Exposing Inflammatory Language

By: Michelle Gunnin

…of all the weapons of destruction that man could invent, the most terrible-and the most powerful-was the word. Daggers and spears left traces of blood; arrows could be seen at a distance. Poisons were detected in the end and avoided. But the word managed to destroy without leaving clues.” ― Paulo Coelho


Exposing Inflammatory Language Two Drops of Ink Marilyn L Davis


A musician can invoke a multitude of feelings in the listener with a song. An artist does the same with paint on canvas. An actor pulls the emotion out of those who watch a performance. Each of type of artisan uses the tools of their craft to create a connection of one form or another with their audience. They convey messages of beauty, power, or controversy which provoke action or aversion.

It is no different for a writer who uses inflammatory words to stir reactions deep within the reader. We plan our stories and pick our words carefully. Usually, all this artistic expression is helpful to the culture which births it. It is as if the artists are holding up a mirror in which we can see our own reflection.

Is Inflammatory Writing Irresponsible or Manipulative? 

However, when artists are not responsible with the power of their medium, the communication of the message, they are trying to convey, goes awry. It ceases to be creative expression and instead crosses over to manipulation of the audience. Never has there been a more poignant example than the use of inflammatory language, in written form, on an unsuspecting public.

The definition of the word inflammatory means to arouse anger, hostility, or passion. Therefore, inflammatory language does the same.

Inflammatory language predisposes readers towards a subject in an unreasonable, prejudiced way, by twisting the feelings of the reader in the direction the writer wants them to go. Click To Tweet 

The reader believes they came to a conclusion on their own, when in reality, the writer chose for them. The selection of words writers use can take advantage of readers; therefore, consider carefully which words you use. 

In our current culture, people are asking for responsible journalism, but the noise of inflammatory language is drowning out those requests. Writers know that the louder the words, the more clicks, and with more clicks, more money is made. See the incentive to write inflammatory words?

Exposing Inflammatory Language Two Drops of Ink Marilyn L DavisUnfortunately, many writers have sold themselves and their craft to the highest bidder. This has created division and discord, yet the stories keep coming, and the messages they convey continues to arouse hostility between people.

Know the Tactics

So rather than asking the writers to restrain themselves and to use less inflammatory language, thereby reducing the money going into their pocketbooks, it seems a more likely solution to educate the readers what to be on the lookout for. That way, the reader becomes aware of who is trying to manipulate them and why.

Once the readers are knowledgeable about the tactics, when they begin to feel anger rise up, they will recognize it, look for the language and rethink their reactions to it, which might also change the writer.

Here are two examples. Consider the difference.

#1. Old McDonald had a farm. Ei, ei, o. On his farm, he had a pig. Ei, ei, o. With an oink oink here, and an oink oink there, here an oink, there an oink, everywhere an oink oink. Old McDonald had a farm, Ei, ei, o.

#2. The senior Mr. McDonald had a farm. When he bought it from the previous owners, he stole it for the lowest price he could offer. He reorganized and filled his farm with unclean animals. They made a ruckus, which was disturbing to the whole neighborhood. The animals were everywhere. They were loud and obnoxious. All the neighbors complained incessantly but were met with complete silence from the idiot owner. This level of neglect had never been seen before.

No matter how many times the neighbors called and complained, there was no response whatsoever. The sick starving animals wandered here, there and everywhere, just trying to get some food. As always, the low life Mr. McDonald was out of town and could not be reached for comment in any way. It is said he is currently in negotiation to bring a multitude of cows to his farm. The neighbors are visibly outraged and say they will fight this till the cows go home.

Know When You’re Using Inflammatory Language

There are ways to write that will ignite your readers. Be mindful when using the following words and phrases, and determine your motive for using them.

1. Always and Never

Any time a writer uses these two words, they are making sweeping generalizations. This causes an oversimplification of a topic, people group, or organization.

Exposing Inflammatory Language Two Drops of Ink Marilyn L DavisWhen in doubt, ask yourself questions such as, Is Mr. McDonald really ALWAYS out of town?

