“This election has shown us the potential of language to inspire and delight, wound and debase,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of History and Italian studies at New York University and moderator of an intriguing evening held at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò on October 19th. Ben-Ghiat, along with Jason Stanley, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, and Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, were the panelists for Political Rhetoric: The Presidential Campaign and Beyond. The event launched the Dialogues in Languages and Humanities series, a new initiative from the Division of Language and Humanities at the The NYU School of Professional Studies.
Reminding ourselves that individuals conceive of and verbalize political rhetoric, which others consume, is important because that recognition reminds us that words, speech, rhetoric, and discourse are embodied human experiences. They affect our thoughts and the way we perceive how we and others fit into society. This remains the case whether words are spoken aloud, Tweeted, or printed. We consume them, we internalize them, and sometimes, we repeat them. Political rhetoric’s ability to change the meaning of how we use and understand language in the public sphere is inspiring, but also frightening if the words inspire us to turn against one another.
“We’re at a point where liberalism requires a defense,” stated Stanley who focuses on the intersections of the philosophy of language and political philosophy. Investigating the rhetorical framework employed by politicians such as Mike Pence and Ted Cruz along with leaders who subscribe to illiberal democracy in nations such as Russia, Hungary, and now Poland, elucidates Stanley’s point. Both Pence and Cruz identify themselves as Christian, then American, and finally as Republican, in that order. Pence and Cruz’s self-descriptions highlight their regard for Christian values. In the meantime they serve up the notion that supporting the growth of social liberties threatens traditional values such as Christianity. Discourse within this rhetorical framework displays “Liberalism as discovering freedoms that will undermine traditional thoughts, always getting people to relinquish their traditions and powers,” states Stanley. In other words, if leaders do not limit peoples’ socially liberal desires, and what many would call rights, then we are on a direct path towards anarchy. In such a rhetorical framework, leaders place rights such as gay marriage and reproductive autonomy in direct opposition to the ability for traditional Christian values to live on.
Stanley noted: “When the liberal left and the conservative right agree that liberalism has been used too hypocritically,” we have reached a dangerous moment. Our leaders’ policies must not stray too far from their liberal rhetoric or proponents of illiberal democracy will continue to vilify women and various minorities as we continue to see in Poland and Russia.
“Liberalism requires a defense both domestically and in our foreign policy. It can’t just exist as rhetoric meant to advance empire. If we are to preserve its hard-won freedoms for women, for sexual minorities, for racial minorities, and even for religious minorities, we must make sure that our leaders’ practices do not stray so far from their liberal rhetoric. Liberalism has two values: liberty and equality, and that commitment must mean addressing persisting inequality here, and not hindering liberty abroad”.
Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer reminds us of the extent to which “Individual words and phrases in politics can take on outsized importance;” an essential notion to keep in mind as November 8th approaches. In an election where candidates wield opposite tactics in terms of word choice, analyzing their tactics, why they use them, and how they function is useful.
Most politicians have a front stage and a backstage personality. According to Zimmer, politicians who maintain a stronger cohesive voice of one or the other tend to garner more popularity. Voters’ detection of a gulf between Hillary Clinton’s front and backstage personalities causes many to distrust her. Furthermore, the perception of her lacking cohesiveness supports the idea that Hillary labors to be a politician, a matter she self-identified. Hillary’s lack of political sprezzatura became further supported by the word “Sigh,” uttered by Clinton during her campaign this summer. Zimmer used audio to demonstrate that Hillary seemingly used the word sarcastically and humorously to express weariness and explained that many saw it differently. They interpreted her “Sigh” as Hillary reading her teleprompter literally, as if reading stage directions aloud.
Stefano Albertini, Director of NYU Casa Italiana, reminded us during the open discussion that “in Clinton’s political rhetoric there is quite a bit of Machiavelli.” Machiavelli’s Prince is about the Prince appearing and projecting an image. He really is irrelevant compared to what he projects himself to be. “And for me to be Machiavellian is a compliment…”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, voters frequently perceive Donald Trump as maintaining a backstage personality at all times. He fails to filter comments typically considered inappropriate as a central politician. Trump prides himself on not filtering his language and promotes it as ”Truth-telling.” However, “If he always says what he believes, then we should always take him at his word,” figures Zimmer. But if we look at Trump’s disgusting “Locker room banter” then “Surprise! He presents himself differently in different situations after all,” Zimmer explains. So how can we elucidate the focus on the gulf in Clinton’s personality and not Trump’s? Over-emphasized words and phrases from each politician’s campaign and the ability for one politician to use his poorly worded phrases to his benefit.
Trump embraces what most would consider extremely poorly-chosen word choice. “For his rhetorical purpose it works a lot better to call something like Obama’s policy on Syria ‘Stupid’ than ‘Incompetent.’ It’s blunt, it’s direct, it packs a punch,” describes Zimmer. Trump additionally adds “The” where most would consider it unnecessary. But for Trump, it serves an important function. By putting “The” before “African Americans,” “Latinos,” “Muslims,” or any other group that typically does not fit into Trump’s supporters or his priorities, he creates an “Us” and “Them.” By placing “The” before a specified group, he intentionally denies the diversity of that group, treating them as homogenous and outside of his version of “Us.”
“Savvy politicians know well the power of using coded language that will be understood in the right way by recipients,” Ben-Ghiat emphasizes. Just as trump maintains the notion of a cohesive backstage voice, he upholds a focused verbal and visual message. According to Ben-Ghiat, his ability to weave stories allows him to assert himself as the voice of a broken nation. “The authoritarian leader has to appear ordinary and extraordinary, down to earth and above the fray”, she states. As an aspiring authoritarian, “Trump’s locker room talk is an extension of his ‘everyman’ persona.” In other instances, he raises himself onto a pedestal stating “I alone can fix it” in a tone comparable to Silvio Berlusconi’s claim, “I am the Jesus Christ of Italian politics.”
Trump continues to weave his story on Twitter “where he manages to forge an emotional connection with his followers,” Ben-Ghiat posits. He uses other people’s racist and discriminatory propaganda by re-tweeting extremist images, such as people burning the LGBTQ flag. According to Ben-Ghiat, Trump typically deletes these re-tweets minutes later. He claims that they were mistakes made by his interns, but knows perfectly well that they have already done their job to perpetuate “a community of fear and loathing.”
The necessity of being aware of and acknowledging how words and images make us think and feel in this election should be realized. We cannot ignore those moments when a leader’s words make us feel debased, angry, or generally unrepresented. Those feelings not only become the embodied experiences of individuals’ but the sum of those individuals’ feelings will become embodied as a nation, frustrated and divided. A leader’s words must not be described as “Just words,” when they inspire the nature of global and domestic relations.
This very timely event from the Division of Language and Humanities at the NYU School of Professional Studies represents the collaborative work of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts, the American Language Institute, and the International Student Support Center. More in this series to come.