To say that words are powerful, that they influence thought and perception, and engender representations is a truism. Their force and importance is uncontested. Sometimes it is the case, however, that a new physical context emerges before we even have a concept for it. And for it to become a psychological reality, a perceptible reality that we can position ourselves with respect to, it first needs to be articulated. The topic of political rhetoric and the “manufacturing of consent” as Chomsky puts it is a delicate and complex one. Austrian linguist Ruth Wodak, for instance, distinguishes between four types of discursive strategies:
- constructive strategies, used to articulate and construct a new identity, course of action, ideological framework.
- preservative (or justificatory) strategies to legitimize said identity, course of action, ideological framework.
- transformative strategies (to gradually move away from current representations)
- destructive strategies (to challenge, deny, destroy an identity, course of action, ideology).
(Or, as Wodak et al. describe in another paper on micro-level communication, to develop shared views on strategic issues, strategies such as (re)defining, equalizing, simplifying, legitimating and reconciling can be used.)
Having said this, a quick look at the linguistic strategies employed to construct the new corona realities, to motivate and justify the measures taken and to prepare the next steps in the action plan allows a few basic observations:
- Naming something makes it real and concrete. To construct a threat and make it credible (as a preliminary condition for modifying behavior), one first needs to define it: to give a name to the threat. In this case, we went through a variety of names, depending on audience, situation, register, and intent of the communicator: coronavirus, Covid-19, SARS-Cov-2, but also the “Wuhan virus”, the “Chinese virus”, which signals an attempt at assigning responsibility and blame. (Given that one of the social sources of prejudice is the institutional one, this is significant in terms of propaganda.) But other realities also emerged: “lockdown” itself (see title above – y’all knew right away what I meant, didn’t you?), “social distancing”, “self-isolation”, “quarantine”, “hoarding / panic buying” (or the lovely German counterpart “Hamsterkäufe”), “sneezing in one’s elbow” are all pretty much new realities that needed a name to represent them – and were given one.
- Illustrations and graphic imagery were also used to help interpret and reinforce the verbal element, but also to “simplify” understanding: just think of the visual representation of the virus (the little spiked ball), the exponential graphs of new cases or the horrifying footage of coffins lined up in churches, the exhausted faces of medical staff in protective suits. Statistics expressed in absolute numbers, especially the soaring number of deaths, were a staple of the daily news cycle, and served the same purpose.
- In terms of preservative and justificatory strategies, to maintain the threat as a palpable and relevant reality in people’s perceptions, and to nudge behavior, let us mention the constant monitoring and mapping of the spread of the illness around the globe, the recurrent and somber warnings from persons and institutions of authority (both national and international) calling it a serious epidemic, then a pandemic, the inclusion of ever more medical details and case statistics as these became available. Virologists received ample air time and were able to impact public discourse, public opinion, and political decision-making. To add an emotional element (emotions are often motivational), frightening and cautionary survivor reports began circulating in the media. Visualizing the consequences (of contagion) and instilling fear is essential for changing attitudes, influencing behavior, and reducing the likelihood of dissent. A new name was developed to link the virus to the SARS outbreak a few years back, and to signal that it is very serious. Reports about the lack of protective equipment, ventilators, and intensive care beds in hospitals became a daily occurrence. The focus was on the scarcity of these products on the world markets as a result of an exceptional event, not on the decision makers’ lack of foresight in provisioning hospitals (despite epidemiologists having warned of this danger long ago). The focus of the media was almost entire on Covid-19, carving out this element of novelty and danger in the panoply of human illnesses and completely ignoring others (an interesting article on the “cult of safety” and how to integrate additional information to broaden the perspective – here.)
