On Russell conjugation

Russell conjugation, named after philosopher Bertrand Russell, is a concept that describes our tendency to portray things we agree with more generously than those we disagree with, using emotionally charged or loaded language.

Here are some examples that Russell referenced back in 1948 on a BBC show:

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.
I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.
I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

For each example, notice how the words or phrases get increasingly negative. These examples use synonyms to describe the same factual content of a word or phrase while changing the emotional content, and therefore its intended effect.

Why does it matter? This little-known (although recently publicized) linguistic trick is frequently used in the media to communicate with a certain flavor, based on the biases or perspectives of the writer or speaker.

Here’s a currently developing story headline in the CNN related to a Chinese balloon:

And a headline about the same story in the South China Morning Post:

The simple addition or omission of the word “spy” very likely changes how the reader feels about the story's significance.

As content consumers, it’s useful to be aware of the concept of Russell conjugation so we can ask ourselves if we are forming our opinions objectively or simply mirroring those of the information source. In the age of social media and divisive politics, it’s especially important to be vigilant of how our views are influenced by seemingly benign differences in language.

If you look out for it, you’ll find examples of Russell conjugations everywhere.