How to bend the masses to your will with words alone

The internet, being composed of 50% text and 50% raw naked ambition, is full of how-tos and guidelines on ways to manipulate the written word to achieve your raw naked ambitions. They are called things like How to Write Compelling Content for the Web or 73 Ways to Manipulate the Weak Willed With the Power of Your Words.

But if you really want to push people around with the pure force of language then I suggest turning to a true master of the medium, the ancient philosopher Aristotle. We tend to think of these long dead philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the fathers of all things democratic and hence good. But Aristotle’s version of democracy was mostly about the Greek nobility voting to decide what to do with the latest batch of slaves or which tribe to conquer next. One thing Aristotle did well was give his wealthy patrons advice on how to use the power of rhetoric to bend the uneducated masses to their will. And if you wish to do the same you could do worse than follow Aristotle’s three part structure for truly persuasive text…Ethos! Pathos! Logos!

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This is where you establish your credibility as a speaker. It is the foundation that your whole argument rests upon. Logically, it shouldn’t actually matter what the credibility of the speaker is if their argument is correct. But in reality it is often more important than anything else. Experience, qualifications, expertise. Just a few of the weapons you can deploy to prove that you are, in fact, the Man. (Or the Woman.) But don’t overdo it. There’s nothing people hate more than a smart-ass.

The bit where you establish an emotional connection to your audience. You know like in X-Factor where the wannabe pop star tells you they wannabe famous so their dead second aunt Petunia will be proud of them? Pathos. Of a blunt and obvious kind. But even more sophisticated appeals to the emotions all come down to the same basic technique, whereby the speaker establishes that he is just like the rabble he is speaking to. This is why you see politicians doing things like rolling up their shirts sleeves, or telling you for apparently no reason about the summer they spent working in a shop before they became part of the social elite. They are just like you and me, see? If you can establish pathos effectively the battle is as good as won.

This is the logical bit where you explain why what you are saying is correct. Ironically, it’s by far the least important part of the argument. If you have your ethos and pathos down, you can get the mob to do most anything. So the real purpose of of the logical bit of your argument is to tell your audience what it is you want them to do. Or, if there are critics in your audience, provide some bullet proofing against their accusations that all you’ve done is stand up and say what a great bloke you are (ethos) and that your aunt Petunia just died (pathos). In fact, if you provide a bit of wonky logic your critics will focus their efforts on pointing out just how wonky, which they can do to their hearts content because it won’t actually impact the brain washed masses under the spell of you ethos + logos.

Be careful with this, it’s some powerful shit. It might sound great to have a brainwashed mob obeying your every command, but I can assure you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Also, if you do it too transparently the ignorant masses will notice you are manipulating them and turn on you. Ideally you need a good Public School (Private School for American readers) education to teach you the nuance of social manipulation. But hey, even without that you can have fun bending the unwashed masses to your will!

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

3 thoughts on “How to bend the masses to your will with words alone

  1. Great Post. I’ve been tossing the theory around in my head for months, that the only way to be financially successful (disgustingly rich) is to play on the stupidity of people.


  2. I just recently had a similar conversation with my Jurisprudence professor. Would you go so far as to include, after reading Aristotle, parsing through Plato’s dialogues? Philosophically, they could boggle the average reader. However, the Apology alone is a master class in the rhetorical techniques from that wonderful asshole Socrates filtered through the literary voice of Plato.



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