Posted by Andreas from dtm2-t9-2.mcbone.net (220.127.116.11) on Tuesday, July 15, 2003 at 5:32PM :
Sunday, July 13, 2003
P-I Focus: Power of presidency resides in language as well as law
By RENANA BROOKS
[Renana Brooks, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. She
heads the Sommet Institute for the Study of Power and Persuasion
(www.sommetinstitute.org) and is completing a book on the virtue myth and
the conservative culture of domination. Reprinted with permission from the
June 30 issue of The Nation.]
George W. Bush is generally regarded as a mangler of the English language.
What is overlooked is his mastery of emotional language -- especially
negatively charged emotional language -- as a political tool. Take a closer
look at his speeches and public utterances and his political success turns
out to be no surprise. It is the predictable result of the intentional use
of language to dominate others.
Bush, like many dominant personality types, uses dependency-creating
language. He employs language of contempt and intimidation to shame others
into submission and desperate admiration.
While we tend to think of the dominator as using physical force, in fact
most dominators use verbal abuse to control others. Abusive language has
been a major theme of psychological researchers on marital problems, such as
John Gottman, and of philosophers and theologians, such as Josef Pieper.
But little has been said about the key role it has come to play in political
discourse and in such "hot media" as talk radio and television.
Bush uses several dominating linguistic techniques to induce surrender to
his will. The first is empty language. This term refers to broad statements
that are so abstract and mean so little that they are virtually impossible
to oppose. Empty language is the emotional equivalent of empty calories.
Just as we seldom question the content of potato chips while enjoying their
pleasurable taste, recipients of empty language are usually distracted from
examining the content of what they are hearing. Dominators use empty
language to conceal faulty generalizations; to ridicule viable alternatives;
to attribute negative motivations to others, thus making them appear
contemptible; and to rename and "reframe" opposing viewpoints.
Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech contained 39 examples of empty
language. He used it to reduce complex problems to images that left the
listener relieved that George W. Bush was in charge. Rather than explaining
the relationship between malpractice insurance and skyrocketing health care
costs, Bush summed up: "No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit."
The multiple fiscal and monetary policy tools that can be used to stimulate
an economy were downsized to: "The best and fairest way to make sure
Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place." The
controversial plan to wage another war on Iraq was simplified to: "We will
answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people." In
an earlier study, I found that in the 2000 presidential debates Bush used at
least four times as many phrases containing empty language as Carter,
Reagan, Clinton, Bush Senior or Gore had used in their debates.
Another of Bush's dominant-language techniques is personalization. By
personalization I mean localizing the attention of the listener on the
speaker's personality. Bush projects himself as the only person capable of
producing results. In his post-9/11 speech to Congress he said, "I will not
forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not
yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for
freedom and security for the American people." He substitutes his
determination for that of the nation's. In the 2003 State of the Union
speech he vowed, "I will defend the freedom and security of the American
people." Contrast Bush's "I will not yield" etc. with John F. Kennedy's "Ask
not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
The word "you" rarely appears in Bush's speeches. Instead, there are
numerous statements referring to himself or his personal characteristics of
folksiness, confidence, righteous anger or determination as the answer to
the problems of the country. Even when Bush uses "we," as he did many times
in the State of the Union speech, he does it in a way that focuses attention
on himself. For example, he stated: "Once again, we are called to defend the
safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind. And we accept this
In the Jan. 16 New York Review of Books, Joan Didion highlighted Bush's high
degree of personalization and contempt for argumentation in presenting his
case for going to war in Iraq. As Didion writes: " 'I made up my mind,' he
had said in April, 'that Saddam needs to go.' This was one of many curious,
almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case.
I've made up my mind, I've said in speech after speech, I've made myself
clear. The repeated statements became their own reason."
Poll after poll demonstrates that Bush's political agenda is out of step
with most Americans' core beliefs. Yet the public, their electoral
resistance broken down by empty language and persuaded by personalization,
is susceptible to Bush's most frequently used linguistic technique: negative
framework. A negative framework is a pessimistic image of the world. Bush
creates and maintains negative frameworks in his listeners' minds with a
number of linguistic techniques borrowed from advertising and hypnosis to
instill the image of a dark and evil world around us.
