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'We need to become literate in political language'

Why does it matter if politicians use terms like "waves of refugees"? What impact does language have in politics and how can journalists best decode it? DW Conflict Zone spoke to cognitive scientist Elisabeth Wehling.​

DW: Ms. Wehling, how does language affect election results? 

Elisabeth Wehling: Language affects election results because any true democratic togetherness is organized primarily via language. We have television debates, we read newspapers, and politicians tell us what they want to do. Any democratic coorporation is fundamentally built on how we connect via language. And, language isn't an abstract thing that has no connection to our body or the world, it's tangible. It is processed in the brain, it's part of the body, it's physical. Which is part of why it is such a strong tool. 

What has Trump done right in his campaign? 

Part of it is social media. On Twitter, he uses simple language with a lot of vivid imagery. He will not talk about patriotism; he will talk about Americans “bleeding the same red blood of patriots”. It's not a coincidence that he didn't say "Let's minimize immigration from Mexico," he said "Let's build a wall." Strong images and a simple language on Twitter became an extremely important tool for him. Moreover, the majority of our every political cognition is based on metaphors. Prices aren't "falling" or "rising", they don't go anywhere. We say they fall and rise because of the metaphor that "more" is "up". Trump is a master of metaphors. And metaphors can hide and highlight things. They can hide truths. They can imply a lot of implicit cognitive biases. Trump has been doing a good job with framing. He has strong stories about questions like: What makes a good citizen? Why? 

Linguistin Elisabeth Wehling (privat)

Elisabeth Wehling is a political thought and language researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Your work focuses on the idea of "framing". What does it mean? 

Think of a picture frame: You highlight what's inside the frame and you hide whatever is outside. We have similar structures in our mind. Specific aspects of a situation are highlighted, others are hidden. Political parties endorse different frames when they discuss issues like labor or immigration. These frames always give the audience an ideologically viewpointed interpretation of the facts. 

If you want to go deeper, the reason we think in frames is the brain cannot process facts without frames. We have to rely on frames. I'll give you an easy example: your glass being half full or half empty. That is already framing. There is no communication outside of frames. Using frames that make your ideology transparent is important when communicating in politics.

How is that being used on the election trail in Germany? 

When you look at the language Martin Schulz uses, he very clearly has the goal to talk more about moral premises than his party has recently done. In one of his first big interviews he talked about empathy. Who else did that? Obama. It's one core value of progressive politics. Schulz is clearly - and this is not true for just anyone - he is clearly aware that it's immensely important to not just communicate to your voters what you want to do but why you think this is the right thing to do. However, he needs to take a very close look at his language. He should not be talking about tax burdens or waves of refugees. Those frames play into a more conservative viewpoint. If you want to raise the tax responsibility of people you should not implicitly tell them "I'm going to harm you but it's the right thing to do" by using terms like tax burden. Voters get confused and turn away. 

Why does it matter if we talk about "waves of refugees" or "tax havens"?  

Politics is very abstract so using metaphors helps. If you talk about waves, you talk about masses of water. Masses of water are not fleeing from the ocean, they are dangerous, a threat. German citizens are understood as the actual victim of the situation. There's no empathy with water. If you buy into this metaphor, there's no basis for empathy-based politics. Language directly affects action. If you‘re more conservative, you might well agree with the message that refugees are a threat. These terms and images reflect a certain ideology in our political system. But they are not neutral or objective. Therefore it's not good practice to lightheartedly use them in everyday media reports - which is done a lot.

What is the role of journalism in this process? 

Any journalism school should teach students about how the brain works. Language impacts people's cognition. Political reporters should know about ideology research so they can detect and comment on the battles we see in a more productive way. But take Twitter, it becomes harder and harder for journalists to do their job in terms of contextualizing politics for their fellow citizens. Trump says this overtly. He doesn't need the media to get his message out to the people. He is right. And this has severe implications for journalists. By the way, one of the worst things is to buy in to attacks like "fake news" by negating the idea. Take the correspondents' dinner in Washington, D.C. For reporters to say "We're not fake news" is frame negation. Instead of using the occasion to talk about the frames they deeply care about, like truth, they propagate Trump’s notion of fake news. No doubt, journalists and citizens, we all need to become literate in how political language and thought work. Not knowing has a tremendous impact on our democracy.