Schülerinnen und Schüler im IB Diploma Programme der Goetheschule Essen belegen einen englischsprachigen Kurs in praktischer Philosophie und Erkenntnistheorie: Theory of Knowledge. Im Mittelpunkt des Kurses steht kritisches Nachdenken über verschiedene Studienfächer, z. B. Naturwissenschaften, die Künste, Mathematik, Geschichte oder Ethik. Während die Erasmus-Schüler sich mit “The Power of Propaganda” beschäftigten, widmeten sich die IB-Schüler der Frage nach dem besonderen Einfluss von Sprache auf Politik. Die folgenden Essays, die aus dieser Arbeit entstanden sind, sind Beispiele für die Überlegungen der Schülerinnen und Schüler.
How does language shape our view on politics?
Essay by Katalin, IB Student, Year 11
Some of the main ways politicians try to gain supporters and political power is by giving speeches and interviews and by campaigning with catchy slogans and posters that mirror their views. By utilising language like this, they influence, persuade and shape the public’s view on politics and with this change the future of their own country and international relations. The four main areas and methods they focus on are emotionally laden language, weasel words, grammar, and revealing and concealing, while the culture surrounding the language and the political/societal norms also play a role.
By using emotionally laden language, which means using words with emotive meaning and specific connotations (and in some cases euphemisms), politicians can make positive things sound negative and vice versa. An example of this is language at war. By referring to invasion as “liberation”, calling bombing “pacifying”, and justifying anunprovoked attack by saying it was “pre-emptive”, one makes war and murdering innocent people sound necessary, justified, and an issue that is not that serious.
This is because “liberation”, “pacify” and “pre-emptive” all have positive connotations; liberation signifies freedom, pacification peace and pre-emptive precautionary, therefore safe. Harnessing emotions through words is also an often-used political tactic. By making people angry at the current government or at other countries, one can motivate them to vote for a specific party or person. By making them sad or worried, one can also motivate them to act a certain way.
Weasel words, for example “probably”, “might” and “simply”, give sentences escape routes. With them, politicians can avoid directly lying while for example giving highly unlikely promises. For example, British politician and advocate of Brexit John Redwood stated in 2017, “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy- the UK holds most of the cards”; by stating that it “can be” and not “will be”, he made sure his statement would stay true no matter what happened.
The third aspect of language that can be manipulated is grammar. For example, by using the passive voice, politicians can avoid taking responsibility, while the active voice can make a victory seem like it was due to their hard work, when in fact, it was not. For example, in the case of war, a politician will more likely say “men were sent to fight and they lost their lives” instead of “we/I sent men to fight and they lost their lives”, while instead of saying “the police work very hard making sure that laws are followed” they might say “we work very hard making sure that laws are followed”.
Concealing and revealing certain aspects of reality and diverting attention away from certain events while focusing them on other events is also a very effective way of convincing people that the right choice is being made. For example, if one says “inoperative combat personnel” instead of “dead soldiers”, one diverts the attention away from the aspect of death.
A not yet mentioned factor is the culture that comes with language. Therefore, words and phrases like “liberal” or “left wing” have different meanings in different countries.
While, for example in Germany the AfD is considered extremist, in other countries a party with such opinions is considered, while still right wing, not such an extreme because they have parties that are more extremist. And while “left” can sound positive, in some contexts and cultures where it is connected with equality and giving
opportunities to the lower classes, when one considers that an authoritarian Communist regime is also “left”, it is no longer such a positive thing.
Norms that come with language are also a factor that comes with this culture. An example of this the following statement Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made about immigration in 2019: “megvédjük-e a keresztény, európai kultúránkat vagy átadjuk a terepet a multikulturalizmusnak/will we protect our Christian, European culture or hand [ourselves] the terrain over to multiculturism” (my translation). Such a statement can be seen in accordance with the norms of that country. It could be seen as a completely normal opinion and way of expressing it, while it could also be seen as scandalous, because Christianity is stated as a value of the European culture,
which is not the case for many people living in Europe. Multiculturalism, one of the main characteristics of a globalised world, and what many European countries view as positive and rely upon for work-force, is portrayed as a danger and a very negative thing.