Catastrophic words and phrases are repeatedly drilled into the listener's
head until the opposition feels such a high level of anxiety that it appears
pointless to do anything other than cower.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his extensive studies of "learned
helplessness," showed that people's motivation to respond to outside threats
and problems is undermined by a belief that they have no control over their
environment. Learned helplessness is exacerbated by beliefs that problems
caused by negative events are permanent; and when the underlying causes are
perceived to apply to many other events, the condition becomes pervasive and
Bush is a master at inducing learned helplessness in the electorate. He uses
pessimistic language that creates fear and disables people from feeling they
can solve their problems. In his Sept. 20, 2001, speech to Congress on the
9/11 attacks, he chose to increase people's sense of vulnerability:
"Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any
other we have ever seen. ... I ask you to live your lives, and hug your
children. I know many citizens have fears tonight. ... Be calm and resolute,
even in the face of a continuing threat." (Subsequent terror alerts by the
FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security have maintained and expanded
this fear of unknown, sinister enemies.)
Contrast this rhetoric with Franklin Roosevelt's speech delivered the day
after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He said: "No matter how long it
may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in
their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. ... There is no
blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in
grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounding
determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us
God." Roosevelt focuses on an optimistic future rather than an ongoing
threat to Americans' personal survival.
All political leaders must define the present threats and problems faced by
the country before describing their approach to a solution, but the ratio of
negative to optimistic statements in Bush's speeches and policy declarations
is much higher, more pervasive and more long-lasting than that of any other
Let's compare "crisis" speeches by Bush and Ronald Reagan, the president
with whom he most identifies himself. In Reagan's Oct. 27, 1983, televised
address to the nation on the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut,
he used 19 images of crisis and 21 images of optimism, evenly balancing
optimistic and negative depictions. He limited his evaluation of the
problems to the past and present tense, saying only that "with patience and
firmness we can bring peace to that strife-torn region and make our own
lives more secure."
Bush's Oct. 7, 2002, major policy speech on Iraq, on the other hand, began
with 44 consecutive statements referring to the crisis and citing a
multitude of possible catastrophic repercussions. The vast majority of these
statements imply that the crisis will last into the indeterminate future.
There is also no specific plan of action. The absence of plans is typical of
a negative framework, and leaves the listener without hope that the crisis
will ever end.
Contrast this with Reagan, who, a third of the way into his explanation of
the crisis in Lebanon, asked the following: "Where do we go from here? What
can we do now to help Lebanon gain greater stability so that our Marines can
come home? Well, I believe we can take three steps now that will make a
To create a dependency dynamic between him and the electorate, Bush
describes the nation as being in a perpetual state of crisis and then
attempts to convince the electorate that it is powerless and that he is the
only one with the strength to deal with it. He attempts to persuade people
they must transfer power to him, thus crushing the power of the citizen, the
Congress, the Democratic Party, even constitutional liberties, to
concentrate all power in the imperial presidency and the Republican Party.
Bush's political opponents are caught in a fantasy that they can win against
him simply by proving the superiority of their ideas. However, people do not
support Bush for the power of his ideas, but out of the despair and
desperation in their hearts. Whenever people are in the grip of a desperate
dependency, they won't respond to rational criticisms of the people they are
dependent on. They will respond to plausible and forceful statements and
alternatives that put the American electorate back in touch with their core
optimism. Bush's opponents must combat his dark imagery with hope and
restore American vigor and optimism in the coming years. They should heed
the example of Reagan, who used optimism against Carter and the "national
malaise"; Franklin Roosevelt, who used it against Hoover and the pessimism
induced by the Depression ("the only thing we have to fear is fear itself");
and Clinton (the "Man from Hope"), who used positive language against the
senior Bush's lack of vision. This is the linguistic prescription for those
who wish to retire Bush in 2004.
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