Giving Voice to Dirty Words
Tim Phelps, Consultant
In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebrated safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication. The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly. “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.
In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word. It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.
Let’s talk about manipulation.
Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing. I know, I know. The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others. If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.
But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation. Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch? Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma? Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)? These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time. What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative. Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad. While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.
Manipulation is crucial for quality writing. If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments. We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are. Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything. To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.
As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation. Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs. Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.
In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us. By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree. As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure. This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument. If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.
None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation. Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time. Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.