All ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses know that the Watchtower Society is more than a religious organization. It’s also a publisher of books and magazines,1 which are–for all intents and purposes–a central part of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Society uses its literature to hand out its spiritual food (“the truth”) to its adherents, including counsel from the governing body. Most Witnesses will probably tell you that the literature rocks, that it’s very informative, well written, and expertly researched. But the literature also has its critics. Like me. (Sorry.)
In my last post, I mentioned that the Society’s authors use techniques that make the literature feel both convincing and informative. I also told you that the literature isn’t nearly as informative or convincing as it feels. In this post, I’ll tell you how their authors keep convincing readers that they’re right, even when they’re dead wrong. I’ll even tell you why Jehovah’s Witnesses (and maybe even you) keep falling for it. For former Watchtower adherents who still have lingering fears about Jesus and Armageddon, the repetition of it all will blow your ex-Witness minds. It’s all disappointingly simple.
Now let’s see how they do it.
The Number One Principle In The Society’s Repertoire: Emotions Reel Us In
Believe it or not, human beings find emotions more motivating than anything our intellects can provide. That’s why it’s so very hard to drop a bad habit that makes you feel good in the short term, even though you know it’ll kill you in the long term. Give us a speech loaded down with numbers and facts and we might say, “Well, that was nice. Kinda dull, though. What was he talking about again?” But give us a rousing speech filled with passion and we’ll cheer for you, even idolize you. Whether you’re factually right or not won’t matter so long as we feel that you should be right. If you can make us feel it, then all too often, we’ll buy it. As a skeptic, I find that pretty disturbing. Still, that’s just how humans are.
If someone can make you want to believe them because you like what they’re saying, they don’t even have to work that hard to convince you that they’re right. You’ll do most of the heavy lifting for them by using your intellect to convince yourself that they are right. You’ll even start to ignore evidence that they’re totally wrong. If they can’t grab you on their first attempt, they’ll probably win you over if they can just get you to listen to their claims over and over again. Repetition is temptation, as in, they’re literally tempting you to indulge your desire to believe their claims until you stop resisting that desire.
Why is this human failing so important? Because the Society’s authors use our emotions, and even our impulses, to overwhelm our intellects. Like it or not, this has been a fundamental trick of the trade for evangelists, politicians, and salesman going back as far as their very beginnings. Infomercials are an especially obvious example of how our emotions can trick us into believing whatever others want, yet they still work on many thousands of people who want to be thinner, smarter, or free from pain. These people are especially vulnerable to infomercials because they want to believe.
This is where an understanding of logic can come in handy. They allow us to actually focus on techniques like these even as they’re being used against us. You may think you’re good at seeing these pitfalls, but think again. These are not skills we are born with. They are not common sense. But if you take the time to learn them, an alarm will go off in your head whenever someone tries to sway your emotions, which are far easier to convince than your intellect. Trust me, it’s worth the time.
Note that these techniques aren’t always used for evil purposes. It depends on the situation and what your personal values are. Nevertheless, if you don’t have much in the way of facts to back up your point of view, then the only way to convince the masses is to sway their emotions. Understanding how these techniques work can help you identify them and to think about the real heart of the matter. Always ask yourself–did they give me a real argument that proves or at least supports their point, or did they just try to manipulate my emotions? Then you can decide whether you should take them seriously or not. Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to double check their facts. The Society’s authors make a lot of mistakes.
Now let’s look some of these techniques in action. Once you understand how they work, try reading some articles in the Society’s publications and see how many you can identify.
Technique #1. The Setup
Many of the Society’s book chapters and magazine articles begin with an attempt to frame the discussion on their terms. Even if most of us would normally disagree with those terms. This is done so they can control the context of the discussion in a way that’s favorable to whatever point they want to make. Note that this is often a two step process, which ends with a payoff.
The payoff is where the Society states it’s conclusions, which it assumes it has earned the right to present. But has it? Whenever you read one of their articles, always ask yourself if the facts support their conclusion. Try to identify all the assertions they failed to support with real evidence before reaching a conclusion of your own. A half quotation from someone they suggest might be an expert doesn’t count.
Technique #2. The Question
Did we evolve from apelike animals? Or were we created?
Do you know the bad thing Adam and Eve did?
Did this relatively small band of Christian men and women bear thorough witness about the Kingdom of God even in the face of vicious persecution? Did they really have heavenly backing and the support of Jehovah’s holy spirit in their disciple-making work?
