The Language of Persuasion in Politics
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The Language of Persuasion in Politics

An Introduction

Alan Partington, Charlotte Taylor

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eBook - ePub

The Language of Persuasion in Politics

An Introduction

Alan Partington, Charlotte Taylor

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This accessible introductory textbook looks at the modern relationship between politicians, the press and the public through the language they employ, with extensive coverage of key topics including:

  • 'spin', 'spin control' and 'image' politics

  • models of persuasion: authority, contrast, association

  • pseudo-logical and 'post-truth' arguments

  • political interviewing: difficult questions, difficult answers

  • metaphors and metonymy

  • rhetorical figures

  • humour, irony and satire

Extracts from speeches, soundbites, newspapers and blogs, interviews, press conferences, election slogans, social media and satires are used to provide the reader with the tools to discover the beliefs, character and hidden strategies of the would-be persuader, as well as the counter-strategies of their targets. This book demonstrates how the study of language use can help us appreciate, exploit and protect ourselves from the art of persuasion.

With a wide variety of practical examples on both recent issues and historically significant ones, every topic is complemented with guiding tasks, queries and exercises with keys and commentaries at the end of each unit. This is the ideal textbook for all introductory courses on language and politics, media language, rhetoric and persuasion, discourse studies and related areas.

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1 Politics and the language of persuasion

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
Words are the only things that last forever.

1.1 Politics is conducted through language

Language is vital to the process of transforming political will into social action, ‘in fact, any political action is prepared, accompanied, controlled and influenced by language’ (Schäffner 1997: 1). Or as Corlett puts it:
Communication is the currency of politics. Politicians trade in discourse and argument, public statements, speeches, pamphlets and manifestos. How they express themselves determines who they are and whether they will succeed in their profession. Keeping quiet for a politician is as useful as a shopkeeper who never opens his store.1
To paraphrase the Wittgenstein aphorism above, the limits of a politician’s language set the limits of their careers. In this series of lessons we will look, first of all, at the many ways in which politicians use language, the tool of their trade, but also at what we can learn about politics and politicians themselves from how they use language. The topics we look at include: common models for structuring an argument, how to tell logic from pseudo-logic, rhetorical figures for effective speech-making, metaphor and metonymy (attractions and dangers), the tricks of political interviewing, humour, irony and satire, and how election campaigns are run.
It is possible to define politics narrowly as the working of institutions of governance or, more broadly, as the interrelations of social groups, some with more power than others, within a given society. It is similarly possible to define the language of politics narrowly as the language used by institutions of governance to conduct their business, to communicate with other institutions and with the rest of society, or, more broadly, as all the discourses produced by groups within a society which relate to issues of the management of power and of social governance. Both of these definitions are relevant to the kind of studies of political language found in this book.
However, most ordinary people rarely have experience of politics directly. In many countries it is possible to meet with elected politicians at appointed times, or attend local events, such as town hall meetings. But most of the time our experience of politics is ‘mediated’, that is, we experience it via the media, the TV and radio, the paper press and increasingly through websites. As Wilson (2001: 411) similarly concludes:
defining political discourse is not a straightforward matter. Some analysts define the political so broadly that almost any discourse may be considered political. At the same time, a formal constraint on any definition such that we only deal with politicians and core political events excludes the everyday discourse of politics which is part of people’s lives.
And so we will also scrutinise some of the ways in which the media employ language, also the tool of their trade and the ways in which political issues are discussed by non-politicians.

TASK 1: Language in politics

It is difficult to think of any political action which does not involve using language: political speeches, newspaper editorials, press conferences, cabinet meetings, Acts of Parliament, and so on.
1) How many more political actions or events involving the use of language can you think of?
Which involve spoken language, which involve written language and which involve both?
2) Can you think of any political actions or events which do NOT involve using language at some stage?
3) From which sources (news websites, TV news, newspapers, social media, conversations with friends, etc.) do you obtain your information about politics?
In this book, the types of political language we will look at include newspaper articles, blogs, interviews, speeches, expert talks, debates, press briefings, election campaign language, slogans, aphorisms, tweets, political humour, satire and even insults.