- To justify the radical measures taken to avoid a cataclysmic spread (the drastic limiting of social gatherings, the closing of borders, and military-style restrictions on movement), the sheer repetition of the imminent threat to human life and to society as a whole was a major factor. To bring the population on board, these actions had to be framed as crucial, life-saving, and inevitable; violations were associated with large fines and public opprobrium in order to guarantee compliance. At the same time, a sense of trust and hope in the future had to be instilled, by assuring people that obedience will bring the situation quickly under control. This was achieved, among other things, by creating a new sense of collective effort, of responsibility and reciprocity, through the repeated use of personal pronouns such as “we” and “us”. Remember the “we are here for you, stay home for us” memes? Or the recurring slogan “Together against the coronavirus”? Respect for the medical profession skyrocketed. Doctors and medical staff dealing with Covid-19 patients began to be referred to as heroes, as were those employees in critical (and, until recently, undervalued) jobs, such as supermarket staff, sanitation workers, delivery men, people working in the food industry or agriculture.
- Depending on cultural proclivities and personal style, some leaders (such as Macron and Trump) appealed to their people using a dramatic “war” metaphor – which often leads to a preference for tough action to bludgeon the enemy and an acceptance of sacrifice, in the hope that we will quickly “win” and rise again. Angela Merkel used a softer, but very effective appeal to solidarity, caution, and steady prevention, which attempted to inoculate people against selfish actions and appealed to the individual’s need for safety, trust and belonging. In the UK, initial minimization of the problem gave way to a rallying around an iconic and valued public institution (NHS) that is threatened by collapse and needs saving (“Save our NHS”). Subsidy packages were also approved with record speed to reassure the business environment and the employees that their economic future is safe if only they abide by the restrictions and keep the health system safe as well.
- Once the daily bombardment with the grim statistics of death petered out, it became clear the narrative was entering a new stage, the stage of economic concerns, and discourses focused on these. President Trump began to talk about the “cure being worse than the disease”; other actors showed that a brutal recession also threatens lives and livelihoods and can develop into another type of emergency. Poverty, financial insecurity and the mental health issues generated by isolation were introduced into the current sanitary equation, as were concerns over rising inequality and domestic violence. Economic and financial experts, business representatives and psychologists began to replace virologists and epidemiologists on the front pages of newspapers, politicians vied to be the first to resume “business as usual”. The new narrative moved towards a preparation for the next steps in the management of the crisis – in search of a broader concept of well-being, which includes employment and income security. At this stage, the strategy is to replace fear for one’s health with a willingness to go back to work, to enter stores, send one’s children to school. To transform the narrative, new elements must be introduced: compulsory masks (the German “Maskenpflicht”: a huge transformation from the initial claim that masks don’t help – back when they weren’t available – to a repetition of how even artisanal, non-medical masks are quite useful), physical distance, hygiene as good enough solutions. German politicians, for instance, have taken up the use of the phrase “under control” to show that the situation is becoming stable and manageable again. This is part of reconciling health needs with economic needs.
- Other transformative strategies include talk of the ensuing economic crisis being “worse than the Great Depression” (turning the fear against a new “enemy”), and the use of statistics to evidence the downward trend in new infections. Reports of vaccines being developed and appeals by politicians (see U. von der Leyen) to support the development and worldwide distribution of vaccines/treatments intensified. The race is on for manufacturing renewed hope and popular acceptance of compulsory vaccinations once these become available. The supposed impatience of the public also began to be more widely discussed in the media, as businesses were bearing the brunt.
- The pandemic has not been without its destructive strategies either (see, for one, the negationists: Belarus, the Brasilian president, even Trump at first; then also the conspiracy theorists, the trolls spreading “alternative” medical facts and using social media networks to become, themselves, viral).
Do you have anything to add, any particular issues you have noticed in your part of the world? I’d love to hear from you.
It remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the end, and the impact it will have on media institutions, communication patterns, social relations, consumer behavior, businesses, and political establishments. One thing is clear: well-thought out, steady, consistent and coherent communication (the right amount of information at the right time and without too much hesitation; inclusive and honest communication; managing the message properly; having a clear strategy and a timeline of gradual change – rather than hectic back-and-forth and a frenzy of contradictory messages) is key for reassuring the public and for the credibility of politicians and institutions.
P.S. For speakers of Romanian, here’s a funny take on the new terminology brought forth by the coronavirus epidemic – including a few representative memes 😉 Thanks, Voicu!
The featured image is from https://www.pittsburghmagazine.com/10-covid-19-memes-that-will-bring-a-smile-to-your-face/ – see more fun memes.