These are all questions from actual Watchtower publications. If you read them again, you’ll notice how questions like these stir up our emotions. They even allow the Society’s authors to do so in controlled way, especially if you’re already one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s because they already know exactly how such questions are supposed to make Witnesses feel. Let’s take a closer look.
“Did we evolve from apelike animals? Or were we created?”
If you think like many creationists, the answer to the first question in an emphatic no. It’s almost as if the question is challenging us to say, “Hell no I ain’t no ape!” Even a so-called evolutionist or atheist wouldn’t find evolution very appealing if they read this question as it’s been framed here. Wouldn’t something like, “Did we evolve?” fit just as nicely if the Society wanted to start out from a neutral position?
This makes the second question, “Or were we created?” seem all shiny and nice by comparison. If you’re a Witness, or even a creationist of another faith, you will surely feel drawn to this option. Doesn’t being created sound more appealing than just evolving from some apelike animal? It does in this context. If you’re on the fence about evolution versus creationism, this question will surely nudge you toward creationism and prepare you for the presentation that’s to follow.
“Do you know the bad thing Adam and Eve did?”
This question actually appeared in a children’s book. Yet it’s childlike simplicity still makes us feel something deep down. If you read it out loud, it kinda sucks all the fun out of the room and makes everyone want to go all quiet. We sure wouldn’t want to be like Adam and Eve, would we? Obedience to God and his earthly organization is far better.
“Did this relatively small band of Christian men and women bear thorough witness about the Kingdom of God even in the face of vicious persecution? Did they really have heavenly backing and the support of Jehovah’s holy spirit in their disciple-making work?”
When put together, both questions make Jehovah’s Witnesses feel connected to that small band of Christian men and women who bravely stood up to bear thorough witness about God’s Kingdom despite opposition from others. Their struggle becomes the reader’s struggle because the reader sees the similarities and feels good about them.
Did that small band of Christians really have Jehovah’s backing in their disciple-making work? Of course they did. (Duh!) If they had God’s support, Jehovah’s Witnesses reading the question surely do too. Or at least they’ll surely feel like they do. This makes them want it to be true long before a single fact has been offered to back those feelings up. Hence, they’re ready to believe it even before the argument gets made.
There are tons of questions like these in the literature. In some cases, the Society hits us with a string of questions, all of them building up one upon the other like a series of waves. Open any of the Society’s literature and there’s sure to be at least one question on nearly every page. Why are these questions so effective in rousing our emotions? Because they make us feel something while also turning our attention inward so that we’re focussed on the emotion. This makes us feel it even more. By asking leading questions to answers we already know, we’re primed and ready to believe whatever they want us to believe. Even if they’re weak on facts to support their claims, which they often are.
Technique #3. Useless Information As Convincing Filler
If you really pay attention to the Society’s writings on non-spiritual subjects (like science or their avoidance of holidays) you’ll notice that these articles often contain lots of filler. Filler is all that stuff you’ll find in the middle of an AWAKE! article that’s heavy on facts … but they’re facts that don’t do anything for whatever point the Society’s authors were trying to make. Yet these facts still leave us feeling well informed because we’ve just been given a paragraph or two worth of distantly related details. The fact that these details don’t support the Society’s viewpoint in any way does not detract from this feeling.
Here’s an example of filler:
DO YOU look forward to Christmas? Or does its approachﬁll you with nervous apprehension? Millions of peopleask: ‘Whom will I get gifts for? What should I buy? Can I afford it? For how long will I be paying oﬀ my debt?’
Despite such concerns, Christmas remains very popular. Infact, the celebration has even spread to non-Christian lands. In Japan most families now celebrate Christmas, not becauseof its religious signiﬁcance, but purely as a festive occasion. In China “Santa Claus’s cheery red face is plastered in shopwindows in major cities,” says The Wall Street Journal, adding:“Christmas fever is gripping China’s newly rising urban mid-dle class as an excuse to shop, eat and party.”
In Western lands, Christmas is now largely secular andcommercial, with many ads “blatantly pitched at children,”said Canada’s Royal Bank Letter. Granted, some people stillattend Christmas services at a church. But it is the shoppingmalls, resonating with carols, that have become the new tem-ples. Why the change? Could the reason be connected withthe origin of Christmas? What are its roots?
Before discussing such questions, it would be good to readthe Bible accounts on which Christmas Nativity scenes aresupposedly based.
