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Patrick Cain

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How exactly does language and political rhetoric affect the communication that exists between and within governments and their societies?

I would like to explore the use, and more importantly the misuse of language as used in the political sphere. Particularly, I would like to look at the importance of the manipulation of language to persuade and placate the populace as well as others in that government itself. However, if possible, I would also like to approach the positives; the ability of a politician to inspire through no more than the use of language for example. Further, I would like to address the disconnect between those who write the speech and their interior beliefs and motives.

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  • Jan 25 2014: We have long known that as soon as the emotion centers of the brain are activated, the logic centers pretty much shut down. In my opinion, much of political speech is designed to activate the emotion centers of the brain for exactly the above reason.

    In the United States, the words Liberal and Conservative are so politically charged that as soon as one or the other is spoken, you've bypassed the logic centers of the brain of the listener.

    If you have a strong affiliation to one of the dominant policies, then the use of the "buzz words" makes many people either accept or reject everything that follows.

    Worse, the two political parties have managed to integrate their platforms into the psyche of their followers, much like religion does. To even question the correctness of your political party becomes the psychological equivalent to risking death of your own personality.

    I have seen it in my parents, my in-laws, and many others. Party A is good. Party B is evil. The meaning of life becomes to help Party A defeat Party B. To question the actions of Party A is to risk destroying your world view, eliminating your meaning of life and perhaps becoming evil.
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    Jan 24 2014: By my experience and for many democracies, political rhetoric is designed to enervate people to the highest possible degree in order to make them disinterested, frustrated, confused, hopeless and blind towards the democratic power they actually hold. Because as lower the voter turnout, as less diverse interests have to be dealt with.

    The purpose of language is to transport information and information is power and power tends not to like to be shared.

    Yet as silence would be to obvious for a good option, a rhetoric has to form to keep information unshared while producing enough words to fake communication.

    Highly sophisticated linguistic tools, such as framing and propaganda are being used in order to manipulate the common awareness, at least on those who haven't given up already.

    To me, it should be sacred to any democracy to teach and encourage the process of political participation constantly, as this is its core value, yet if we look at many realities, the opposite has been installed and is kept this way. And the misuse of 'communication' has been and still is part of it.
    • Jan 25 2014: Perhaps it is because I live in a country that only has two political parties, perpetuated by a winner-take-all election system rather than a parliamentary system, but in my experience, political speech is not intended to enervate. Rather it is intended to motivate the "true believers" in the speaker's party.

      Enervation is just the unintended side effect on those in the middle of the political spectrum constantly given the option of Really Horrid Candidate from one end of the political spectrum or Equally Horrid Candidate from the other end of the spectrum.

      The political rhetoric plays to the ends of the spectrums, drowning out any cogent arguments or reasonable discourse that may occur in the middle.

      I am truly in the middle, and I know this because on a daily basis my ideas are rejected by Conservatives as being radically liberal while at the same time they are rejected by Liberals as being radically conservative. This is the life of someone in the political center, because we challenge the positions of both parties, and to challenge one party's position means you must be in favor of the other party. No middle ground is permitted.

      Political rhetoric is designed to force you to pick a side.
      • Feb 20 2014: Indeed, heads or tails of the same bad penny.
    • Jan 29 2014: Thank you both for the responses. I just wanted to ask about a further aspect: it appears that primarily this political speech is a negative attribute; are there any positives that can come from political speech at all in your experience? Or is it primarily negative?
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        Jan 29 2014: In my experience it is primarily negative, but luckily, this does not define all possibilities at all.

        Honesty and humbleness towards those who form a democracy by those who represents them would make for a good start into a new era of political speeches.

        I don't want to hear rhetorics if a sinking ship was actually 'half full' or 'half empty', I need the exact sinking rate to be able to decide for the most promising solution.
      • Jan 29 2014: Hook.

        My sister tells me that I lose most people long before I get to the point. Political rhetoric does shrink a complex thought process down to a buzzword that has a better chance of being hears.