TASK 2: Politics is …

1) Can you match the following six definitions with the six speakers listed below them?
Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.
I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.
Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
Politics is for the present, but an equation is for eternity.
Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the next best thing.
Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.
Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Otto von Bismarck, Mao Tse-Tung, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan.
2) Which of the definitions do you empathise with most? (Free response)
For the purposes of the current work in political linguistics, we will adopt the definition that democratic politics is ‘the art of persuasion’ – also known more formally as rhetoric (terms which are in bold and italics are explained in the Glossary). Persuasion is achieved principally by the skilful use of language. And persuasion is of itself neither good nor bad, neither beneficial nor harmful, but in practice it can be both or neither. Rhetoric is language at work, and language at play:
It is what persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects. It causes criminals to be convicted and then frees those criminals on appeal. It causes governments to rise and fall […] and perfectly sensible adults to march with steady purpose towards machine guns.
(Leith 2012: 6)

1.2 Persuasion and rhetoric in a democratic society

In an absolutist or totalitarian regime (from the Roman Empire to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union), those in power rule by using the twin weapons of coercion and the manipulation of information (for a current example of the latter, browse the North Korean regime’s official Twitter feed @uriminzok_engl).
In a pluralistic democracy, instead, the principal use of language in politics is for persuasion in debate. In fact, the art of political persuasion in this sense was born with the first democracy in ancient Greece. The Greeks developed what they termed the art of rhetoric, which is none other than the skill of persuasion. More formal rhetoric was generally felt to have three main fields of application: for politics (agora, that is ‘public space’), for law (forensic) and for speeches of public praise or blame (epideictic). As Charteris-Black (2013: 3) points out, the most frequent adjective which modifies rhetoric in the British National Corpus is political, followed by public. Thus, rhetoric is still seen as central to both senses of political discourse. Aristotle also identified three basic appeals of rhetoric. The first, ethos, is the attempt to establish the credentials to justify why you should be listened to, perhaps because you are interesting and witty or, if a politician, strong, honest and experienced. An adversary may well attempt to delegitimise your ethos, by questioning your character or discrediting your credentials to make certain claims or hold certain powers (we will meet several types of attempted delegitimisation in this book). The second basic appeal is logos, the attempt to present a plausible argument in a logical or at least apparently logical way. And the third is pathos, the attempt to appeal to the audience’s emotions. We shall come across these appeals in different disguises during the rest of this book, including in more informal acts of persuasion (Aristotle 2012).
But rhetoric right from the beginning had a mixed reputation, and still today the word can have a number of meanings. It can be defined simply, following Aristotle, as we said above, as the ‘arts of persuasive discourse’ (Cockcroft and Cockcroft 1992: 3), that is, the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents. Aristotle argues that we employ the art of persuasion every day in our normal and natural relations with other people; indeed, his theory of rhetoric is also essentially a theory of human interaction. In other words, people use language all the time ‘to attempt to influence the beliefs and the behaviour of other people’ (Partington, Duguid and Taylor 2013: 5). In terms of one important approach to language study, namely speech act theory, studying rhetoric means studying the perlocutionary intent of utterances, that is, the effect speakers wish them to have on their audience.
In real life, of course, attempts to influence and convince others are often met with suspicion and resistance; the more blatant the attempts, the deeper the suspicion. Such resistance to rhetoric is anything but new: ‘The success of rhetoric rapidly drew upon itself a counter-attack, recorded in Plato’s Gorgias, where Socrates deplores the skill taught by sophists (teachers of rhetoric) as a mere “knack” to disguise falsehood or ignorance as plausible truth’ (Cockcroft and Cockcroft 1992: 5).
For Plato himself the rhetorician is a ‘speech-rigger’ (logodaidalos) (Cockcroft and Cockcroft 1992: 20). Rhetoric, in this view, is manipulative and there is somehow a deficit between complex-sounding rhetorical argument and ‘the truth’ which, in his view, could only be discovered and explained by – who el...

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