The polarization of political speech in the U.S is growing. Words can be either powerful or controlling. When words are fear-based, generate feelings of hate, and promote separation and divisiveness, they are controlling. When words are love-based, generate feelings of empathy, and promote a sense of community and connectedness, they are powerful. Using words to evoke fear in order to control has gotten much worse in the last ten years.
With her permission, this series of articles incorporates segments of a speech about polarizing talk given by Kathryn Ruud, a linguist who has studied the manipulative language used by fascists in interwar Germany and by communists in post-World War II East Germany. I invite you to watch the following segment before or after reading today's article.
Stop Polarizing Talk Presentation, Part 3 of 6 (10.44 min)
Polarized speech does not happen by accident. Specific strategies are used to generate fear and then manipulate it. Within the macro strategy of setting up the "in group" against the "outside group," establishing a clear "us versus them," there are a number of sub strategies. When the strategies are known, it is easier to avoid being manipulated.
One sub strategy is to convey unspoken information by the tone of voice used. For example, when Hitler talked to his followers, he used an uplifted tone that made them feel good. When he was referring to his enemies, he used a harsh tone that served as a psychological attack on them.
While no one on the U.S. scene comes close to Hitler, this tone-of-voice strategy is used by both conservative and liberal political talk personalities. Kathryn Ruud shows a clip of Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, two liberal television personalities, angrily demeaning and degrading opponents.
Kathryn has helped me to understand something that has been a mystery for some time. What is all that conservative criticism of the "liberal media" about? Sometimes the term they use is "mainstream media," or government-controlled media" and more recently, "state-run media," but it is always to assert that the values and morals of conservatives are being attacked by this pervasive enemy. She explains that this is a polarizing strategy called "poisoning the well."
To poison the well, you inflate your own credibility while demeaning your critics. Rush Limbaugh talks a lot about the battle raging between the mainstream media and conservative media. At the same time, he portrays himself as the "doctor of democracy," "America's truth detector," and claims to be the epitome of morality and virtue.
Glenn Beck calls himself the "Constitutional Tsar," a warrior, fighting the forces of darkness, while calling liberals terms like "liberal socialists," or "liberal socialist communists." The latter is another strategy called "lexical fusion," the welding two or more words together, then using the new term over and over. It takes an image known to evoke fear in the listeners and brands the opponent with it.
This war using words is not to be confused with strong debate, necessary to keep our democracy strong. To challenge the ideas of others and to argue on behalf of our own ideas is healthy. To attack the character of those who see things differently is another matter. Polarizing strategies rely on impugning the integrity and the humanity of those who disagree, dehumanizing them instead of addressing the merit of what they have to say.
What do we want? A nation built on respect and reason, or a nation torn apart by angry name calling, a tragedy waiting to happen. This is a question that we are answering every moment. What we accept in our minds has reality for us. It is our acceptance of the belief that we live in a divided world in which others with differing points of view pose a constant threat that makes it real.
Also posted on GenuineJustice.com