        Too bad the short answer is usually the wrong one.
  • Jan 29 2014: Political speeches are usually one of the most boring events in the world, with all this rhetoric. Bearing in mind that the politics are permanently restricted in their actions and speeches, they become an image, a hopefully charismatic person of the real existing power. The main rule when writing speeches for others seems to be : keep it as rethoric and senseless as possible. Therefore it is quite understandable that people do not get the message or get bored. Rethoric kills the essence of communication in my opinion.
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      Feb 2 2014: I agree with some aspects of your post. Rhetoric isn't the same as a logical fallacy, which I feel is what you may be having an issue with in communication. Rhetoric is the language designed to persuade the audience. Though sometimes lackluster, it is in essence the heart of most communication (political, commercial, and personal). We all spend our days trying to convince others and get them to do things or think a certain way.
      • Feb 2 2014: Thanks for your comment.
        It is true that we all spend our days trying to convice others and that rethoric is a very useful tool. The main issue is the excess of rethoric used in politics, simply too much an then the message is confusing. Managing the use of rethorics to convince is an art that only few speakers master. Some speakers are using a good dose of rethorics very successfully, and that is alsi because they write their own speeches. Politics rarely write their own speeches with a heavy dose of rethorics. How can they be convincing if they did not even write it themselves?
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          Feb 2 2014: I agree with that also. I don't truly understand the reasoning behind giving a persuasive/ political speech that you yourself have not written. I think that that is another aspect to look at. When someone else is writing a politicians material then is it (as the speaker) really the message they are trying to get across. It seems from the communication angle that it leaves the speech open for misinterpretation and even misrepresentation. When writing a speech wording is a precarious thing and it can easily change the intended message of your speech.
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    Jan 25 2014: i have come across something related to the topic in the Bible that ' the power of life and death is in your tongue'.
    therefore speech, language are powerful tools to kill or to heal. History is repleted with plenty of examples how language and speech of hate, love have altered humankind.

    in the modern day, i think most political speeches are laced with rhetoric, and rhetoric appeals to the people and most people want dramatic speech. rhetoric are only a means to an end.

    I think people linguist, psychologist , anthropologist can do better to dealt with the phenomenon of rhetoric, what's in it that appeals to the mind.

    another point, any speech in order to be effective needed a context, and also the context or socio-politial environment add or spiced-up the speech in a manner that it becomes either harmrful or fruitful.

    i think we can also see parallel examples in the net now like youtube, how certain videos gone viral. what are the ingredients that add up to that 'viral scale'. that will interesting to ponder and research.
    • Feb 18 2014: No wonder Jesus lost his life. He spoke mostly rhetorically. Every one was convinced by Obama that there is one united America and Obama is the man to bring it about. :Little research would have shown that Obama had no such ability in slightest; But gimmick worked.
  • Feb 13 2014: As in my encounters with the government - i insist on using only valid and fundamental political-governing speak [that excludes all ISMs ] and it has surely got me my citzenery claims sought therein.
  • Feb 2 2014: Define "misuse" of language in purely objective terms substantiated by objective evidence. Then a meaningful discussion can begin. Otherwise, it's all just gabble-gabble-honk.
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      Feb 17 2014: I'm not sure because I didn't start the conversation, but by misuse I think it is implied to mean the way political language and rhetoric is used to otherize and ostracize certain parties, people etc. for their views to persuade and gain favor or the upper-hand.
  • Jan 28 2014: Throughout the human history, there are gadzillion examples of conflicts in language or rhetoric between husband and wife, between neighbors, office workers, kings courts and of course, different political parties. The most vicious verbal attacks are between opponents of candidates within the same party during the primary election.
    So, even though language is suppose to facilitate communication and understanding among human beings, but the net effect of languages on human intentions is not quite as good as we perceive.
    The basic problem is; most, if not all, humans seem always think that "I am holier than thou.", although the ATTACKER MAY simply BELIEVE that he could get away with half-truth or innuendo to win the political battle.
    • Jan 29 2014: Great response. I was just wondering about the Attacker believing they can get away with the half-truth: is there any viable reason beyond their own ego for this? Because especially in the modern age, where everything can be checked for its reliability and truthfulness, why would they believe this?

      Thanks.
      • Jan 30 2014: Innuendo could sometimes be checked out, but half-truth is usually more difficult to be checked out. One of the reasons is that there is a time factor involved, in many cases, by the time it is checked out to be false, either the election is already over, or there is very short time left (in other word, it's too late) to change the impression/opinion of the voters.
        Of course, the other reason is the mentality of "use any tactics to win", whether it is ethical or fair fight or not.
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    Jan 26 2014: Hi, Patrick!