This is taken from the upcoming December issue of the AWAKE! The filler in this article goes on for a bit longer. I actually had to cut two paragraphs of it out because it would have taken up more space than the example was worth to us here.2
If you read the quoted material, you’ll see that only the beginning and end really matter. The beginning is there to make the reader think about the stress of Christmas time. It then acknowledges that Christmas remains popular and sort of wanders off into a bunch of details that don’t really add much to their point. Finally, it does get to the real point–how worldliness and materialism have replaced the religious significance of Christmas. All that stuff in between was unnecessary. Yet it made us feel like the article was full of details and information which support what’s to follow, even though these details don’t support their position at all.
Oddly enough, there are some real facts behind some of the Society’s points regarding Christmas. You’d think this superfluous stuff would be unnecessary in this case.
Technique #4. Authoritative Quoting
The Society’s mastery of quote mining is unparalleled. As far as I can tell, they truly don’t care where the quote comes from, if the quote is taken wildly out of context, or if the person they’re quoting supports their point of view in the least. It’s one of the Society’s most infamous techniques. All you have to do to bust them on this one is to enter the quote into a search engine where you’ll surely find the rest of it. The rest of it will probably go something like, “But we all know that last thing I said was bull crap, right? Ha ha ha!” Or you’ll learn that the person who said it wasn’t the expert the Society suggested they were.
Many ex-Witnesses become exxers because they discovered this one on their own. Still, the Society continues to use authoritative quoting because of its power.
Authoritative quoting allows the Society to point and shout, “See! They say it too!” This lends more weight to the views of their governing body by showing us that others see the topic as they do. Of course, the Society rarely gives us many details about the person they are quoting. In the long infamous Creation Book, the Society quoted a number of people they described as “evolutionists” who felt that some aspect of evolution was unscientific or unlikely to have happened. Many readers naturally thought an evolutionist was an expert on the science of evolution because they–as Jehovah’s Witnesses–didn’t know much about the debate. That made these quotes seem pretty damning of the theory of evolution.
As it turns out, an evolutionist is simply someone who believes that evolutionary theory is true.3 These evolutionists were simply journalists or other non-experts who had stated a personal opinion about the topic at one time or another. The Society could just as easily have quoted a fireman or a homeless person they found on the street in these instances. The effect would have been the same so long as they made the person sound important or seem like an expert to their readers.
Somehow, the idea that an expert says it’s true makes it feel true to us. Even if it isn’t.
Authoritative quoting also allows the Society to distance itself from opinions that aren’t politically correct. By quoting the person in-line (as part of a sentence), they can make that person’s words their own while also claiming that they were merely quoting someone else if the critics call them on it. This is like a Witness insisting we have no business getting angry at them for trying to convert us because they’re only doing what the Bible says, as if following orders absolves them of any responsibility for their own actions. It’s not a good defense, but it’s one that Jehovah’s Witnesses use all the time in a debate.
Technique #5. Acknowledge And Dismiss
The Society’s authors will sometimes acknowledge that another point of view exists in their writing by simply mentioning it. They may even quote someone who is supposed to share that point of view, even though it contradicts the Society’s own. Then they’ll promptly dismiss that point of view or simply ignore it thereafter, leaving us with the impression that they’ve properly dealt with the topic when they haven’t. They simply admitted that it exists, often without confronting it or disproving it, and moved on to tell us what they think.
How Many Techniques Can You Identify?
If you want to remember these techniques and fully understand how they work, you’ll want to test yourself by trying to find examples of them in the literature. The December AWAKE! I mentioned earlier might be a good place to start. I’d love to post an entire article or book chapter here, but alas, copyright infringement won’t do anything for my aspirations toward becoming a paid writer some day. Or my bank account.
These are five of the most basic techniques. Maybe others can suggest some more in the comments below.
NOTE: This is part of a series of posts about the this issue of the AWAKE!
- Ever notice that the Society provides the product–it’s literature–AND the demand all at the same time? Witnesses need the literature as part of their worship, which they’re expected to donate for. That’s a pretty sweet deal if you make your money from the publishing bizz, eh? ↩
- To be fair, this was really meant to be a set up for other articles that were to come, just as the AWAKE! often does. That’s why there’s so much filler here. Still, it is an example of filler and how extreme the Society can get in using this technique. ↩
- Actually, the term evolutionist is widely seen as a slap in the face by creationists, who wanted to paint “believers” in evolution as being just as dogmatic as themselves. ↩