Developing a Critical Ear: Propaganda Devices, Books That Encourage Critical Listening (page 3)
Students—even those in the primary grades—need to become critical listeners because they are exposed to persuasion and propaganda all around them; the biggest culprit is probably television commercials. It’s essential that they listen critically in order to judge the advertising claims. For instance, do the jogging shoes actually help you run faster? Will the breakfast cereal make you a better football player? Will owning a particular pair of shoes or video game make you more popular? At school, students use critical listening to understand many stories that teachers read aloud, and social studies and science lessons on topics such as pollution, political candidates, and drugs demand that students listen and think critically.
Persuasion and Propaganda
There are three ways to persuade people. The first is by reason. We seek logical conclusions, whether from absolute facts or from strong possibilities; for example, we can be persuaded to practice more healthful living as the result of medical research. It is necessary, of course, to distinguish between reasonable arguments and unreasonable appeals. To suggest that diet pills will bring about extraordinary weight loss is an illogical appeal.
A second way is an appeal to character. We can be persuaded by what another person recommends if we trust that person. Trust comes from personal knowledge or the reputation of the person who is trying to persuade. We can believe what scientists say about the dangers of nuclear waste, but can we believe what a sports personality says about the taste of a particular brand of coffee?
The third way is by appealing to people’s emotions. Emotional appeals can be as strong as intellectual appeals. We have strong feelings and concern for ourselves and other people and animals. Fear, a need for peer acceptance, and a desire for freedom of expression are all potent feelings that influence our opinions and beliefs.
Any of these types of appeals can be used to try to persuade someone. For example, when a child tries to convince her parents that her bedtime should be delayed by 30 minutes, she might argue that neighbors allow their children to stay up later—an appeal to character. It is an appeal to reason when the argument focuses on the amount of sleep a 10-year-old needs. And when the child announces that she has the earliest bedtime of anyone in her class and it makes her feel like a baby, the appeal is to emotion. The same three appeals apply to in-school persuasion. To persuade classmates to read a particular book in a book talk “commercial,” a student might argue that classmates should read the book because it is short and interesting (reason); because it is hilarious and they’ll laugh (emotion); or because it is the most popular book in the seventh grade and everyone else is reading it (character).
It’s essential that children become critical consumers of commercials and advertisements because they are bombarded with them (Lutz, 1997). Advertisers use appeals to reason, character, and emotion just as other persuaders do to promote products, ideas, and services; however, advertisers may also use propaganda to influence our beliefs and actions. Propaganda suggests something shady or underhanded. Like persuasion, propaganda is designed to influence people’s beliefs and actions, but propagandists may use certain techniques to distort, conceal, and exaggerate.
People seeking to influence us often use words that evoke a variety of responses. They claim that something is “improved,” “more natural,” or “50% better”—loaded words and phrases that are deceptive because they are suggestive. When a product is advertised as 50% better, for example, consumers need to ask, “50% better than what?” Advertisements rarely answer that question.
Doublespeak is another type of deceptive language characterized as evasive, euphemistic, confusing, and self-contradictory. It is language that only pretends to communicate (Lutz, 1997). Two types of doublespeak that students can understand are euphemisms and inflated language. Euphemisms are words or phrases (e.g., “passed away”) that are used to avoid harsh realities, often out of concern for someone’s feelings rather than to mislead. Inflated language includes words intended to make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Thus, car mechanics become “automotive internists,” and used cars become “pre-owned” or even “experienced” cars.
Children need to learn that people sometimes use words that only pretend to communicate; sometimes they use words to intentionally misrepresent, as when someone advertises a vinyl wallet as “genuine imitation leather” or a ring with a glass stone as a “faux diamond.” When children can interpret deceptive language, they can avoid being deceived.
To sell products, advertisers use propaganda devices, such as testimonials, the bandwagon effect, and rewards. Students can listen to commercials to find examples of each propaganda device and discuss the effect the device has on them. They can also investigate to see how the same devices vary in commercials directed toward youngsters, teenagers, and adults. For instance, a commercial for a snack food with a sticker or toy in the package will appeal to a youngster, and an advertisement for a videotape recorder offering a factory rebate will appeal to an adult. The propaganda device for the ads is the same: a reward! Propaganda devices can be used to sell ideas as well as products. Public service announcements about smoking or wearing seat belts, as well as political advertisements, endorsements, and speeches, use these devices.
Critical Thinking About Books
Many stories, informational books, and poems that teachers read aloud encourage critical thinking. When teachers read aloud stories such as The Giver (Lowry, 1993) and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! (Scieszka, 1989), students use a combination of aesthetic and critical listening: They use critical listening to evaluate the theme of The Giver and to determine whether the wolf’s story is believable. When students listen to informational books such as Antarctica (Cowcher, 1990) and Encounter (Yolen, 1992), they confront important ecological and social issues. The books provide information about the issues, and classmates share their ideas during discussions. Through these activities, students think more deeply about controversial issues and challenges and expand their own beliefs. Even some books of poetry stimulate critical listening. Sierra (Siebert, 1991), for example, a book-length poem about this western mountain range, ends with a warning about the threat people pose to the environment.
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