    Best 10-minute primer on euphemisms and language manipulation is this great talk by the late comic genius George Carlin, hands down!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuEQixrBKCc
    • Jan 29 2014: Thank you very much for the video. Are there any other similar videos you could think of that could be about similar material?
  • Feb 22 2014: Destroy the language and hobble the mind, ala '1984'
  • Feb 21 2014: To make a decision based on the highest amount of misinformation possible...
  • Feb 20 2014: I believe that a true leader should do their own research and speak from their heart rather memorizing from script. Yes, leaders should be motivator and one that can inspire others to meet goals and objectives. Telling his staffs the reasons for doing something rather than just asking others to carry out tasks without knowing the reason why. Leaders should also cares about the welfare of his or her followers. Words used should be simple to understand and not to add jargon to create confusion among the listeners. Clarity is a must in the language one used to converse with others.
  • Feb 20 2014: Each culture has it's own language which evolves from that culture and then tends to mold it. Values mold styles of speech, which when translated inevitably get translated only into the nearest approximation of the intended meaning. Governments often change the focus of national discussions, to avoid discussing the awkward realities, which cultures adapt to, too slowly to address properly. Different governments then find themselves attending conferences wherein nothing gets done until discussions are held in private, where those awlward realities can be discussed directly, without their populations tapping into what's really going on.
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    Feb 18 2014: The U.S.A. and China may well offer the best possible example of how language and political rhetoric - better known as propaganda - have shaped populations. At one time China rounded up and executed or imprisoned all those the state deemed 'intellectuals'. In other words, thinkers and potential challengers with salient arguments.

    In the U.S. intellectuals have long been mocked, deemed nerds and subject to abuse and discrimination in school by their peers. Again, primarily because intellectuals tend to bring rational arguments to the arena and the political arena prefers emotional arguments as being more winnable. Emotions are far more easily manipulated than reason. .

    In both instances intellectuals are shunned by the political community where personality and backroom connections invariably trumps intelligence and competence for the task when it comes to future and present office holders. .

    While not the only ones, both Chinese and U.S. governments have always been skillful users of the propaganda tools they decry the use of by others to enthrall their populations with the message that theirs is the greatest nation to live in. This belief persists despite the very obvious evidence of massive levels of poverty and inequality and exploding prison populations.
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    Feb 18 2014: In Denmark You can look into the case of DONG Energy. It's about the sale of a company shared by citizens and state in which 19 per cent of the company was sold to an american investment bank although we (Danes) handed in more than 200.000 signatures against it. Denmark is a frontfigure in the development of windmill (green) energy. And the state sold their shares, not to the highest offer, but to Goldman-Sachs instead of better offers from Danish interests. It is sad that the people's voice is not even considered in a case like this. There is much sense in selling shares, but not to a speculant. We are a democratic society in which the voice only counts when its election day.... Not a rare example but what can we do?
  • Feb 18 2014: A great and noble leader need one quality. What he thinks, what he says and what he does has no day light between. Unfortunately it is hard to find that quality. Last ones were Gandhi and Mandela.

    Even when we find such and honest leader task is now impossible. Worlds population, their advancement and knowledge and ability to communicate has grown very large and complex, When you consider each human mind is unique and is ever changing and have only limited real time ability for information, the magnitude of task is obvious. Add to that intention of political communication is to only win.

    Even God if he exist, the proposition is dubious, the problem cannot be solved.
  • Feb 14 2014: I believe it is a problematic state of affaires, the speeches do not allow citizens to make informed decisions, maybe Korzybski's research is relevant in solving the current, what could be defined as, communication "problem" between politicians and society.
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    Feb 13 2014: Political rhetoric and messaging has developed into a true science and art. And it is a double edged sword. If we stop our inquiries about how people think about an issue and use the information to regurgitate what they already think-- that's pandering.

    There is a value in understanding how people see an issue. We can learn how to open productive ways of assimilating new information.

    To the extent that our views are based on wrong information or misinformation, we have to find ways of opening our minds to assimilate the new data that might change our opinions.

    The critical concept here is dialogue. Our public discourse should engage us in a dialogue where we are able to hear and learn and make adjustments in our thinking in relation to new facts. It is a collective creative process.

    Jointly creating a common understanding and then arriving at a common approach.

    I like to think about the tools underlying political rhetoric: focus groups and polls as a way of listening attentively.-- The same approach that we apply in a one-on-one situation: paying attention and mining for understanding applied on a larger scale.

    If we search for and use words that open up understanding, dialogue and collective problem solving we are on the right track.

    If we search for and use words designed to trigger and divide we run in circles. I think the observation is that we have far too much of the ladder.
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    Feb 1 2014: I'm not a linguist or communications guy. But I do study how the brain evolved and how it works, or more properly doesn't work. Click on my name to access my profile and see if you can find anything of use in my 550-word abstract of my larger paper, "Brain Catastrophes by the Numbers: Mental Minefields We Must Traverse to Survive."

    If that interests you I can send you my 3,676-word illustrated paper.

    Best!
    • Feb 2 2014: I think that could be helpful in some aspects. Would it be alright if you sent me your paper?

      Thanks!
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    • Feb 1 2014: That's fairly cool! I was just wondering if you had anything else that you could recommend for the topic at hand though? Any other videos or articles if possible?
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    • Jan 29 2014: My apologies. This is my first conversation, and so I am still finding my feet for this kind of thing! I will try and change accordingly.