Thursday, 23 January 2014

Politics, Language and Persuasion: Unspeak and Reframing.

Wherein I take us on a journey, leading to a video of Steven Poole and Rupert Read talking about Politics and Persuasion

How might our use of language influence politics? This question has a history at least as long as the written word. That history is the history of the study of rhetoric, the origins of which predate Socrates and Plato. The study of rhetoric is the study of the art of persuasion, something which is both as essential as it might be dangerous, and as central to truthfulness as it might be to telling a convincing lie or being a good bullshitter.
 

Rhetoric: The Art of Persuasion

You want to motivate people to act en mass so as to prevent run-a-way global warming? Then you best persuade those people not merely of the truth of climate science, but do so in a way that motivates them to act. As Lt. Cmdr. Data finds out in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Ensigns of Command, availing people plainly of the facts often falls short of motivating them to act on those facts, even if doing so is in their collective interests. A simple laying-out of the facts might not be enough, for the actions required might well be counter to short-term individual interests. You’re going to need to be quite persuasive. Rhetoric can be essential not just to progress, but survival.
Want to persuade a population that launching a war of aggression on another sovereign state is something they should support? Well, in addition to lying and bullshitting so as to mislead about the facts, you might also want to use some persuasive techniques. Sex-up your claims, play down the emotive force where necessary, and ramp it up when that might help. Don’t just lie about the existence of military ordinance (most countries have armies and bombs). Lie, but do so with emotive force; push peoples’ buttons, as it were: talk of weapons of mass destruction, talk of a “severe threat, not just to the region, but to the wider world”. And when, seven years later, you are asked to discuss your role in the illegal bombing of this sovereign state, which transpired to have no weapons of mass destruction, talk not of an attack, not of the bombing of cities full of innocent people with your own weapons of mass destruction, but, as Steven Poole points out in the video (at the end of this post), continually refer to the “removal” of an individual person (Saddam Hussein). Rhetorical skills can be employed to obscure the truth. 

 

Facts of the Matter, Character of the Speaker, Emotional Engagement of the Audience

Much of what I have written so far can be captured by invoking the categories employed by Plato’s student Aristotle in his work on rhetoric. Aristotle identified three categories on which the rhetorician must draw: logos, ethos and pathos. We might translate these here as facts, character and emotion. A good rhetorician will construct their speech appealing to each of these categories. A good speaker will not simply present the facts and leave things there, they will try to give their audience reason to believe that they, the speaker or writer, are of sound, or trustworthy, character. They will also try to present the facts in such a way that the audience have an emotional stake in accepting those facts. For example, individuals might not care too much about what happens to the earth after they’ve died, but talk of our future as our children’s present and you might give individuals an emotional connection to a future they will not see. Our desire to see our children happy translates into our desire to take action to prevent runaway climate change, despite our not being the direct beneficiaries of such action.
One might also see how this translates into a programme for action for rhetoricians practiced in the art of spoiling arguments, as opposed to advancing them. Imagine you’ve lost an argument on factual grounds. The facts just turned out not to be on your side. What do you do, if, that is to say, you’re not minded to simply concede the point? Well, you might choose to leave the fact part of things alone (you’ve lost that) and focus your attack on the character of the arguer or on nullifying the emotive force of their argument. Climate “sceptics”, like their tobacco-apologist forebears, are well practiced at this: launching media campaigns designed to undermine the credibility of scientists in the public imagination.
While Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric are as relevant today as they were two and half millennia ago, there is more that might fruitfully be said about the art of persuasion. Much might be accomplished by studying the rhetorician’s skilful employment of emotive language, and their techniques for successfully persuading their audience that they are a good egg, whether they be a maker or spoiler of arguments, but we need not leave things there.

