The language and rhetoric of polarisation

The language and rhetoric of polarisation

In the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder advises his readers to reflect on the language they use. He warns against words that can be easily misused, such as “terrorist” or “extremist”, and often applied by authoritarian regimes to make laws to punish those who criticise their policies. While these words have been plucked out of their conventional contexts, they retain their original emotional weight. The more they appeal to our emotions the more they can be used for nefarious purposes. 

Words, sentences, discourses, any language we use bears the characteristics and echoes of the context in which they have acquired significance. As Dennis Potter observed crudely, “[t]he trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they’ve been in”. Slogans such as America First illustrate well how important context is. They drag behind them the ghosts of the past and in a few words they enclose a whole world of meanings and references. Slogans are particularly effective and catchy because they are usually wrapped in words that convey agreeable meanings: what American would argue against putting America first?  

Language is never innocent

We often established complicit relationships with language. We use it to mask, soften or distort particular meanings. The adjective different shows the flexibility, even playfulness of words. When groups use it to describe themselves — as in “We are different” — it often refers to positive characteristics. It can even equate to better or superior. But when used to describe others or outsiders it often points to the opposite meaning. 

Language is never innocent. We all know to a better or worse degree how to use language to fulfil a communicative purpose. We do it almost instinctively and because of this we take language for granted. In 1969 the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss observed that we all had acquired such a mastery of language as a means of communication that we 

see language as no more than an inert medium, in itself ineffective, the passive bearer of ideas on which the fact of expression confers no additional characteristic. For most men, language represents without falsifying. 

To consider language as just a tool for our disposal would undermine its importance. It is through language that we understand the world, identify ourselves and relate to others. As many have said before, “we speak language and language speaks us”. Language can produce different realities because it can control our perceptions.

In George Orwell’s 1984, Syme, a philologist working on the 11th edition of the Newspeak Dictionary introduced by the Party, explains that the purpose of the new dictionary is not to add new words. Rather, the intention is to dispose of them and reduce “language to the bone”. Syme impatiently explains to a disgusted Winston that the beauty of this destruction resides in the fact that the limited vocabulary in Newspeak will also limit people’s thoughts: 

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. 

While we think we dominate language, language can use us, change our memories, alter history, and obliterate truth.

Rhetoric of polarization

Rhetoric refers to the use of language with the objective of influencing the listener or reader to take particular action. J.H. Freese noted that “Rhetoric…is as old as language itself and the beginnings of social and political life”. In speeches this call to action works at different levels including the selection of  messages or arguments, their arrangement or location, and the manner in which they are delivered. Good speeches will help wannabe leaders gain followers and voters. 

The anti-immigrant narratives circulating around Europe and US for the last few years are good examples. A popular justification to close borders to refugees, in spite of international commitments and obligations, is the need to direct assistance to their own nationals in need, summarised in the phrase “What about our own?”. This whataboutism is a rhetorical device which has worn transparently thin. But it is very effective at concealing the real motives behind it. Anti-immigrant discourses also exemplify well how divisions in society can be weaponised for political purposes. Separating the world into us and them is an effective trick to galvanise support, especially of the emotional kind. 

In polarising narratives the world is framed into two competing and opposing we and them. The more we dislike them, the more solidarity is fostered among us. The group identity is enhanced by focusing on what is shared by the group, their mythical past, their positive characteristics, their high morality and rectitude in opposition to a common enemy who has caused or might cause unmeasurable harm to the group. 

This common foe is portrayed in a dehumanising manner; the enemy is wicked, almost evil, thus creating a feeling of victimhood among the members of the group. The threat posed is amplified to such an extent that it provokes enough fear to act on it. This polarising rhetoric is often successful because identifying with a group provides us with a strong sense of who we are. The idea of belonging to a group that is like us, that is united and similar might offer comfort. But it is just that: An idea. There is no such a thing as a homogenous group as all groups are riddled with as much diversity as there is within ourselves.

Republican Convention Speech

The speech of US president Trump on 27 August, during the Republican National Convention, contained many of the rhetorical elements mentioned above. He addresses his audience as we, repeating it many times and providing thus a sense of unity, closeness and loyalty:

We are a national family. And we will always protect, love and care for each other

As in other similar speeches he makes reference to the shared values, goals, and history of the American people (we). His patriotic allusions add to the idea of unity and homogeneity.

The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, goes forward united, determined and ready to welcome millions of Democrats, Independents and anyone who believes in the greatness of America and the righteous heart of the American people…. We will defend America against all threats and protect America against all dangers. We will lead America into new frontiers of ambition and discovery and we will reach for new heights of national achievement…. We will rekindle new faith in our values, new pride in our history and a new spirit of unity that can only be realized through love for our great country.

The in-group is described with adjectives such as courageous, strong, resilient, perseverant. They are all natural characteristics which underline their uniqueness.

