpose of his words? Does he speak to build up or speak to tear down?
Look at a speaker’s style. Is he straightforward and clear? In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote:
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
Look at his style in the light of Dov Seidman’s words that I quoted in Leadership. Is he working to inspire others to be propelled by values and principles to do the right things no matter how difficult the situation? Does he incite or reason?
Finally, consider his setting. Why was it chosen? What kind of message about the speaker do the location, background and decorations send to the audience?
Sit back and evaluate what you hear and read. Don’t be swamped in the flood of an orator’s words.
Benjamin Franklin quote from Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1735.