2 July 2004

War talk

Today I read Robin Lakoff's article --"War Talk" (in The Iraq War and Its Consequences, 2003). Lakoff looks at Bush's rhetoric in terms of the Aristotelian categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.

1. Ethos
In her discussion of ethos (i.e., efforts to convince listeners that one is trustworthy, etc.), Lakoff claims that Bush's speech is designed to appeal to a constituency that is uncomfortable with gender indeterminancy (a constituency that has grown due to the post-9/11 yearning for the good ol' days when men were men and sheep were afraid). Bush's malaproprism, use of nicknames, and informal posture are all designed to project "manly" qualities; whereas the informality also serves to ensure people that the Bush folks have got things under control.

2. Pathos
Discussing pathos (the sense of I'm one of you and we ain't like them), Lakoff talks about the frequent identification of disagreement with disloyalty (a good example given is the ACTA pamphlet). Needless to say, such an identification is meant to discourage dissent.

3. Logos
Under logos (rational discourse), Lakoff discusses the famous 16 words ("the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."). Lakoff points out that Bush did not express his assertion as "the British claim" or "the British say." Use of the term "learned" implied that the U.S. knew this to be true (underlying truth being part of the semantics of the word "learn.") A particularly interesting part of Lakoff's article is her discussion of the shift in meaning of the terms "Free World" and "revisionist history" as used by Bush. Lakoff points out that the former originally meant countries opposing the Soviet block while the latter meant those who denied the Holocaust. Bush now uses "Free World" in a completely vague and meaningless way. (Is Saudi Arabia part of the Free World? Is Pakistan?) Revisionist politics is now being used to mean anyone opposing Bush's view of things. This is a particularly interesting use of language since it effectively denies the very possibility of debate with the insinuation that the Bush view of the world is somehow unquestionable by all but those who wish to "deny history." Along these lines, Lakoff also discusses the odd mismatch of speech acts that gives us Wolfowitz telling us that the reason given for the war was the only one that members of the administration could agree on (Since when are justifications created by being stated?) Another example is the administration claim that hostilities are over (How can one announce one's opponent's surrender?)

Lakoff's sociolinguistic analysis of the Bush war-talk is interesting, particularly in light of all the Republic handwringing over Fahrenheit 9/11. We are told that it is unpatriotic and that it does not "support the president" but isn't the fundamental idea of a democracy that people debate and discuss issues.

A final quote from Lakoff:

"In a simple definition, patriotism is supporting your country; treason is undermining it. But who decides what 'support' and 'undermining' mean?"

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