We’re a nation of pilgrims, pioneers, adventurers, explorers and trailblazers who refuse to be tied down, held back, or in any way reined in. And we have steel in our spines and grit in their souls and fire in their hearts. There is no one like us on earth

Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Jefferson, Lincoln and other mythical or important figures of the past are linked to the group. They all share a common history, implying that the in-group partakes in their greatness. The status of the group is enhanced significantly, their ego inflated: 

 [W]e cannot help but marvel at the miracle that is our great American story.

Our righteousness is praised and our exceptional past highlighted even elevated to a transcendental level.  By bringing echoes of the American Manifest Destiny the Trump makes the US election the mission that will redeem the world. The mythical (albeit contested) past is brought back in order to change the present. It is a reminder that God has chosen the in-group and therefore they have an almost divine purpose:

America is the torch that enlightens the entire world…. What united generations past was an unshakeable confidence in America’s destiny and an unbreakable faith in the American people. They knew that our country’s blessed by God and has a special purpose in this world.

Nothing assists fostering unity more than a common foe and an imminent danger. After gaining the attention and good disposition of the audience through positive, almost mythical, descriptions, the threat is introduced:

This towering American spirit has prevailed over every challenge and lifted us to the summit of human endeavour. And yet despite all of our greatness as a nation, everything we have achieved is now in danger. 

Spreading as much fear as possible is accomplished by exaggerating the danger and consequences to apocalyptic levels. If Biden is chosen he will “inflict unthinkable harm”. The economy will be destroyed, millions of jobs will be lost, high taxes will be introduced, and their healthcare will be taken by illegal migrants. The borders will be opened to masses of people looking to get “all the goodies”; the US will be open to “Jihadist nations”, there will be an “increase [in] refugee admissions by 700 percent”; the list goes on and on.  

The common enemy that helps to unite the group could be represented by both outsiders and insiders. They can be multiple foes to be blamed at once: Biden, China, the radical left, migrants, the virus, the establishment, Big Pharma, etc. The enemies are portrayed in a dehumanising manner undeserving of any empathy or understanding: immigrants are illegal aliens or gang members, political opponents are traitors: 

Biden’s record is a shameful roll call of the most catastrophic betrayals and blunders in our lifetime.  

The contrast between us and them is exaggerated and presented as a struggle between the righteous and law-abiding us and the wicked and evil them: 

At no time before have voters faced a clearer choice between the parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas. This election will decide whether we save the American dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny. Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it. 

Rhetoric is a call to action and creating a sense of victimhood helps to encourage enough anger to act: 

Joe Biden spent his entire career outsourcing their dreams and the dreams of American workers, offshoring their jobs, opening their borders and sending their sons and daughters to fight in endless foreign wars.

Lies and Conspiracies

These rhetorical manoeuvres are accompanied by all kinds of lies. Media fact-checkers expose the lies politicians and their aides spread. But they don´t soften their effectiveness in polarising society. On the contrary, they often contribute to making the split even deeper. Media usually reacts to the lies and repeats them again and again in different news cycles. Even when they try to deny those lies they end up  amplifying them. 

Do not Think of an Elephant is the title of one of the books written by the famous linguist George Lakoff. Ask somebody not to think of something and that will be the first thing on their minds. The question becomes who dominates the conversation? In the US it has been its president and Lakoff shows this through the creation of a taxonomy of Trump’s tweets. 

According to Lakoff, the US president frames the story first, that is, he provides the interpretation of a story; he diverts attention from the real issues by throwing some controversial comment that the media will immediately pick up and talk about full-time; he attacks the messenger as well as accusing others of spreading fake news; and lastly he sends out a “trial balloon”. Essentially, he throws an idea out as a way to test the public reaction to it. This process happens again and again. To combat this, Lakoff suggests journalists engage in the “truth sandwich”. This means that reporters should expose the truth first, then state what the lie is, and then repeat the truth. This way the truths get repeated more than the lies. 

It is difficult not to fall for some lies notwithstanding the threat some of them pose for democratic systems especially when spread by what Anne Applebaum calls clercs. Borrowing from French essayist Julien Benda, Applebaum uses it to refer to intellectuals and other educated people with the capability to create the arguments in support of those lies. 

Moreover, lies are everywhere thanks to social media platforms. They create confusion and doubt giving way to conspiracy theories. What to believe and what not? What is legitimate and what is not? 

The consequence of this is an erosion of trust in our fellow citizens and in democratic institutions, which in some circumstances might open the door for self-appointed saviours to come to the rescue. Jason Stanley, who looks at ultranationalism and authoritarian leaders, observes that dividing the population between us and them is the most clear manifestation of fascist politics. According to him, these politics are based on a series of tactics in which leaders engage in order to seize power.

Unfortunately, we often facilitate their nefarious enterprise by forgetting that what we see on our computers are just representations and by taking for granted the language that creates and maintains them.

Dr. Mayte Martín holds degrees in Philology, International Relations and Communications, and Sociology. She is co-founder with Lisa Rose of the consultancy Martin Rose which supports youth, communities, professionals, politicians, and civil servants in working towards more equitable and peaceful societies through training, research, mediation and advice. For more information see

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Gage Skidmore

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