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What is emotive language and why is it used?

Updated Friday, 30th August 2019
Nigel Warburton helps us grapple with the nuts and bolts of thinking clearly, with the aim of presenting good, clear, logical arguments - in order to achieve your desired effects.

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Talking with a forked tongue? A snake Speaking with a forked tongue?

Ever wanted to convince an audience of your point of view – maybe at an office presentation, or even over a beer with friends – but found yourself lost for the right way to put it?

OpenLearn has joined with philosopher Nigel Warburton to grapple with the nuts and bolts of thinking clearly, with the aim of presenting good, clear, logical arguments.

This week – watch out for:

Emotive language

Language which arouses emotion, usually by expressing the speaker’s or writer’s approval or disapproval of a person, a group of people or an activity. The usual emotions aroused by such language are hatred or strong approval, more often the former than the latter.

For instance, someone who disapproves of capital punishment might choose to describe it as 'murder'. This would be rhetoric, intended to persuade others of the repugnance of judicial killing, or at least to reinforce their strong feelings against it. By using the emotive word 'murder' with all its associations of brutal killing and evil, the speaker would be encouraging the audience to feel the same way about capital punishment as he or she does about unlawful killing. By arousing strong emotions, the speaker may make critical examination of the arguments for and against the practice difficult. To call the homeless 'victims of society' expresses sympathy, and might evoke compassion in an audience; to call them 'scroungers' expresses resentment and would probably arouse or reinforce hatred towards them.

Whether you choose to call those who use violence to achieve political ends 'terrorists' or 'freedom fighters' depends entirely on whether you approve or disapprove of their aims and activities: whether you see them as allies or enemies. What is more, the label will not just express your disapproval or approval, but will also very likely arouse strong feelings in those who hear or read your words. Use of emotive language should not be confused with emotivism, which is a philosophical theory about the nature of moral judgements.

What is a slippery slope argument?

A type of argument which relies on the premise that if you make a small move in a particular direction it may then be extremely difficult or even impossible to prevent a much more substantial move in the same direction.

If you take one step down the slippery slope, you risk finding yourself sliding all the way down to the bottom. The further down the slope you go, the harder it is to stop. After a while you can’t stop even if you want to.

This metaphor is often used explicitly or implicitly as a way of persuading people that the acceptance of one relatively innocuous practice will inevitably lead to the legitimisation of highly undesirable consequences.

This form of argument can have some force, but in order to judge it we need extensive information about the alleged inevitability of the descent. It is not simply enough to claim that there is a slippery slope.

Typically slippery slope arguments obscure the fact that, in most cases, we can have very good reasons for digging our heels in at a certain point. The metaphor of slipperiness with its connotations of inevitable descent and frightening loss of control does not allow this possibility. It conjures up images of powerlessness which may be inappropriate to the case in question.

What is an ad hominem move?

Ad hominem is a Latin phrase meaning 'to the person'. It is used in two main ways, which can lead to confusion. By far the most common use is to draw attention to the devious move in argument sometimes known as getting personal, that is, shifting attention from the point in question to some non-relevant aspect of the person making it.

Calling someone's statement ad hominem in this sense is always a reproach; it involves the claim that the aspects of the arguer's personality or behaviour which have become the focus of discussion are irrelevant to the point being discussed.

An ad hominem argument in the second sense is a legitimate demonstration of an opponent's inconsistency. This is a much rarer use of the term. An argument is ad hominem in this second sense if it involves turning the argument back on the opponent (sometimes known as the 'you too', or 'tu quoque', move). It is important to distinguish the two senses of ad hominem because the first is an informal fallacy; the second a perfectly reasonable move in argument.



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