Words are powerful, influential and can change the outcome of nations, which is why from Palin to Goebbels, Stalin and Kim Jong-il, emotionally charged phrases have been able to alter minds. Jean Berko Gleason, the founding mother of psycholinguistics explains how this happens. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Without even knowing the context of that phrase, those two words sound ghoulish. Like a construction from the mind of a Mengele or a Kevorkian bureaucracy where aloof, inefficient officials get to play grim reaper by deciding who lives and who dies.
In the second half of 2009 the phrase “death panels” was raised by Sarah Palin in her Facebook statement on America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. It spread like a virus through social networks, proving more contagious or dangerous than the worst kind of influenza.
Palin’s “death panels” concept almost euthanised the Democrat’s healthcare-reform bill, in spite of the backing it had from US President Barack Obama, and was voted as the most “outrageous” phrase of 2009 by the American Dialect Society. PolitiFact designated the emotionally charged idiom as “the lie of the year”, saying that of all the falsehoods and distortions in the political discourse the notion of “death panels” was the political fiction to beat all fictions.
One of the world’s leading experts on psycholinguistics, Jean Berko Gleason says that the words used by politicians to refer to other people or political situations are immensely powerful in terms of shaping how people see things.
“It is called ‘framing’ and refers to how the manner in which people think is manipulated,” says Gleason, adding: “And in our country the Republicans as particularly good at this, although I must tell you that I am not a Republican.” Gleason bellows with infections laughter before adding: “The Republicans are so good at this concept of framing that they often get people to vote against their best interests,” she says.
Gleason believes that the Democrats are working hard to make life better for Americans, but don’t have the uncanny talent for political framing that Republicans have, and that the “death panel” furore is a great example of this.
The death panel debacle came about when Democrats were proposing medical reforms and these included the concept that the US government pay for people to have end of life conversations with their doctors.
“My children know that if I am brain dead I don’t want to be hooked up to something just as a breathing body,” says Gleason, who is nearing 80 and is the Professor Emerita in the Department of Psychology at Boston University.
Jean Berko Gleason. Photo: Pam Gleason.
A compassionate clause in the Democrat’s proposal, the concept enabled people to think about what they would like to happen to them if they became critically ill with no hope of recovery and didn’t want to burden their family with the guilt-inducing decision of whether or not to turn off a life-support machine. (Strangely enough, the first measure that included the compassionate clause was proposed by Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia – Sarah Palin and her advisors were either inept – or just simply didn't care for reality. – Ed)
Palin, as she is wont to do, perverted the proposal with an emotion-riddled Facebook plea that had little logic or truth in it. “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of health care,” Palin wrote on her Facebook page in August 2009.
The provocative “death panel” statement was readily latched onto by conservatives and an unthinking US populous. The myth ran rampant throughout the more conservative media and threatened to derail Obama’s healthcare reforms. But how can two words garner so much power and influence?
“If you are able to pick the appropriately evocative name, you can have quite an effect on people and that is what propagandists have known forever. Certainly they know that in other countries where they were able to accomplish very bad things by using language that fired people up,” says Gleason.
In Nazi Germany, Gleason says Jews were referred to as vermin and propaganda posters were made with rats on them to label Jewish people. The same damning technique was used in Rwanda in 1994, when genocide resulted in the murder of close on a million people – or some 20% of the country’s population.
Prior to the mass murder, Tutsis too were referred to as vermin and people were told that they were not killing human beings but were exterminating cockroaches in a manner that someone would trample vermin underfoot.
Why do people so easily accept these frames of reference without thinking about the destruction they wreak? Gleason says that for the most part people don’t think. “Critical thinking is something we keep saying we want to train in our students, but people are very quick to accept authority and to accept the way things are called,” she says.
Watch Jean Berko Gleason on Stephen Fry's Planet Word
“It is very hard to change people’s thinking once they have characterised the world according to their way. Once you have defined something by a particular term people are very resistant to changing this. We see that people are very resistant to changing the names of things,” Gleason says.
Given that names are important to people and that language is for the most part automatic, resistance to change makes sense. “You don’t have to decide that you are going to call a cat a cat,” explains Gleason. “If people tell you that are going to change the name for this feline and that you must call cats kitties from now on, it slows you down. You are going to resist because you have to reframe what you are saying and it is a lot easier to do things the way you have automatically being doing them all your life.”
A global expert on language in general and children’s language in particular, Gleason is the creator of the famous “Wug Test”, an experiment to determine how children acquire and learn the rules of language. “I have always liked language and been fascinated by it,” she says. “People asked me how I first got into it and I said one the things that really made me pay attention to language was that I had a brother who had cerebral palsy. He was a lovely, smart, nice person but he had trouble speaking. When we were kids, I was the person who understood him and was more or less able to translate what he was saying to other people.”
Gleason says she doesn’t want to be Freudian about what developed her love of linguistics because “Language is fun, it has wonderful sounds. I love phonology, I love the different sounds the different languages make and I love talking different languages”. She speaks an impressive number of tongues, including Latin, Sanskrit, German, French, Arabic and Norwegian.
“I love language for cognitive reasons but of course it is so appealing. Some people might love music, and of course I too like music, but language for me has an intrinsic interest, it is just fascinating,” Gleason says with contagious delight.
Watch Jean Berko Gleason answering ten questions and speaking munchkin on The Secret Life of Scientists
With people realising the importance of being media and advertising literate, Gleason advocates language literacy so that people can understand how language is used to shape and control thinking. “In the political world people are being manipulated by very, very smart people. Unfortunately the Republicans here are much better at it than the Democrats; knowledge is power, so if people are made aware of this it would be very helpful.”
More than useful. Understanding what happens when we reframe our thinking according to political influence could save lives and may help stop the spread of wildfire political propaganda before it is consumed by an unthinking public with a propensity for lapping up even the wildest assumptions. DM
- What’s A Wug? by Jean Berko Gleason at The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers, on Nova;
- Local Expert: Babies Talking In Viral Video Were ‘Jargon Babbling’, on CBS Boston;
- “Hi, Thanks, And Goodbye” at The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers, on Nova; and
- Meet the Real Death Panels, on Mother Jones.
Main photo: Photo: Sarah 'The Death Panel' Palin. Reuters.