 

Persuasion by Stealth: Unspeak

Some contemporary writers have paid particular attention to the way in which, to coin a phrase of Steven Poole’s, metaphor is employed to persuade by stealth. Poole calls such linguistic instruments Unspeak: terms coined not to convey information but with the intent to smuggle-in a specific evaluative stance on a particular topic.
Want to persuade people that inheritance tax is not a good, socially responsible tax, which serves to militate the economic polarisation of society over generations? Then call it a death tax. Death tax is snappy, it’s radio-friendly; it also smuggles-in a kind of morally evaluative sense to the term that was not there before: “The lefties want to tax death? That seems just counter to basic, fundamental, ideas of human dignity! What we need is a politician to save us from such a scandalous tax.”  
Want to give or extend the ability of the police to use plastic bullets when dealing with public demonstrations? The British public would never go for it, surely?! Well, don’t call them guns, don’t call them plastic bullets. Call them baton rounds. The thing about the term “baton round” is that it conjures up images of, well, batons, which are modern, extendable, versions of the traditional truncheon, that police officers already carry as a matter of course. Baton round doesn’t conjure-up an image of, well, erm, guns, which is, after all, what they are.
What Poole does in his book Unspeak is cast a critical eye on contemporary (as of 2004) attempts to persuade by stealth: the spin doctor’s art of manipulating language so as to persuade the electorate, thereby avoiding having to go to the trouble of advancing an argument supported by reasons. Devising Unspeak serves two purposes.
First, Unspeak terms are brief and lend themselves to being repeated as Newspaper, TV and Radio news headlines. The goal is for them to be sound-bite friendly ‘earworms’. In contrast, arguments supported by reasons aren’t, generally, sound-bite friendly. The headlines and the sound-bites gain a large receptive audience who will hear and see them repeated many times; in contrast, Government White Papers or forensic analyses of policy proposals have very few careful readers and aren’t liable to catch the eye, or pass in to the subconscious while one goes about one’s daily business.
Second, if your ‘argument’ is smuggled-in via Unspeak, then it can go unchallenged. That’s the point. Where arguments advertise their status, Unspeak denies its status and the denial is by design. Lay-out your proposal as an argument and you invite others to challenge it, to analyse it, to question the reasons you advance in support of it. Hide your proposal inside a ‘Trojan horse’, which makes it look simply like a name or a description (and not a proposal or an argument) and you might find that people fail to notice they have been subject to a persuasive proposal.
The desire is for a repeatable sound-bite, that re-describing or re-naming something—inheritance tax, a gun, or a military attack on another sovereign state—also serves to smuggle-in what it is you want your readers, viewers and listeners to feel about that thing—that it is bad or good.
Talk of a “death tax”, of “baton rounds”, or of “removing Saddam Hussein” might serve such a desire.
“Death tax” conjures-up images of government tax inspectors interrupting funeral services to pin bills to the bodies of the dead as their friends and relatives sit there, still raw with grief. Bad government. It would be a good person who abolished such a tax.
Talk of “Baton rounds” conjures-up images of Dixon of Dock Green, twirling his truncheon as he smiles warmly or, perhaps, of police officers delivering bacon sandwiches in sub rolls to cold, kettled, demonstrators. Good Police.
“Removing Saddam Hussein”, as Steven Poole remarks in the video, conjures-up images of a quasi-surgical procedure, precisely focussed on one man, located in the Presidential Palace.  Good, efficient, Tony Blair.

Innovative Maiming Solutions

Innovative maiming solutions?! That’s somewhat crass!” Yes it is, but is it more so than the person who misled parliament to take us to war, repeatedly referring to that war as the “Removal of Saddam Hussein”? Because that doesn’t quite convey what actually happened, does it? Millions of tons of explosives were dropped on, fired at, and distributed in increasingly-inventive ways by innovative maiming solutions designed by British arms manufacturers and deployed by the British military. Weapons such as cluster bombs, and “daisy cutters”, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians across the whole country, in a war which was illegal under international law. Knowing that might reasonably entail the thought: Bad, War Criminal, Tony Blair.

Is Unspeak, erm, Unspeak?

In addition to exposing Unspeak, and its purpose, Poole’s argument is also a plea for honesty: for politicians to forgo the temptation to Unspeak and make their arguments explicit. However, one might hold that what Poole identifies as Unspeak, the use of persuasive metaphor, is inevitable. If one takes this view, then the argument is not so much about exposing Unspeak as meeting your political opponents’ Unspeak with better Unspeak of your own. If you took this view, then you would likely reject the term Unspeak, as itself a piece of Unspeak: a name designed to persuade you by stealth that the use of persuasive metaphor is in some sense dishonest. This is the thought Rupert Read seems to pursue, in his response to Poole (in the video). It is a response that draws on the work of George Lakoff.

