Why does language matter? Why is it important and beneficial for people to have very good language skills?
Postmodern culture theorists will tell you all notions are socially constructed, and that language is used not only to reflect, but also to co-create realities. In a sense, all reality is textual: it depends itself on language and is created by it.
Language beyond the sentence and how it is used as a form of social and political practice is called discourse. Present day linguistics plays a critical role in unveiling and the ways in which language can be used to manipulate and to “introduce persuasive ideological assumptions”. In other words, verbal expression is not detached from ideological commitment, and therefore the truth of any such expression is always provisional and contingent on contextual factors.
Sometimes, decision makers use language for social engineering and to generate, establish or underscore new types of responses and political realities (just think about political correctness). Influence is accomplished through language. Persuasion also uses linguistic tricks.
Verbal skills, linguistic prowess and a clear logic are therefore essential for avoiding manipulation. A rich vocabulary, a mastery of syntax, a strong sense of semantics and pragmatics, as well as logical and critical thinking are crucial skills for picking apart ideological messages and persuasive discourse by advertisers, journalists, and politicians.
To identify misleading use of individual words, sophistry, or false semantic relations between terms (all which are frequently used to manipulate), one must first have a deep understanding of language and, as Stebbing put it, “to think clearly without the distortions due to unconscious bias and unrecognized ignorance”.
One example of semantic relations often used to manipulate is synonymy. Synonyms are never identical to each other, each synonym has a slightly different connotation, register, degree of encoding. This is called the “law of economy” in language. Careless use of language can be just as dangerous as deliberately misleading people with words.
Linguistics and logic are the checks-and-balances system of inflammatory and divisive political discourse. A familiarity with pragmatics (the study of speaker meaning), and especially with Grice’s cooperative principle in communication, his 4 maxims and the implicatures behind their violations are extremely useful tools.
We’ll talk about that in detail another time.
Chapman, S., ‘L. Susan Stebbing’, Babel – The Language Magazine, Feb. 2017, p. 38.
Stebbing, L. S., Thinking to Some Purpose, 1939, Penguin.
Update: One worrying development in political discourse is the use of so-called “Opinion Bots” or Social Bots – computer software that can simulate a human identity and spread politicized messages across social networks at a high rate and from several (up to 1000) accounts simultaneously. Opinion bots can be used in an attempt to push certain topics or to create a buzz around certain issues – to make them look more important and influence the online debate. According to an article in the Aktiv magazine in Germany, Social Bots appear to have been involved in the Brexit and the US election, which has prompted the German Ministry of the Interior to plan a “Defense Center Against Disinformation.”
Source: Wolter, H.J., ‘Demokratie – Wie funktionieren Meinungsroboter?’, Aktiv in Bayern, Feb. 2017, p. 5