The Blog Wags the Dog

CrimestopOnce in a while a writer hits an idea so squarely on the head that society unconditionally embraces it. Such is the case with Orwell’s concept of “Newspeak” in 1984. A language autocratically contrived to limit imagination and willpower, Newspeak may be the most pervasively integrated science fiction term in civic discourse. By the 1960s it was not uncommon for academic papers to refer to Newspeak without allusion to Orwell, and today even second-rate bands casually incorporate Newspeak vocabulary. My generation grew up instinctively understanding that manipulating language means manipulating thought.

The conflict between the two parties is often portrayed as an Orwellian struggle to dominate the language. Today’s most important political strategists are message gurus, and the most successful speeches are those which change the language of a debate. George W. Bush’s introduction in September 2001 of the “War on Terror” set the terms for eight years of global political debate. Major news networks endorsed the terminology, leading to an undocumented but undeniably powerful shift in popular geopolitical perceptions. The same can be said for “homeland security.” Reagan’s “welfare queen” deeply colored perceptions of the social safety net, and Nixon’s “war on drugs” set the stage for a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate over three decades.

As little as ten years ago, at the inception of the War on Terror, clear channels existed for promoting new vocabulary. A handful of media outlets were still responsible for a large share of the national political conversation. One primetime commercial (like LBJ’s famous “Daisy” ad, aired only once) could strongly influence the tenor of a campaign.

But it’s no secret that cable news, online media, and social networking have changed the way political affairs filter into public consciousness. Three channels of evening news and a handful of national newspapers no longer supply the preponderance of civic knowledge. Anderson Cooper is no Walter Cronkite or even Peter Jennings. Four times more people listened to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman announce the Super Bowl this year than heard Obama deliver the State of the Union. Niche outlets and publications have cultivated ideological communities which often supercede major news networks in providing news to their members. Some of these outlets have become influential players in their own right, like DailyKos or Hot Air; countless others retain small but devout followings. A few giants still stand out from the crowd, but according to Alexa only three news websites (BBC, CNN, and the New York Times) are among the 100 top visited sites on the web, and upstart sites are rapidly gaining ground. In January, Huffington Post had 28 million unique viewers, compared to the Times‘ 30 million. Slate, Salon, and the Daily Beast all have more traffic than the Economist, the Atlantic, and Newsweek, with Talking Points Memo and Daily Kos close behind.

Orwell’s dystopia assumed a radical centralization of media. Big Brother’s media monopoly usurped the people’s ability to make informed decisions. But isn’t this exactly the opposite of what has happened? We information consumers may not be free of media conglomerates, but as a rule, the number and diversity of political news sources has grown rapidly. In addition to the cable networks and online newspapers there are blogs, independent political communities, and online social networks. Liberating, to be sure. But our information society hasn’t destroyed Orwell’s fear so much as reversed it.

Consider “ObamaCare,” by now a universal moniker for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and exactly the sort of pejorative label one might expect to find shackled to legislation by a stalwart political opponent. Who introduced and popularized the term? We might suspect John McCain’s presidential campaign, or Republican leadership during the heat of the healthcare reform debate.

In fact the term’s origins are murky, but the earliest online media instance seems to be an April 2008 article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Wayne Madsen, a liberal and a supporter of the proposed reforms. From there it gradually percolated throughout the blogosphere, finally achieving significant search traffic in the summer of 2009, as Tea Party protests sprang up across the country (and at almost the precise moment that “death panels” entered the common vernacular). Around the same time, major newspapers began publishing op-eds discussing “ObamaCare.” These op-eds tended to use the term disparagingly; it was a favorite keyword in the Wall Street Journal, whose website contains more than twenty times more instances of the word than the New York Times’.

But the pejorative use did not last forever. While some liberals remain uncomfortable with the term, it’s not uncommon now to read popular progressive bloggers writing casually and unreservedly about ObamaCare. No single author or source appears to have been responsible for the shift—some writers have accepted the term as neutral, others have not.

Tea party vs media

How can we explain this seemingly spontaneous eruption of new vocabulary? Some commentators have blamed the organizers of the Tea Party, especially Sarah Palin. Her acolytes, they say, appropriate her often bewilderingly creative neologisms. To some extent it is true that Palin’s media machine invites Tea Party vituperation. But even the term “death panel,” which originated in a Facebook post by Palin, gained traction primarily via a blog post on Talking Points Memo. It’s impossible to say whether the term would have attained widespread use without that catalyst. But less than three million Facebook users currently “like” Palin’s page. How many actually read each of her posts? By comparison, Huffington Post’s monthly readership is near thirty million. Could one post from Palin have transformed political vocabulary without extensive help from independent online communities?

I doubt it. Palin’s interviews and online posts are chalk full of potentially inflammatory terms. After the State of the Union address she devoted an entire Facebook post to criticizing Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in favor of a private sector mission she nicknamed “Spudnut” after a family-owned coffee shop chain. Yet only two of the top ten Google results for “spudnut” have to do with Palin. The other eight direct to coffee shops. In the last two weeks Palin has also tried to brand Obama’s speech (“Winning the Future”) as the WTF speech, which has also failed. Her one SOTU barb which did win significant airtime—”blood libel”—has done her no favors.

