Well, there is certainly something to be said about a book which has generated so many negative comments and "reviews," particularly by those who admit they have not even read "Words That Work." In this review I am not going to discuss the specific contents of the book since that is available elsewhere. I want to focus on some of the criticisms instead.
Frank Luntz, the author of this recent contribution to linguistic empowerment, and who just happens to be one of the more successful contemporary masters of the art of using words to persuade, has evidently touched a sensitive nerve in the brains of those who think that there is something "wrong" or "evil" about the grand old skill of rhetoric. Rhetoric, you say? OK, I realize that most of those educated within our institutions of "higher" learning during the past four decades or so may be suffering from an intellectual disorder called "classical deficiency syndrome" (or CDS), so please allow me to elaborate.
Rhetoric is art turned to the practical purpose of persuading or impressing. It is, in a way, the art of making speeches that count. Learning rhetoric was prized in the ancient Greek democracies as a means to success in public life. Aristotle, that grand master of realistic philosophical thought, inventor of systematic logic, and father of modern empirical science, even wrote a book called "Rhetoric" which contains a fairly systematic discussion of the forms of rhetorical argument. The study of rhetoric was valued by many philosophical schools of the past, and especially by the Stoic philosophers who made it a branch of logic. It was a proper study for philosophers and an absolute necessary for anyone contemplating a career in public life. Those, for instance, who have read the speeches of the great Roman orator Cicero (anyone out there?) will understand and appreciate what's just been said.
The major point of Luntz's book is that "It's not what you say, it's what people hear," and he provides an extensive argument supporting the proposition that, indeed, "words matter" or, at least, the words one chooses to use are as important as the concept or assertion one is attempting to present. His main point could be considered almost a "truism," a trivial sidebar, if it were not for the fact that it is so commonly ignored. He certainly provides ample illustrations in his text to justify his insistence on the importance of his major point, "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." And "what people hear" is at bottom what will persuade them, which is the whole point of the matter. Select your words carefully, utilizing those terms which are most likely to convince your audience to accept your ideas or buy your product or whatever.
Subversion, you say? Manipulation, you charge? Powermongering, you accuse? Please, spare me those ridiculous complaints. Luntz is promoting "persuasion" in his book, that is, intellectually "moving" a person by words and argument in order to convince or induce a belief. Nowhere in his text does he promote any activity that could be remotely considered unethical, deceptive, or disempowering. He is simply saying that some words are better than other words when one is trying to present one's case in a public venue. Big deal! Anyone trained in the classic art of "eristics" knows that the words one uses are every bit as important as facial expression, hand gestures, voice pitch, and so on. ("Eristics"? Oh, sorry about that. For those with CDS, "eristics" is the "art of disputation or debate," something every young educated Greek and Roman male student learned.)
Is Luntz biased, as some critics accuse? Of course he is. I am, too. So is everyone! A "bias" is simply a point of view, a particular stance one takes in regard to anything under consideration. A "bias" and a "prejudice" are not the same thing, contrary to what some people think. If you don't have a "bias" you simply don't have a point of view and most likely are not very interesting for purposes of a discussion. There is no one more boring than a "neutral-thinking" individual who has no "considered" opinion about anything. Note that I'm not talking "mere" opinion here, but an "examined" or "thought-out" opinion. And the words through which or by which we express our opinions, especially when we want to persuade or convince someone of the efficacy of our opinions, are significant. In other words, they matter!
Now, it is well known that Luntz is a Republican pollster and tends to work that side of the aisle politically. This is no secret; he is quite open about this; he is not hiding anything. The specific details, however, of his political or social or economic thinking are unknown to me and not important as far as his book is concerned. Although I realize many political extremists (whether left or right) are loathe to accept it, the messenger is not the same as the message. The rules of logic, the principles of rhetoric, and the strategies of eristics are not "owned" by any political group. It matters not one whit if a book about symbolic logic or mathematical theory, for instance, is written by a left-winger or a right-winger as long as the material within it conforms to truth, consistency, and the generally accepted principles of the discipline.
"Words That Work" is, in my "considered" opinion, a valuable modern contribution to the whole subject of rhetoric (in its classical sense) and I would recommend it as a primer in "persuasion" to anyone involved in politics, social activism, business, or any other activity requiring public speaking or policy-formation. And for those who may suppose that I am a subversive right-winger offering support to a fellow-traveler, let me assure you I am not a neo-conservative, a member of the Republican Party, or a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy."
You may be assured of one thing, however: before I criticize a book or its author, I read the book first and get to know something about its author and then only for purposes of determining the author's particular "bias." But it is always the book I review and not the author. After all, even the devil can quote Scripture.