How Language Makes Politics so Divisive

The way we talk in every day life has a profound impact on the way we think about the things we’re doing. This TED talk gives some really interesting examples of the ways we don’t even realize that the words we use directly affect the way we think (and the way our brains work).

For example (mentioned in the video), there are people whose language doesn’t include the words “left” or “right”, and so they would stand facing north and describe their East and West feet. The words they have access to change the way their minds process the world, and in this case, all speakers of this language have excellent innate senses of direction. Another cool fact about this language is that when external directional cues are removed from a speaker’s environment, they can actually lose the ability to speak coherently until they regain a sense of cardinal direction. 

Seeing and hearing this, and the other examples in the video (and others), has really encouraged me to wonder how else the way we talk about things might influence the way we then think about them, and one specific case jumps prominently to mind: Politics.

The ultimate goal of politics and democracy is to improve the lives of the people being governed, ideally by enacting policies and laws they (the majority) are in favour of. However, with the increasing influence of campaign money in politics, and the disenfranchisement of voters whose elected officials stand up for the corporations lobbying them more than their constituents, actual politics in western democracies is changing.

With the changing priorities of politicians, a different kind of language is also used to discuss politics in the media. ‘Battleground’ districts, ‘fights’ for leadership, ‘races’ to election day, these all imply a win/lose dynamic which encourages voters to vilify the politicians from other parties. This, along with endless negative/attack ads reinforce the idea of a ‘two-sides’ rhetoric where one set of ideas is the best possible way to do things, and the other set is going to lead to the downfall of the country.

Obviously, aside from a real problem we’re seeing lately of a small minority of politicians with very extreme (dangerous) views gaining power, most people running for office think they have the best way to run a country for its people. However, lately, this minority of politicians has found that the ethics and ‘rules’ of politics aren’t actually necessary to gain votes and garner support.

With this political ‘battle’ vocabulary in hand, voters are being given one of two messages in counter-ads (for the opposition) and policy promotion (for the party in power). For the party in power, they will generally make a policy statement or propose a law and suggest that the public go along with it unquestioningly, or maybe with minor input from the public. For the opposition party (again, be aware of the language used to describe them), most policy positions seem to just be preventing any legislation or changes from being made (see Obamacare).

Using the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as an example, it’s very difficult to see how making sure more people are covered by health insurance could possibly be a bad thing, especially when the people who aren’t covered by insurance tend to be younger, unemployed people who could easily be bankrupted by medical bills otherwise. However, as anybody who has been paying attention to American politics has surely noticed, Republicans have been campaigning on tearing up the Affordable Care Act even before it was passed or they knew what was in it.

Running on the idea of undoing everything your opponent is trying to do has also led to a shift in the conversation about climate change (as evidenced in my old post here). This kind of politics damages the credibility of everybody, not just those who choose to play dirty. It’s difficult to craft a campaign built on new ideas, or on improving what we already have, so most don’t bother now.

There is way more to gain by airing your opponents’ dirty laundry, and if they’re fairly squeaky clean, you can point at their laundry, say “look how disgusting this is!” and there is a pre-built subset of the population who will hang on your every word, even if it’s barely true. This is true of any political group, even if the very *worst* things a group does can vary wildly across the political spectrum.

In the media, it’s also very easy to follow these narratives and go back and forth between viewpoints from the different ‘teams’, rather than asking questions yourself and finding answers to them. This is why TV news shows will have panels representing various groups on to yell at one another, because it’s much more engaging than listening to real journalism and the boring nuance that is nevertheless much more accurate.

If we stopped using ‘war’ language to cover politics, I think it’s very likely the vitriol and fear-mongering that takes place would slowly start to fade, because it’s this language of ‘losing’ in battle that really stokes this fear in the first place.

Politicians used to be selected basically against their will, because who wants to spend their time making important but boring decisions when you could be out there enjoying life. The goal of politics should be to improve life for the people around you, and to get the heck out of politics once you’ve made those improvements. Hold power accountable and do your best to improve the average life while not harming the very worst off.

I hope that’s not too optimistic a goal.


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