To conclude, language plays a very big role in politics and influencing whole countries. By considering these aspects, political actions and decisions by the different people around the world can be understood better.
Essay by Helen, IB Student, Year 11
Language is our main way of intentional communication, and the way we use it can influence the meaning of what we say. There are different ways of expressing something, and every time a human intends to say something, he needs to decide which way to use, for example whether to use a past or a present tense or whether to you phrase it in two sentences or just one. However, there are also a lot of possibilities in the use of language that can help you influence, or sometimes even manipulate the listener.
Emotionally laden language helps you to appeal to the your listeners’ emotion: You can imply things that you do not explicitly say, or you can evoke an emotional response that is more subtle and therefore more effective than when you just plainly state something. An example of this is the expression “pro life” instead of “anti-abortion”. Saying “anti-abortion” might evoke the feeling of being stripped of a choice, an option is taken away from you. “Pro life”, on the contrary, implies that someone’s intention is to save lives, and the listener emotionally reacts in a more positive way, as that expression almost sounds heroic.
Part of this principle is the concept of framing, where you draw a connection between a subject and an emotional reaction by using positively or negatively connoted words when talking about that subject. This usually leads to a one-sided interpretation or simplification of reality. A political example is ‘waves of refugees’. ‘Waves’ sounds threatening; the mental image that is evoked might be that of a tsunami of refugees. In consequence, you might associate refugees with danger.
There are other methods being used, such as weasel words, which are words that are sneaked into statements and relativize their meaning, making them less binding. An example would be ‘We are relatively well prepared for a financial crisis’.
In addition to minor ways of concealing or distorting information though grammar (e.g. choosing a passive phrasing to avoid naming the one who acted a certain way), deciding to conceal and reveal certain information is also very effective. Through that method you can e.g. leave out information that might give a statement a completely different meaning.
In our everyday life, we can sometimes find ourselves using the methods mentioned before, but they gain significant importance in circumstances where influencing people is essential, such as politics.
It is a known fact that propaganda can influence peoples view on politics, but the use of language for means of manipulation can be found in many political settings that we would not necessarily consider propaganda. Trump is a very prominent example of a politician using language to alter the public opinion. Instead of referring to ‘an investigation’ against him, he calls it a ‘witch hunt’, which draws a comparison to the historically unjust persecution of women and implies his alleged innocence.
There are also other ways language influences our view on politics, such as words that might be racist. Using the n-word as an example, you can see it being used as a label and becoming a stereotype. It is a word that carries a lot of hatred in it, and frequent listeners of it (if it is being used in a hateful context) might develop a strong resentment. Almost all words may carry some sort of ideology in them, and if they are used in an effective way, the ideology might affect the listener and manipulate him. Politicians and other political players can downplay mistakes and issues, create certain emotions and connotations to those issues and depict situations differently to what they truly are like. Newspapers can use language to give an image of a political matters that might be false. Activists can use language to motivate people and engage them. We need to be aware that language almost always carries and opinion and that we should always ask ourselves whether somebody is trying to manipulate us, and how they are doing this.
Essay by Carolin, IB Student, Year 11
We use language all the time to transmit complicated thoughts to one another. But at the same time language is not just a simple tool for communication as it can shape the way that we think, and it influences our listeners. In politics, words are the currency of power. In elections, for example, the right words said can convince voters. Words may make the potential voter believe in what the politician says. Things like repetition or the choice of words can influence the opinion of listeners. So language and its use have a big impact on the way that countries develop. By using emotional language, weasel words, political language, catchy slogans or stereotypes politicians are able to shape people’s views on politics. Therefore, it is very important for a successful politician to use the right words depending on his specific audience. In the following, I will describe some of the most important methods to influence voters.
Some words have an emotive function, as we link feelings to these words. For example, the word `hero´ transfers a good feeling, because we connect good emotions with this word, as this is someone who saves someone else. This is emotionally laden language that politicians can use to convey positive feelings.
