Thoughts and ramblings on tech, media, culture, and food. Plus some other stuff, I'm sure.

On Believing Political Rhetoric

Last night there was another State of the Union address — this president's 5th — and of course that means reading everyone's comments and critique. Many of my friends and acquaintances either identify as democrats or are leftist/liberal/progressive/whatever. And a lot of my family and friends from growing up identify as republicans or are rightist/conservative/whatever. If there is anything I learned working on my master's it is that I prefer to be independent/moderate/whatever, even if I tend to lean more conservative on some issues.

One of the consequences of reading and studying so much in media bias and messaging, semiotics and encoding, is a keen awareness of the tricks used during televised speeches. It is so ingrained in American political history, ever since the famous John Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate, that I think most Americans tend to only listen to what's being said doing nothing to weigh it with reality.

But the truth is that these speeches are carefully crafted to achieve goals. I won't go so far as to say the goal is to dupe the American public (though you'll hear this from opposing conspiracy theorists on either side), but there is more than straight-talk going on. When the president is using a story to illustrate a point he is employing a classic strategy: that of myth.

According to Roland Barthes (1972), myth is simply a form of communication, a message. But it's a tricky beast, for sure, because myth hides its source and distorts its meaning. In semiotic theory, the "signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other (117)". The form here doesn't reduce the meaning it just strips it of its importance. It's a smoke-and-mirrors trick: what is being said will cause you to think of a lot of things, form an entire opinion in your mind, but it is really hiding the true meaning.

What is characteristic of myth? To transform a meaning into form. In other words, myth is always language-robbery.


Articulated language, which is most often robbed by myth, offers little resistance. It contains in itself some mythical dispositions, the outline of a sign-structure meant to manifest the intention which led to its being used: it is what could be called the I of language. (131)

Myth used in political speeches that appeal to your emotion, or to beat the other guy, or even now in seeking "hand-holding across the aisle" is in those stories and claims—this is the form. Those stories and anecdotes mask the true meaning of what is being said. In fact, Barthes goes on to note that "myth is depoliticized speech" in the sense that we understand "political" as "the whole of human relations in their real, social structure, in their power of making the world" (Barthes, 143). So 'depoliticized' means a defaulting.

Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. (143)

Go back and listen to a political speech. Is that not all true? When either side "accepts to wear a mask, hide its name, to generate an innocent metalanguage and distort itself into 'Nature'" we see myth attempting, as Adorno and Horkheimer posited (1973), to create a common culture. When we listen to much of the rhetoric imposed in the past several years we can begin to see traces of an attempt at illusion of a common class membership cropping up through reinforcement and reproduction of that myth. That's why it's so important to weigh what is being said and find it's real meaning not just gape and accept its distorted form.

For instance, when the president says [State of the Union, Jan 28, 2014],

[W]hat I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.  Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you.  But America does not stand still – and neither will I.  So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.

... what is the real meaning? The form shows us the natural language: growth, work opportunities for the middle class, and, of course, concrete, absolutely correct plans to do these things. Speed and progress, hope and change. In myth these are definitely based on good things, things that certainly do need to happen. But they mask and distort the message that the president (seems) willing to circumvent the checks and balances built into the American political system by going ahead without Congressional approval.

Or when Cathy McMorris Rodgers says [GOP Rebuttal, Jan 28, 2014],

Every day, we’re working to expand our economy, one manufacturing job, nursing degree and small business at a time. We have plans to improve our education and training systems so you have the choice to determine where your kids go to school…so college is affordable…and skills training is modernized. And yes, it’s time to honor our history of legal immigration. We’re working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest, and hardest working from around the world.

... what is the real meaning? Much of this sounds natural: more jobs, more money, better education, and immigration. But the meaning here seems to really say that we will only allow legal immigration for those that can benefit America... the elite even.

When we listen to the media reports on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the term "health care" is synonymous with "health insurance" and it becomes a natural form of language. However, they are two different things and it just distorts the fact that we are trying to fix something that needs fixing (care for people with illness and injury) with an already broken insurance system.

And while we like to voice our comments on Twitter and Facebook and attack others for not agreeing with our own viewpoints, the majority of society is only paying attention to the form they are being fed and has not done their own research. Dayan and Katz (1992) go so far as to say that television "depoliticizes society, both because it keeps people at home and because it contributes to a false illusion of political involvement" (59).

Furthermore, Dayan and Katz see that,

The entire genre of media events deals with the relationships among elites, broadcasters, and audience. ... [T]his is not simply a linear relationship, but one which is circular and systemic, as much as contractual. Nevertheless, the reverence with which media events are presented, the moments of equality and communitas which they propose, are undoubtedly reinforcing of the existing power structure, even if they open delicate, potentially subversive questions concerning alternative arrangements for the operation of power and the nature of stratification. (225)

That last bit is significant. It's important to follow those subversive questions, no matter what our opinions are. It is important to question the hegemonic modes that operate daily in our own minds; it is important to challenge our assumptions and inclinations. Too often I find myself readily accepting something I hear or see. It's so much easier that way right? A liberal friend says something that offends my assumptions and I'd much rather say something completely venomous. But instead, I try my hardest to consider what's being said, recognize the form and the meaning, read up if need be.

We cannot trust what is being said on television, on the news, by press secretaries. We cannot even take at face value news stories on websites, or discourse crafted by a speechwriter. Because we breathe these every day, why should it be safe to trust our own opinions? Isn't it better to be constantly refining them by weighing what we ingest, checking for validity, and considering its worth? That's what I try to do.