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Prejudicial Language

Loaded or emotive terms are used to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition. It is the use of language to create a preconception in the audience.

When a proposition for discussion is stated in connotative or prejudicial language… the “deck is stacked” against the viewpoint that opposes the proposition.

Warnick and Inch, Critical Thinking and Communication: p. 62.


Our leaders are consummate politicians; theirs are wily, cunning, or worse. We give the world information and seek influence; they disseminate propaganda and disinformation while seeking expansion and domination.

Govier, Selected Issues in Logic and Communication: p. 69.

On the one hand, calling abortion “slaughtering innocent children in the womb”, or on the other, as merely “the removal of the products of conception”. (See below) Also, the insistence of some partisans in the abortion debate of calling their opponents “anti-choice” instead of “pro-life”, or conversely, “pro-death” instead of “pro-choice”.

Social welfare programs are a safety net for people who are down on their luck.” Or, “Social welfare programs are an institutionalized racket whereby those who work for a living are forced to support those who refuse to take care of themselves.

Crews-Anderson, Critical Thinking and Informal Logic, p. 47.

The piece is loaded with words and phrases intended to convey that this is all somehow disreputable: “superyacht»; “luxury trips”; “exclusive California all-male retreat”, “sprawling ranch”; “private chefs”, “elegant accommodation”; “opulent lodge”; “lavishing the justice with gifts.” And more.

Adjectival overkill is the method of bad polemicists who don’t have much to report. The ProPublica writers suggest that Justice Thomas may have violated ethics rules, and they quote a couple of cherry-picked ethicists to express their dismay.


During the Cultural Revolution the rhetoric of dehumanization was often presented in the form of animal metaphors. Class enemies were likened to undesirable animals in the Chinese cultural context. For example, the official media referred to class enemies as ‘cow ghosts and snake spirits,’ ‘monsters and demons,’ ‘parasites’ and ‘vermin.’ The Red Guards called them ‘pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ and vampires.’ These dehumanizing metaphors permeated Chinese spoken and written discourse. They were used in slogans and wall posters as well as at denunciation rallies and political study sessions. Detention centers were called ‘cowsheds’; the song class enemies were forced to sing was called the ‘ghost song’; and children of class enemies were symbols of tearing down social structure, expressing hatred for the enemy, and showing loyalty to Mao Zedong.

Lu, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, p. 190.

Senator Turner claims that the new tax rate will reduce the deficit. (Here, the use of “claims” implies that what Turner says is false.)

A “Moral Panic” rather than ethical concerns

The article pays particular attention to debates within feminism around transgender issues, and sketches out a climate of transgender moral panic whereby conservative thinkers and some feminist activists are joining forces with the aim of resurrecting gender binaries.

Sally Hines, “Sex wars and (trans) gender panics: Identity and body politics in contemporary UK feminism” in The Sociological Review Monographs , Vol. 68(4) (2020). Also see.

“Science Deniers” Who “Don’t Believe in Facts”

Can we change the minds of science deniers? Encounters with flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, coronavirus truthers, and others. … They are not merely uninformed — they are misinformed. They cite cherry-picked evidence, rely on fake experts, and believe conspiracy theories. How can we convince such people otherwise? How can we get them to change their minds and accept the facts when they don’t believe in facts? 

Book Title and Description, MIT Press, How to Talk to a Science Denier (August, 2022).

The proposal is likely to be resisted by the bureaucrats on Parliament Hill. (Compare this to: The proposal is likely to be rejected by officials on Parliament Hill.)

On Euphemisms and Dysphemisms

Homeless instead of vagrants, undocumented immigrants instead of illegal or unauthorized immigrants, differently abled instead of handicapped, etcetera.

“A person’s emotional attitude towards something can often and easily be influenced by the term that is used to refer to it. A euphemism is a replacement term that is introduced in order to make something less offensive or negative than it would otherwise be. The paradigmatic example of a euphemism is the replacement of the term ‘civilian casualties’ with ‘collateral damage’. by contrast, a dysphemism is a replacement term that is introduced to make something seem more offensive or negative that it would otherwise be. By way of example, consider the difference between ‘causing civilian casualties’ and ‘killing babies.'”

Crews-Anderson, Critical Thinking and Informal Logic, p. 47.


Identify the prejudicial terms used (eg. “bleeding heart liberals” or “science deniers”). Point out that the rationality of the proposition is what is in question and should not be judged prematurely. The infelicity of prejudicial language does not preclude moral or rational judgments about a viewpoint, but such judgments are problematic when they preempt the conclusion of the argument, that is, when they are present in the premises rather than in the conclusion.