Palin’s rhetorical efforts exemplify the changing balance of linguistic power. Politicians and media moguls are gradually losing their unilateral ability to control political language. Certainly they, like Palin, can spout incendiary phrases until someone notices. In Palin’s case, because she captivates liberal and conservative pundits alike, that approach at least occasionally yields her desired results. But for the most part the public tail is now wagging the media dog.

Despite incessant lamentations to the contrary, American political culture is not inherently more populist or vitriolic than in decades past. Tea Party rallies are no Kent State. It is, however, less centralized. Presidential addresses reach a much smaller fraction of the population. Local news programs spend less time covering political events. Meanwhile, independent blogs and upstart media outlets compete to establish linguistic norms, knowing how much public perception depends on terminology. In a sense this new evolutionary process is more organic, depending more on public participation and less on private rhetorical objectives.

It is also more sensationalistic. For example, consider the popular controversy over the so-called “millionaire tax bracket.” Last September, hoping to assuage public concerns over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, House Democratic leaders considered instituting a tax bracket that would apply to families with income in excess of a million dollars. As some commentators noted at the time, the term “millionaire” traditionally referred to assets, not income. That is, one becomes a millionaire by accumulating a million dollars in assets, not by earning a million within a single year. The Democratic tax proposal subtly shifted to the income-based definition, resulting in a tax bracket that would apply only to much wealthier taxpayers.

No organized effort or communications campaign concocted this terminological shift. Bloggers, then news media, then finally politicians began referring to the “millionaire tax bracket” almost by accident. It’s clear enough that the term is more sensational than alternatives—say, “tax bracket for annual income in excess of a million dollars”—and is an obvious choice for any writer or editor. There can be no surprise that its use would spread organically through the world of political commentary and debate. Yet its adoption led to a gap between the proposal’s content and its public perception. Might the same linguistic change have occurred without the new media infrastructure? I can’t say for sure, but at the very least the misperception would have been more easily addressed.

What’s most frightening about Newspeak isn’t Big Brother’s ability to manipulate citizens’ thoughts but the more fundamental observation that (as Wittgenstein had written thirty years before) the limits of our language are the limits of our world. Politically speaking, this means that the nature of our civic institutions depends to some extent on what terms are available to describe them. If our information society no longer needs to fear invidious authoritarian forces co-opting our vocabulary, we should certainly be glad. At the same time, the distributed media and the internet are mechanisms for ever-faster mutation of political language. Would-be autocrats and demagogues can no longer predict and control the consequences of these mutations—but neither can we.

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5 Responses to The Blog Wags the Dog

  1. Karl says:

    “What’s most frightening about Newspeak isn’t Big Brother’s ability to manipulate citizens’ thoughts but the more fundamental observation that (as Wittgenstein had written thirty years before) the limits of our language are the limits of our world. ”

    This is, quite frankly, false. People have thoughts and feelings they can’t find words for all the time. Linguistic manipulation affects thoughts inasmuch as people think about the words they read and hear, but the notion that thought cannot go beyond language is unsupportable.

    • It’s a fascinating question, and Wittgenstein’s abstract answer certainly doesn’t satisfy everyone: that expression without language is without meaning. But there is a contemporary argument which you might find more persuasive. While we can make sense of sufficiently concrete concepts without vocabulary, more abstract ideas require language. For example, I don’t need the word “tree” to think about a tree, but it’s hard for me to think about an idea as complex as, say, a democratic republic, without terminology. In the context of my article, I’m fairly confident that without the term “millionaire tax bracket” or a synonym it would be just about impossible to think about that concept. So when the sense of the term changes, so too does the content of our thoughts.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I actually think this an interesting case where there’s a strangely huge gap between professional linguists (in which class I’m putting you, Karl, just on the basis of you having commented about linguistics twice) and everyone else in the humanities/social sciences: if you read Language Log, they just hate the Sapir-Worff hypothesis — or at least its cavalier usage in the public sphere in the way Ben’s using it, whereas everyone else (I include myself here) takes it for granted that the words and terms we have at our disposal are essential, in a relatively simple way, to the way we think about politics. I’m curious how one would go about bridging this gap…

  3. John Behan says:

    Hey Ben:

    Thanks for this post. I have two questions.

    Given your argument about language/thought, what do you make of the Christian mystical tradition?

    And, if language sets a “strong limit” to our thought, how do we explain the creation of ideas like the “millionaire tax bracket” ?


  4. Raffi–
    My understanding, which could be mistaken, is that the strong version of Sapir-Whorf has few adherents, but the weak version (contending that language influences thought and behavior without being deterministic) has been supported persuasively by anthropological evidence starting with Boas in the early 20th century. My argument only requires acceptance of the weak version, though Orwell seems to have been arguing for the strong version in 1984. At the end of the day it seems to me that the gap to be bridged is probably not that wide.

    God cannot be named, right? To the extent that the mystical tradition of Augustine, Eckhart, and their ilk attempts to define God and the holy negatively, I think their effort pursues transcendence of language and, by extension, transcendence of thought and of being. Interestingly, Eckhart plays with the idea of God the Father embodying creation with a single word–a word inevitably beyond human language, but nonetheless indicating a sort of linguistic ontology.

    As for the creation of complex vocabulary, I’m not educated enough in linguistics to give you an authoritative answer, but my guess is that there’s a constructive process. We start by representing simple concepts symbolically, then use those symbols to allow synthesis of more complex concepts. That’s how it seems to work with children, right?

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