Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Words and Politics: Rhetorical Skills

I heard a Democratic consultant complain about Frank Luntz this morning. The problem is, Luntz and George Lakoff give the same type of advice, but to different parties: words and phrasing matter. Politicians left, right, and center learn to manipulate words. A lot of science goes into this -- it is marketing, after all.

The New York Times Magazine had a lengthy article on attempts to persuade people to be more environmentally responsible. Neurologists, linguists, psychologists, and experts from a dozen other fields are trying to shape words and messages to get citizens to do the "right" things.

Politics and activism require marketing. Call it rhetoric. Call it manipulation. Call it framing, nudging, or whatever else you prefer. The reality is we choose words with the intention of obtaining a desired result.
For one side or the other to claim: "Our opponents use rhetoric!" is nonsense. Reading the books of Luntz and Lakoff, you realize it is all the same scam. Knowing what these men do should help voters and the media, but that would require the press sticking to facts and careful analyses.

I have political beliefs and biases, but I'm not conceited enough to think every "reasonable" person will agree with me. I know that persuasion remains essential to politics. If reason alone were enough, we wouldn't have any public debates on serious issues. (Chaim Perelman's works make this point repeatedly.)

People won't stop complaining about the rhetorical strategies of opponents in politics, but at least we can and should admit everyone seems to be employing experts in language and rhetoric in our modern democracy.

And yes, it scares me that they test messages using MRI scans. Manipulation without ethical limits, even for a "good" cause is very erie.