I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately: the relationship between language and power. Language shapes thought, and thought energizes action. Language is a powerful tool in winning public support, but it’s also a powerful weapon in pitching worldview against worldview.
Some years ago cognitive scientist George Lakoff wrote a book called Don’t Think of An Elephant, which examined the ability of George W. Bush and neo-cons to frame issues in such a way that their thoughts and decisions seemed the most rational. The book has been updated since then, but Lakoff’s principle still holds. The title conveys one of his main insights: if you negate a frame, you strengthen it. In other words, if you say “don’t think of an elephant,” you can’t help but think of one.
Words aren’t neutral. They convey attitudes, and they come saturated with meanings from our own prior experiences and beliefs. Many words not only have purely denotative meaning (identification), but also connotative meaning (reflecting the writer’s emotions, attitudes and value judgments). One way to explain this link is through the concept of framing. A frame is an abstract notion referring to a structure of expectations or preexisting knowledge about people and situations based on your prior experience.
Frames may well facilitate communication — in a sense, they provide a sort of shorthand — but they also influence how we understand words and concepts. For instance, based on prior experience, I know if someone addresses me by my professional title, they’re framing our talk as a formal conversation, and I will respond to the way they framed the situation.
Words serve as triggers of a particular set of expectations and frame a situation in a particular way. This explains why communication between people who employ the same words and expressions often goes smoothly: they share a vocabulary that evokes shared frames, which in turn confirms and reinforces shared views and beliefs. The opposite is also true: usage of diverging terms suggests conflicting frames or conflicting interpretations of the situations and people involved.
In March 2016, Lakoff was already concerned about the emerging Trump phenomenon. He detailed the ways in which Trump “uses your brain against you” and sent the article to every member of the Clinton campaign.
Lakoff’s persuasive argument focuses on two ideas: framing, and the opposition of liberals’ and conservatives’ concepts of the family. Conservatives, he says, have easily framed tax cuts as “tax relief” because of widespread preexisting views of taxes as arduous. Liberals, on the other hand, have had exceptionally little success conveying their belief that taxes are a social responsibility. There are a lot of reasons for that, but language and being “first to frame” are the most powerful to my mind.
Missouri State University’s Andrew Cline agrees. “The power to define, and make it stick, is arguably the premier political power,” he writes. “To control the definitions of terms is to control the debate by bracketing how the audience may think about an issue. To create new terms is to create new realities.”
Cline also chooses the Bush administration to demonstrate the power of creating new terminology. In 2002, press secretary Ari Fleischer introduced the term “homicide bombers” to describe Palestinian men and women detonating explosives and killing themselves in public places. Cline points out this change in terms is not politically innocent: any term created or redefined by a political administration has political importance. In this case, the new term helped to further delegitimize the bombers. What’s wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, except the term may also further delegitimize the larger cause of the Palestinian people — the establishment of an independent state. In other words, this new term might further aggravate the idea of guilt by proximity, as if all Palestinians think and act alike in regard to violence.
The Trump era has ushered in a new level of framing. Any news we don’t like becomes “fake news.” There are facts, and then there are “alternative facts.” By stripping words of meaning, Trump is claiming power over reality itself and is taking steps toward authoritarian rule.
And he is aided by the press that assiduously avoids framing his relationship with truth, using words like falsehood, unsupported claim, false claim, fib, whopper, and spin. Does that matter? There are situations where any of these is appropriate. But “lie,” with its “intent to deceive,” has the potential to help us focus on the larger picture, beyond all the necessary fact-checking. What’s the larger picture? The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has the answer: “Lying is the message.”
Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness. And whoever has the opportunity to frame the argument… is the winner. It’s worth thinking about, this power of words, as we listen to all the arguments coming into the 2020 election.