Words are connected to specific ideas that we have of them. When you hear the word `military´, for example, you may immediately have a picture in your head of a strict and complex organisation that turns a lot of strong men into a powerful unit. However, this typical connotation can be different due to different experiences. Our connotations don’t always line up with reality so that we might have a false idea of some things. This could be, for example, because of false or misleading information.
There are also `weasel words´ which are words or phrases that you can use if you don’t want to be explicit. They can be used when politicians want to make it seem as if they had given a direct statement or given a clear answer to a question in an interview, though they have actually said something vague or even misleading. They often also do this if they don’t know the exact answer. If they say, for example, that `The situation will probably improve in one week´, they are just saying that to comfort other people and to give them hope. The weasel word in this sentence is `probably´, because they don’t know for sure if and when the situation will change.
There is also `political language´. Politicians have some words which just apply in politics. For example if they talk about a `political suicide´, they metaphorically refer to a vote or action that is likely to be so unpopular with voters that it may cause a politician’s probable loss in the next election. Politicians thus have their own jargon.
The most popular slogan of today’s politics in the United States of America was introduced by President Trump: `Make America Great Again (MAGA)´. Slogans are there to excite the masses and to promote a politician. When Donald Trump used this for his 2016 presidential campaign, many people liked the idea of changing America so that there would be good times again. The problem with this slogan is that nobody really knew which “great” time Trump was referring to. Different people view different periods of American history as great. Trump does not really give a specific time when he wants to accomplish this change in America nor does he explain how this is supposed to happen. But does he really have the power to change the whole continent? And is the US really no longer great, though it it one of the richest countries in the world?
Structure / Grammar:
The structure of a sentence can also change the way people see things. For example, politicians would rather say `Many villages were bombed´ in times of war than saying `We bombed many villages´. The second phrase draws attention to the perpetrators. It sounds as a bad thing and makes them responsible. So, by talking about it indirectly by saying `Many villages were bombed´ the politician can pretend it to be ‘collateral damage’, a frequently heard euphemism in politics. It would also not be clear who exactly bombed the villages so that attention shifts from the attacker to the incident that happened.
Generalisation / Stereotypes:
Politicians also often generalise or use stereotypes to describe groups of people. If you, for example, meet a person from a different country, you could assume that everybody from that country has a similar code of conduct. This can make your life easier, but it can also lead to completely false assumptions.
Stereotypes are the beliefs that we have about character traits, core strengths or tendencies of social groups. Politicians can use stereotypes in their speeches to attribute a bad stereotypical trait to enemies or opponents. Classifying opponents in this way may of course influence voters.
Euphemisms in language:
Euphemisms is the art of making things sound nicer. Euphemisms in language are used to influence voters’ views on politics. A euphemism is a polite or indirect way of expressing a difficult topic. This is often also called `soft language´, as it is mostly used as an alleviative strategy to soften or neutralise unpleasant things or to hide the truth. Politicians often use euphemisms to convince ambivalent voters by downplaying certain things. To find new polite words for emotionally laden things with bad connotations is common when using euphemisms as method to change voters’ opinion. A politician could use the word `freedom fighter´ instead of `terrorist´ if he is in favour of the man and its goals. Some changes can also be a bit odd like in the following example. The radiation of the sun is correctly measured in the `unit rad´. People did not like this and changed it to `sunshine units‘. The new connotation implies that an increase of radiation is something positive, but the opposite is true. So, sometimes changing words or phrases is quite helpful for politicians to distort reality so that people will be more motivated and gain hope.
All in all, there are many different ways in which politicians can change our view on politics by using language. This is why we should always look out for linguistic tricks. We have to keep in mind that politicians intend to persuade voters and make them follow them. Words are the strongest instruments to achieve their goals. We, however, have to develop own opinion about relevant topics and look at these things critically.
Paweł Czerwiński, Polish street art, Katowice. Released into the public domain by Unsplash.