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Category: politics

The Weaponization of Language

Just a quick note to help people, particularly the Media in the United States, to better understand what it means when language is weaponized—and especially what it means in the context of connected digital communication networks. While these techniques have been refined over many years in Russia and the former Soviet Union, they are somewhat new to mainstream American politics. This is not to say that these techniques haven’t been used over the years, but generally they’re employed around the edges. It hasn’t been possible, until recently, to move them to the center of a political communication strategy.

Certain tools are designed as weapons, for example: guns, knives, clubs, brass knuckles, bombs, poison gas. Each of these tools is specially constructed to inflict a certain kind of harm on its target. Now here’s another list of tools: a cast-iron frying pan, a fireplace poker, a baseball bat, a car, a brick, and an electrical current. Each of these tools has a proper use—a set of uses that humans understand through habit. All of these non-weapons have been used to commit murder in some mystery novel. Part of solving the mystery involves a detective envisioning an ordinary tool expressing its potential as a deadly weapon.

When language is used as a weapon—it’s deployed to inflict the maximum possible damage. The usual response to language used in this way is to say that it is neither true nor proper. While this may be a reasonable approach to language used to communicate, it has no effect on language when used as a weapon. It’s the equivalent of saying that the blow inflicted by a frying pan to the head of the victim was not a proper use of frying pans.

Much of the effectiveness of advertising is due to the frequency with which it is broadcast. If you see or hear an ad ten times a day for three months, it’s likely you will remember it for the rest of your life. Most of us can recite ad copy we heard in our childhood even when the product has long since disappeared from the shelves. To maximize the effectiveness of weaponized language, it must have high frequency. In political campaigns this is usually accomplished through producing negative attack ads and buying lots of radio and television time.

In the age of cable news and connected digital social networks, another strategy is possible. An attack is constructed that will harm the target using metaphors, statements and images. In itself, this isn’t enough to assure the attack will be retweeted frequently and universally (by all sides) throughout cable news, newspapers and social media networks. Two elements must be added to the attack, the first is that it should be demonstrably false. This will cause many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack, and then explain why it is false. If the attack is on the veracity of the media itself, many will discount the explanation. The second added ingredient is that the attack must break with ordinary decorum, it must cross a moral line. This causes many media outlets to rebroadcast the attack and explain why it is immoral. Each of these media responses is the equivalent of decrying the improper use of a frying pan in committing an assault.

The media becomes complicit in the attack because it serves as the force multiplier that maximizes the harm. That’s how “playing the media” works. And as the media chases its tail on obviously false sensational headlines, it loses its credibility on the serious investigations it’s doing. When a President has immunity through Republican majority in Congress, a free press is needed more than ever. The attacks on the media have escalated and the media seems blind to its own role in amplifying the harm that is done.

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Song of Finitude

The song about humans and non-humans on the earth is of an undetermined length. Undetermined, but finite.

It doesn’t go on forever, but the last note isn’t a set number of beats away.

Right now we’re playing so far ahead of the beat that the song is starting to lose its shape.

Tempo changes everything

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Five or Six Things I Know About Him…

Hard to say whether or not this message will travel beyond this screen. But it may be worthwhile sending a message to the future. Just in case someone wonders someday how we got to this point.

Here are five or six things I know about him.

POTUS 45 is a television celebrity. Most people know who he is. His name recognition was much more valuable during the campaign than anyone anticipated. It radically changed the fundraising equation, along with the necessary campaign expenditures. His celebrity also created a constituency beyond the typical voter, and this connection has continued beyond the election into his presidency. It should not be underestimated. Fans have been turned into voters. It gives them a role in the ongoing reality television show.

His celebrity status was built on the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity. As long as you’re the topic of conversation, you’ve won. Generally speaking, in a presidential campaign, negative public attention is considered fatal. Even the smallest slip of the tongue can have major consequences. POTUS 45 is actively looking for statements that cross the line. Violating norms allows him to dominate the headlines.

His base likes it when his opponents and the media are outraged by some statement. They are entertained by watching heads explode in outrage on live television. Describing POTUS 45’s behavior as “crazy, unreal or not normal” plays into his framing of the public dialogue. It feeds into his public image as an outsider. This puts the media into a bind; the ratings they get by demonstrating their outrage, are addictive. But performing outrage on television is not the same thing as doing journalism.