It is worth noting as an ancillary to the more obvious uses of prejudicial language that postmodern critiques of language suggest that even mundane words and phrases are tools used to reinforce the power structures in society. You may recall the scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when Malcolm Little is shown by his mentor in prison that the word “black” is associated with a host of negative connotations like “gloomy” and “destitute of light” while “white” is synonymous with “pure” and “innocent”. In college as a Resident Advisor I hung posters asking for “guys” and “girls” interested in joining our coed soccer team. I was kindly scolded by our office secretary, a student in the Feminist Studies program. She considered my use of the term “girls”, however unintentional, as an infantilizing of women, part of the patriarchal power structure of society. Though this critical disposition has merit, it can overreach. Jonah Golberg satirizes this analysis of language as follows…

“If I stood up in a classroom at Brown or Harvard or Yale and declared, “Let the best man win,” the students would turn into a human sprinkler-system of deconstructing inquiry. What do you mean by “man”? What are your criteria for “best”? Why does someone have to “win” at all? Couldn’t we define the task more cooperatively? When you say “let,” who is doing the “letting”? Isn’t that just another way of saying we should “let” the patriarchal capitalist system continue to reward those already deemed “best” (and, therefore, most advantaged)? This word “the,” it seems to connote that there is only a single criterion for determining a privileged status; couldn’t there be a more pluralistic approach? Etc., yawn, etc.”

Golberg, National Review, Jan. 18, 2002.

On the unfortunate effects of using prejudicial language…

Demonization sacrifices complexity and nuance for absolutes. Organizing identities into a moral we versus an evil they, it explains the demonizer’s circumstances as one of struggle with some absolute evil and hope for conquest over it. A symbol that does not depend on the actual characteristics of the enemy, demonization blights rational discussion and pushes aside accurate understanding of the adversary… The void in understanding of the enemy… invites additional prejudicial language and shrill verbal attacks — “Nuke Afghanistan!” — that carry little more than emotional logic… [P]eople, regardless of their conscious (or good) intentions, use such caricatures as that of the monster to distort and even deny uncomfortable political realities or to disconnect terror from the political grievance that provokes the caricature… the lack of awareness of the stereotyping, fraudulent charges, and soothing forgetfulness of the ravages of violence that language brings, the speakers might succeed only in manufacturing new unpleasantness that they will have to face.

Herbst, Talking Terrorism: pp. xi-xii

A model of non-prejudicial rhetoric…

In part because the debate over abortion has been so public, partisan, and emotional, it has been characterized by much prejudicial rhetoric. The use of such language is more appropriate to propaganda than to reasoned debate. There are two principal types of excess that need to be avoided. First, there is the use of highly inflammatory language that is chosen primarily because of its emotive content. Speaking of mothers who would ‘slaughter their innocent children in the womb’ is a case in point. Such language judges the issue prior to any consideration of relevant arguments. Perhaps one would be justified in using this kind of strong language after having analyzed the arguments and come to a reasoned conclusion, but to insist from the outset that this is how matters are to be described is not helpful. In any case, it should be a practical consideration that the use of inflammatory language will eventually wear thin. At worst it will provoke an antagonistic response; at best it will be ignored: one who is too shrill for too long will simply not be heard after a while. But there is a second excess that is equally serious — the use of language that hides from us the realities of what we are doing. A Classic example is the definition of abortion as ‘the removal of the products of conception.’ Such a bland, antiseptic use of language obscures the nature of the action and is every bit as objectionable as its inflammatory counterpart. There are many other ways to slant matters in order to obscure the full character of our actions as well. Consider, for instance, the following advice: ‘If you don’t want to bring an unwanted child into the world, have an abortion.’ The presumption here is that what is in the womb is not yet in the world — and that before individuals are in the world our responsibility to them is minimal, however considerable it may be after they are in the world. But we may very well wonder whether being in the womb is not being in the world, since the womb is, after all, in the world. Clearly it is not fair simply to sidestep this issue rhetorically rather than dealing with it openly.

This much said, I would like at the outset to note some of the key terms I will be using and also make clear what meanings I will be attaching to them. When I speak of a zygote I will be referring to the fertilized ovum as a single-cell entity. In speaking of an embryo I will be referring to a developing human organism during the first eight weeks following conception. Technically speaking, the term fetus refers to the developing human organism during the period from eight weeks after conception to birth, although in more common usage it can also refer to the developing human organism at any stage of development between conception and birth. I will frequently be using the term fetus in this broad and nontechnical sense. On those occasions when I need to use the term in its technical sense, I will be using it in conjunction with the other technical terms, zygote and embryo. I realize that some may object to the use of the term fetus to describe the unborn on the grounds that it seems too cold and technical, that it has its origins in animal husbandry. To kill what is called a fetus may not seem so objectionable as killing what is called a baby. But I consider the term baby to be prejudicial and inappropriate because it conjures up the image of a cuddly infant in its bassinet, surrounded by paraphernalia of the nursery, and inappropriate because a newly fertilized ovum simply is not yet a baby however strong its claim to a right to life may be. The term unborn may be more satisfactory to those who object to fetus. Indeed, I think it a fair enough term and consequently I shall use it from time to time, even though I realize that some consider it to be shorthand for ‘unborn baby’ and thus, again, prejudicial and inappropriate; I will be using it on the presumption that it does not bear those prejudicial connotation. I hope that by using both unborn and fetus I can avoid giving any implicit advantage to any of the parties to the abortion debate.

Wennberg, Life in the Balance, pp. 16-8.