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  • Thursday, January 19, 2006


    Soft Words, Hard Emotions

    The use of a political vocabulary is constant these days. There are two things to keep in mind when you hear politicians and related staff speak. (Of course there are more things but I’m just not addressing them here.)

    The first is vocabulary, the choice of words. Some words are used to evoke certain feelings. They are not intended to convey information, they are intended to arouse passion. I call these “soft words.” I’m sure there must be some specific political science term but that’s what I call them.

    Soft words have a definite meaning but when used by politicians they are intended to bypass critical thought and create a knee-jerk response in the listener. This often works so well that if someone calls into question the actual meaning and use of the word, some people will respond with vociferous hostility because they are triggered by the symbolic and emotional power of the words.

    An easily understood example is “freedom.” Freedom has a real definition in the dictionary. However when Pres. Bush uses it, it is usually abstracted and undefined. He uses it as shorthand for many other things not actually included in the definition of the word. That isn’t the important thing, although it is a horrible misuse of language as communication. When Pres. Bush uses the word freedom, he wants us to think of patriotism and American spirit, of good things. If the US is bringing “freedom” to the Iraqi people, that’s good, right? Who can argue with freedom?

    Of course, this is blatant emotional manipulation. It also provides an excellent way of framing and directing any response or argument. The least criticism leads to “Why do you hate freedom?” or “Your doubts and questions give strength to America’s enemies.”

    The second important thing to pay attention to with political speech is a magician’s technique for performing stage magic. This is misdirection. Misdirection is the ability to make the observer look in one place while the magician accomplishes a task in a different place. Part of this is building on the expectations of the observer.

    An example might be the “State of the Union” speech by the President. The very title of the speech sets up certain expectations for the content, that it will contain important information about the lives of Americans and the prospects for the future. What the speech will actually contain is the administration’s view of what is important. This is not a subtle distinction. It strikes to the core of our government’s ability to represent it’s people. The speech sets the tone and specifics for what people focus on. Whether they are actually important to the majority of American citizens is another matter.

    While I’ve used President Bush as an example here, this is not just practiced by Bush or the Republicans. It is part of the political culture.

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