 

Cognitive Frames and Linguistic Metaphor

I have written numerous posts where I talk about stories being framed a particular way and the media being complicit in, or too accepting of, the framing. What does it mean to frame something and who does the framing? Well if I write about my life and the difficulties I might face in life, the moments of happiness and sadness, I might well employ terms like meeting difficulties, or write of life’s ups and downs. I might talk of my uphill struggle, of reaching rock-bottom. I might talk of my fall from grace, my climb to the top, my dead-end career, of bad jobs or relationships I’ve had as being the result of my having taken wrong turns. I might find myself being dismissed by my peers as going nowhere. Following success at something I have worked hard towards for some time, I might exclaim that I have finally arrived.
How we talk about our life, how others talk about our lives, often draws upon such metaphors, which have their roots in the framing metaphor: Life is a Journey.
“Roots you say?”
Yes I did.
“You’ve grown, where once you and I might talk about politics, you then started banging-on about this chap Wittgenstein, and now you’re talking to me about life and the metaphors we use in making sense of our lives. One might say that your reading has provided fertile soil, and enabled you to branch-out.”
Well, that’s interesting, because as you here indicate, perhaps unwittingly, the Tree of Life is another, rather common framing metaphor when one talks about life.
The framing here works like this: there is a target domain and a source domain. Linguistic terms employed in the source domain are employed metaphorically in the target domain. In the case of our examples here, our target domain is a person’s life, and our source domain is sometimes, often, the language of travel and sometimes that of horticulture. The language of the source domain is employed metaphorically in the target domains. We might do this consciously, and expend skill and effort in doing so, and then the metaphors might be considered literary. Often, however, the terms are employed with little or no thought to their source, they are just the natural way of talking hereabouts. They are still metaphors, but we might refer to them as linguistic metaphors. In employing such metaphors, we allow the target domain (in our case life) to be framed by the structure of the source domain which has been inherited, or carried-over.
We then might think a little about what these two metaphors might imply for a political argument, if they go unacknowledged. For, while I might learn much about myself by exploring (is that a metaphorical pun?) the framing metaphor of life is a journey, convincing myself to stop carrying so much emotional baggage, and so on, if this metaphor is just passively invoked through the language we use then might it not serve to constrain us, to restrict our sense of what is possible? For life is not, literally, a journey and, therefore, there are things one can do in life that one cannot or would be ill-advised in doing on a journey.
Put another way, despite what our invocation of a journey and derivative metaphors might suggest to us, albeit often implicitly, a journey and a life do not necessarily conform to the same constraints or have the same structure or logic. We might also note that while the metaphor of life is a journey carries with it and at the least invokes the possibility of agency (you take a journey), the tree of life metaphor seems to invoke passivity, whereby one grows if conditions are good, flourishes if they are optimal and one withers and dies when the conditions are poor or when one’s environment is toxic. In this case we would focus on the environment, natural and social, in which people grow. In the former case we would focus on how one makes the journey, what one might need for the journey, how one gets to the intended destination, identifies the destination and chooses the mode of transport. We are laden with decisions when life is a journey, while dependent on soil fertility when life is a tree.
So, frames matter, they serve to constrain, guide and enable our thoughts about matters of importance. We would be advised to be cognisant of them.