Some think POTUS 45 is a stupid man, and in many ways he is. He’s not well read and has the attention span of a gnat. But he’s quite sophisticated in reading both individual people and groups of people. He can see what will excite them and what outrages them. His rhetoric is also quite sophisticated. He will often use these formulations:

  • Many people are saying X
  •  X is true, in many cases…
  • I would never say that X is a criminal
  • Everyone agrees that X is true.
  • You’re a smart guy, you know that X is true
  • X is definitely true, and I will present the evidence at some future point…
  • I have special knowledge about X that other people don’t know…

These rhetorical devices allow him to dodge any counter-arguments or questioning. He can simply say, “I’ve heard, and many people agree, that X is true.” The criticism is now diverted to “many people.” POTUS 45 has also been lining up his scapegoats. Should anything bad happen, he’ll use it to his advantage. His political opponents will be blamed, and he’ll attempt to destroy his opposition and consolidate power. His negligence is strategic.

Another typical tactic is to take advantage of who is allowed to say what in any particular situation. For instance, there is no downside in publicly attacking a judge. The law restricts the judge from responding. If the judge can be goaded into responding, then that judge can be forced to recuse herself. Similarly, attacking people who’ve signed confidentiality agreements has no downside. Another variation is to publicly attack a person and simultaneously threaten to sue them.

POTUS 45 uses a variation of this tactic with the press. He relies on the other person’s politeness and deference to decorum. For example, continually lying about something and daring the press to call him a liar. In order to do so, the press must violate norms and general decorum. Once decorum has been violated, it gives him an attack vector. “How dare you call me a liar.” The frame is created where you need to follow any and all rules, whereas he is exempt. This is how he gets a room full of journalists to laugh at him calling them “fake news” and the “lying news media, in many cases.” They aren’t allowed, by the rules of decorum, to respond forthrightly.

Diversion is another common tactic. By threading as many falsehoods and near falsehoods into his public statements, he can cause the media to chase its tail doing meaningless fact checking. They burn cycles while missing the main story. Cable news has hours and hours to fill, and they let POTUS 45 program it with nonsense. They just never seem to have time to get to the important stories. Joy Reid of MSNBC is particularly guilty of this. She’s got 4 hours to fill on the weekend, but she has too many topics and too many guests. She ends up talking 100 miles an hour trying to squeeze it all in. The end result is there’s not enough time to get to the important stories with any kind of depth. As cable news anchors like to say, “we’ll have to leave it there.” But they’ve left it nowhere.

The tactic is to create so many threads that none can be investigated in any depth. The media uses no editorial judgement to focus in on the top two to three stories. Instead they chase anything that allows them to make the “Home Alone” scream face. They know that that kind of coverage turns into ratings. What it doesn’t do is turn into journalism.

Back in 1991, Tom Peters wrote a management gimmick book called “Thriving on Chaos.” This isn’t exactly what POTUS 45 does, but he does thrive on chaos. That’s his management style. In a chaotic situation, deep subject-matter knowledge is nullified. Since no one is certain exactly what’s going on, POTUS 45 can make decisions based on little or nothing. I’m told this is also a technique used by abusive spouses. The more chaotic his administration, the flow of news coverage and politics in general are, the better. When journalists say “this is crazy,” they’re adding to the frame most helpful to POTUS 45.

And here’s the last thing I know about him. Or, at least, the last thing I’ll make note of here. At the bottom of POTUS 45’s rhetoric (and therefore his politics) is an obsession with purity and cleanliness. His language about immigration and borders is filled with these kinds of metaphors. His thin skin and faux sensitivity to criticism are also tied in to this. His refusal to apologize is a refusal to acknowledge any kind of dirt or uncleanliness of his positions or actions. Two of his favorite insults are “disgusting” and “disgraceful.” He proudly states that he’s a germaphobe, and uses this as a defense against the contents of the Kompromat dossier on him that was recently released. Within his primary stylistic metaphor are the seeds of a potent counter rhetoric.

POTUS 45 has been phenomenally successful at crowding out all other topics of conversation. Unfortunately, that includes presenting a positive alternative vision. Until a compelling alternative vision can earn some screen time, we’re still playing in his frame.

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Self-Deleting Criticism

You've heard of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's when your present belief about a future event becomes an indirect cause of the future event.

In this presidential campaign the media has been engaging in something called “self-deleting criticism.” The Republican candidate does or says something that for previous candidates would be disqualifying. The journalist goes on at length about how awful it is. On the televised segment, they laugh in disbelief and nudge each other in the ribs. And then they say, “but for some reason the normal rules don't apply to Trump.”

And then, they utter the classic line, “Well, we'll have to leave it there.”

Whatever criticism they've leveled is deleted. It's as though they've said nothing.

Unfortunately at some point self-deleting criticism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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