nineteenth-century bank

One of my favorite parts of the novel Eugénie Grandet, by Honoré de Balzac, is a snippet of dialogue. In this brief exchange, Balzac clearly shows how different his characters’ mindsets are. The husband and wife are not living in the same universe!

The snippet of dialogue is also a great example of spin. That is, it shows how the crafty use of language can greatly affect how an audience feels about a person or issue. Check this out. The family has just learned that Monsieur Grandet’s brother was, before he died, a bankrupt:

‘What is a bankrupt, father?’ Eugénie asked.
‘A bankrupt,’ answered her father, ‘has committed the most dishonourable deed that a man can dishonour his name by being guilty of.’
‘It must be a very great sin,’ said Madame Grandet, ‘and our brother’s soul may perhaps be eternally lost.’
‘More of your church rigmaroles!’ retorted her husband, shrugging his shoulders. – ‘A bankrupt,’ he went on, ‘is a thief that the law unfortunately takes under its protection.’

Isn’t that hilarious? Maybe you had to be there (in the middle of reading the book), but I think this is brilliant comedy. First of all, the wife and daughter are so clueless about the world of finance that they do not know the word bankrupt. Second, while all the characters perceive the words dishonorable and guilty as negative, the husband thinks of them in terms of a relationship with other people, while the wife thinks of them in terms of a relationship with God. Third, the way Monsieur Grandet twists words around is truly—dare I say—presidential.

Here is a checklist for manipulating people by being conniving with language, in case you are interested in going that route:

  1. If you want someone to believe something is bad, use the worst-sounding words you can, regardless of their truth. Dishonourable, guilty, and thief are excellent examples.
  2. If someone replies to you in a way that doesn’t fit your worldview, immediately condescend them. Do not delay! Delaying will give them a chance to question your authority. You must immediately strike back. Make that person feel that they are wrong, wrong, wrong, and it’s impossible that they could ever be right—unless, of course, they agree with you.
  3. If there are established laws or mores that contradict your worldview, use language to paint them as bizarre and nonsensical. Your audience should get the impression that the happenstance of the laws or mores existing have no history; they must have just plopped into the world without people noticing or thinking too hard about them. Make your audience believe that changing these laws or mores is not a matter of critical thinking about issues, but of common sense.

So what is the most dishonorable deed a person can commit?