 

Reframing

This analysis of linguistic metaphor was proposed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By, which is in turn deeply indebted to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his Philosophical Investigations. Subsequently, Lakoff has argued that ideological disputes can often be, should be, understood as clashes of frames: here an ideological group might be identified as a coherent group, with shared interests, while holding views on a variety of political matters that superficially appear to have little in common. The reason ideological groups form a coherent group, despite what appears like a rag-tag collection of stances on seemingly unrelated issues, is because those stances on those issues emerge from a commitment to a particular way of framing political thought. Where the politics of the nation state is the target domain, the source domain which provides the metaphors by which we frame our thinking about politics will have an impact on one’s political views.
We might illustrate this as follows: Two groups, which each form reasonably coherent ideological movements, disagree on a range of issues. Initially, it can be hard to see a. why the two groups disagree across such a range of apparently disparate issues, such as abortion, welfare, health care provision, gay marriage, environmental controls, capital punishment, and the evolution of the children’s television programme Postman Pat, and b. why agreement on these issues binds members of each group together, as a grtoup. The answer to both questions a and b, proposed by Lakoff, is to be found in the metaphors which are operative, and cognitive framing that emerges from these. Once we are aware of the pervasiveness of such frames, we can, according to Lakoff, take control. We can understand why an individual who takes particular stance on abortion might be likely to affiliate with people who take a particular stance on gun control, and tax burdens, for example. We can understand why a seemingly unrelated set of ideological commitments bind individuals together in ideological groups: it is the frame that unites them. If particular stances on political issues are derived, sometimes subconsciously, from underlying framing metaphors, then these metaphors can be brought to consciousness and challenged.
Challenging the way someone thinks about a matter through the bringing to consciousness of the constraints inherited from the framing metaphor’s source domain might be undertaken therapeutically: A therapist might propose to someone depressed, who talks of being in a rutt, or of having met a dead end, that there are alternative ways to think about life, which do not draw on the linguistic metaphor of life is a journey.
But ideology critique might be undertaken on the same model: One might, as Lakoff has argued, see conservative politics as deriving from the Nation state is a family framing metaphor, where the family is conceived as headed by a strong patriarchal—father—figure, who educates and controls through discipline and punishment. Conservative politics, in its thinking about the role of government, carries-over these assumptions about families. The source domain is, therefore, the patriarchal nuclear family and the target domain is the politics of the nation state. Thinking about government is framed by patriarchal assumptions about families: government must be strong and is about leadership. Citizens need discipline to grow, and punishment if they fail to accept the discipline. It is the father’s duty to protect the family, with violence if needs be.
Lakoff argues that those who reject the conservative vision (progressives), must reject the frames, they must reframe the debate: reject the nation state is a family framing metaphor or challenge the conservative assumptions about family structure: reject the patriarchal, disciplinarian-punitive model of the family.  

 

News Media

It is the political speech-writers and spin doctors, such Alistair Campbell and Frank Luntz, who are leaders in the production of Unspeak and reframing. Whether analysed as Unspeak, as cognitive framing, or on the model of Aristotelian analysis of the rhetorician's art, an analysis of contemporary political rhetoric would be incomplete without an analysis of the media distribution of the message. For should we not expect from our journalists what we get from Poole, or from Lakoff, or those authors who undertake similar analyses of political rhetoric?
By and large we don’t get this, and it is informative to explore why this is the case. Why did the British media fail to expose the Unspeak which smoothed the way for the attack, invasion and occupation of Iraq? Why did Andrew Marr not use his undoubted intellectual skills to expose the Unspeak, rhetorical slights of hand, and the framing metaphors which helped take us to war? I will never forget the somewhat grotesque spectacle of Marr standing outside 10 Downing Street the day Baghdad fell to US and UK forces, informing the nation that Blair stood “as a larger man and a stronger Prime Minister” and that his detractors would be ungracious if they refused to acknowledge that.
Well, for explanation, one can look at Chomsky & Herman’s Propaganda model of the corporate media and Nick Davies’ writing on the catastrophic effects the failing business model of news media has had on good journalism.


Our politicians now work with a professionalised and efficient political spin machine and the truth-distorting, democracy-eroding effects of this are too-often compounded by a media which is ineffective in its analysis of, much less challenge to, that spin. Indeed, our media is often downright complicit, if not in collusion, with the spin doctors.

Poole and Read on Unspeak and Reframing

But the media role in this is a topic for another time. Here I post a video, recorded when Steven Poole spoke at Manchester Metropolitan University at a conference called Where’s Your Argument? (which took place in April 2010 and was organised by Ben Cassidy, Michael Loughlin and me). 































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