Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Language of Political Speech and Power

I've been reading the posts about Hillary Clinton, the language she used and the shades of intended meaning about her remarks. Maria Niles covered this aspect in her post. Beneath the surface of her remarks there is so much more going on.

Let me state flat out that I do not know or specialize in social linguistics, public relations or have a clue on how to run a political campaign. But I do know when something is said but another meaning is intended. And that always leads me to questions. I'm not trying to prove or disprove anything. I guess what I am attempting is sharing a process of how I feel about this incredible turn of events concerning Hillary Clinton's public image.

I found a few possible answers in an unexpected place. In March 2008 I attended Media Re:Public conference. There were many speakers at the conference but the one relevant to this topic was given by Professor Manuel Castells, Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California.

My understanding of the major points:

  • Power relationships are foundations of Democracy. Whoever has the power has the ability to define the relationships, goals and aspirations of their society.
  • Power is constructed by two factors coercion and the construction of meaning in the minds of people. The closer the "leader" demonstrates that his or her vision is a match for the society as a whole or that there is a connection between the hopes and aspirations of that society then the greater the support the leader will enjoy.
  • Here was the tough one for me but it makes sense. The feelings and emotions of the members of society is a source of power. Harness that power (or play a very sophisticated version of "rope a dope", my words not his) and you will have the support of the members of society. You get the power.

You can harness power by fear or by envisioning a better world. If you can convince enough people to feel or experience a connection with you or your ideas you are in business.

So what happened in Hillary's statement? I think it was a verbal demonstration that she had the power. And Hillary implied intentionally or accidentally that her power emanated from a specific demographic group (Caucasian working class males) to validate that a certain socio-economic group supported her; and by extension you can too. And the opposite message, i.e. "You don't want some smart ass college kid walking in here, you don't want to be confused with facts and figures. I understand you, how could he? He is the other."

Unless you are not from that specific racial or socio-economic group. Here is a quote from The Republic of T:

Perhaps no one in the Clinton campaign understands this, so let me make it plain. Black folks can hear that dog whistle too. I guarantee that in Black homes across America, where two or more are gathered and listened to that interview, one turned to the others and asked “You all heard that, right?” And the answer came back, “Mmmm hmmm,” followed by a collective sigh.

Over at The Centretarian blog there is this:

The only reason she remains in the race is to illustrate 'white people' will not vote for the 'boy' who dared challenge them. After she wins West Virginia she will crow and cackle over the proof white people will not vote for Obama. She is masterfully orchestrating racist sentiments for her own political advantage just like Wallace, that other Democrat, did. Lift the screen and under the elitism charge, is Wallace's ravings about thoughtful intellectuals. When she refused to say whether Barak was a Muslim she was a cynically cute as George at his worst. By the end of his life I think Wallace regretted what he did. Also he lived in less enlightened times. He can more easily be forgiven.

I leave you with one of the concepts Professor Castells mentioned in the video. He said it takes four times the effort to get people to hear something other than what they believe. Maybe it is time to be more aware of what is being said and act accordingly. No more excuses.

Other Resources:

In the International Journal of Communications, Professor Castells has a full article on Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. This will open as an Adobe PDF in your browser window.

Brian Leirer has an interview with Amy Gershkoff on micro-targeting and politics.

Over at The Angry Black Women there are a group of comments that express very specific emotions on using fear and race as a demonstration of power.

CE Gena Haskett also a Contributing Editor at BlogHer.

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