If so, who runs his farm when he is gone? It seems unreasonable, and therefore probably untrue that he never comes home.

This kind of thinking will lead you to see the writer’s intent to stir up trouble.

2. Overstatement

Like always and never, overstatement uses words and phrases specifically to exaggerate the truth. Readers should pay attention and learn to recognize attempts to make a mountain out of a molehill. It is highly unlikely that Mr. McDonald had a level of neglect of his pigs that was so bad, it had never been seen before.

3. Extreme word choice

Words used in the extreme create pictures in the mind of the reader. Even in the title of this article, I used the word exposing instead of investigating or understanding for the nosiness and curiosity it invokes.

Mr. McDonald’s poor starving pigs have convicted him of a crime before he’s even been arrested. They cause a ruckus, are obnoxious and disturb everyone.

I could have said, his pigs were a little bit noisy, but the reader wouldn’t have adequately gotten mad at Mr. McDonald, which is the goal of this piece. It is about a horrible person, more than it is about a farmer who needs to control his pigs.

4. Implication

Sometimes writers imply things without actually saying them. They use their assumptions of the reader’s underlying feelings to drive home their opinion in a way that is unknown to the reader.

The fact that Mr. McDonald is a low life gives the impression he deserves all the criticism the neighbors can throw at him. The description draws on the supposition that some people are unworthy of trust. It paints the picture for the reader, so it is clear the old man cares more about himself than his pigs. This trick then embeds itself into the mind of the reader, who will think twice before trusting a low life in the future.

5. Omitting information

Exposing Inflammatory Language Two Drops of Ink Marilyn L DavisBy omitting some of the facts of the story, the writer can make something which is a regular occurrence into gossip-worthy fodder.

It turns out Mr. McDonald is merely going to see his mama because she has been sick for a long while. The herd of cattle he purchased was a done deal before his mama’s latest visit to the ER and has nothing to do with his being out of town.

He has been silent because he has been busy. Yet, no one has asked him for these details. Instead, they left them out so the reader would have a low opinion of Mr. McDonald.

6. Fact vs. Opinion

One of the most significant ways inflammatory language is used is when the writer states an opinion as a fact. This confuses the reader because when they find out later, Mr. McDonald actually bought his farm for a reasonable amount, it changes the narrative the writer created. The same is true when they find out Mr. McDonald recently got a different phone number and had not heard even one complaint. The writer is banking on the idea that the reader will not fact-check, but will swallow the whole story. Every opinion is disguised as a fact to the point, that the reader never even knows they have arrived at a masquerade ball.

7. Name calling

This one is particularly bad, these days. It used to be just the impulsive, hot-tempered people who said whatever popped into their heads. Now, everybody does it. In my day, my mouth would have been washed out with soap if I had ever called Mr. McDonald an idiot.

Writers know to pick names which lower the readers’ opinions on their topic of choice. The farmer is an idiot, and the pigs are obnoxious, and the neighbors are outraged. The writer’s goal to incite anger is achieved all without the knowledge of the poor ignorant reader. As you see, name calling works both ways.

Did You Get Manipulated While Reading a Post?

Exposing Inflammatory Language Two Drops of Ink Marilyn L DavisPardon, my tongue in cheek post… but I did it to make a point. I don’t believe readers are all ignorant, nor do I believe all writers are intentionally inflammatory.

I think both writers and readers need to beware and alert to how the art of writing can be used to manipulate. When anger is up front after reading, listening, or observing, take note.

Consider why the response is so strong and look back to expose the inflammatory language. It will shock the pants off of you, how many writers get away with it.


Bio: Michelle Gunnin

Michelle Gunnin is an everyday woman who is a writer, wife, mom of four adult children, former teacher, a colleague, a missionary, sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. 

With more questions than answers, Michelle writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her.

Follow her blog at michellesmosaic.wordpress.com

Michelle has an extensive amount of published work on Two Drops of Ink. Click this link for all of her postsMichelle Gunnin

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