Laurie Veninger: Babefest 2017 Speech

Watch video here.

RESISTING DAMAGING DISCOURSES, by Laurie Veninger, PhD Linguistics


Some of you know me from Indivisible Outer Cape and have been actively resisting the Trump agenda with me. I hope the rest of you will join us; please visit our table to sign up. Recently, the National Indivisible organization has started a focus group around the way we use words in politics and tonight I am going to share my thoughts on this with you.

As a linguist and English professor, the power of words fascinates me. I’m sure you know that the word “babe” is derived from “baby,” but did you know its first use to describe a “pretty girl” came about in 1915? It’s no coincidence that this is about the same time the women’s suffrage movement was really heating up and threatening the male dominated world.  Using language that literally be-littles and infantilizes women is exactly the type of thing one would expect from a patriarchal society. Reclaiming the word as we have done today is just one of the ways we can use words to influence public perception.

Words, our use of words and our reactions to words matter. Look what Republican words did to Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t matter that what they said is untrue. Words appeal to the sub-conscious.  They capitalize on emotion, not logic, and once they have entered into the public discourse they are not easily erased.

The reason this appeal to emotion works so effectively has to do with the way the human brain works.  It is thought that exposure to emotional, especially fearful language or images, triggers the amygdala to secrete hormones. This fight/flight reaction is centered in the deepest, most primitive, part of the brain. This reaction happens very quickly, well before the logical part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, kicks in. This can actually “hijack” the cerebral cortex and prevent logical facts and good judgement from prevailing. So, when we wonder how a guy could really believe that the Clintons were running a child sex ring in the back of a pizza parlor, the answer is: it’s not his fault; his Neanderthal brain has been hijacked! 

 The most successful way to manipulate people is through the use of what linguists call Frames.

Frames reside in our unconscious – the primitive part.  Frames are based on ideals and upbringing. They are activated by language, even just one word can trigger a frame! For decades now, conservative think tanks, funded by wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, have been studying and using this knowledge. Framing is about using language that fits a world view, repeating it, and trapping others into using it, thus perpetuating it.

The linguist, George Lakoff, believes American politics is divided into two frames. These align very closely with our political parties – and also with masculine-feminine stereotypes. The conservative voter identifies very strongly with an authoritarian father-figure. The progressive voter identifies most with a nurturing parent-figure.

Conservatives frame the role of government as that of a strong, disciplinarian father and view nurturers as weak, feminized and childlike.  This binary reflects and perpetuates the ‘culture war’ world view of so many conservatives and explains their disdain for “hippie-liberals,” “snowflake millennials,” and “femi-nazis!”  Words used by conservative politicians and policy makers, like red meat to a beast, trigger the frame without voters necessarily being aware of the manipulation.

And any facts that do not fit the frame are discarded! So what we need to do is re-frame the arguments, since, as we have seen, facts or lies, fake news or reality, it simply does not matter to the conservative frame.

This frame is winning because it sways even those in the middle by appealing to emotion – mostly fear.  Fear of “immigrants swarming over the border,” or “trans people molesting you in the bathroom,” or “femi-nazis taking over the world!” This appeal to fear combined with deeply ingrained authoritarian frames, explains how so many women could vote Republican and against their own interests.

But there is some hope

Linguists have found that most people are bi-! Bi-conceptuals, that is! They have, and use, both authoritarian and nurturing frames in their lives. We should try to appeal to the conservatives’ latent nurturing frames.

Here are some other recommendations:

In general, although it may be hard, you should always:

Show respect and character; be a good listener.

Be calm, good-natured, but firm.

Avoid cheap shots and shouting. Shouting and name calling is the discourse of their culture war with us.

More specifically, try these 5 suggestions:

  1. Be prepared. Know their frames but do not try to negate them. Try to re-frame them.
  2. Do not use their terms or frames. It is a trap. Re-frame with your own, positive terms. If you use their term “tax reform,” the implication is that taxes are bad and you are admitting that taxes are an affliction not an “investment.”
  3. Tell stories that have your frame and universal values built into them. Build a repertoire of stories for different issues: “isn’t it more important that we honor the veterans who fought for the freedom to stand or kneel for the flag/anthem?”
  4. Use rhetorical questions which presuppose your frame: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a president who….(didn’t grab women)?” Here, it is implied that whatever you fill in the blank with is ‘great.’ BTW the president uses rhetorical devices all the time: ‘let me tell you,’
  5. Know that Orwellian language (meaning the opposite of what is said) reveals weakness. Whenever the current president is threatened he uses this! Use accurate language to re-frame the argument: point out that “choosing” your healthcare is useless if you cannot afford it.

So in closing:

My message to you today is: Our words matter, but more importantly, the way we use words matter. We are no longer the pretty, little “babes” of 1915, but the bad-ass, take-no-crap, babes of the women’s march and of the proud and loud Babefest!

Thank you.

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