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Beware of ‘Snakes,’ ‘Invaders’ and Other Fighting Words

Over the past few years, far-right nationalist political leaders around the world have been using harsh rhetoric against minority groups, particularly immigrants. We know from history that acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and terrorism have been preceded by periods in which political and social movements employed such rhetoric. In Nazi Germany, Jews were described as vermin, and Nazi propaganda outlets claimed that Jews spread diseases. The recent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people of Myanmar was preceded by propaganda associating Rohingya men with rape.

In the United States, we had the “superpredator” theory. Violent-crime rates in the country started dropping in 1993 and continued dropping throughout the decade. And yet, in 1996, criminologists began spreading an unjustified panic about so-called superpredators — “hardened, remorseless juveniles”, according to the political scientist John DiIulio — that led to a wave of new state laws with harsh sentences for minors. Politicians’ descriptions of young black men as “thugs” and “gang members” in the 1990s helped transform the United States into the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate. Black Americans constitute 40 percent of the incarcerated population while representing only 13 percent of United States residents.

Power over an individual is the ability to change someone else’s behavior or thoughts in accord with one’s desires. One way to control someone’s behavior is through force. A much better way to change others’ behavior is by possessing the capacity to change their obligations. If you can convince someone that they ought to do what you want them to do, your power is genuine authority. But do words really have power to change our behavior?

The literature on marketing teaches us that rhetoric can have significant impact on attitudes. Here is one example: Asking people even purely hypothetical questions unconsciously shifts their subsequent preferences and behavior in often dramatic ways. In a 2001 study by the marketing professors Gavan Fitzsimons and Baba Shiv, subjects were told in advance they would be asked purely hypothetical questions. One group was asked, “If strong evidence emerges from scientific studies suggesting that cakes, pastries, etc. are not nearly as bad for your health as they have often been portrayed to be, and may have some major health benefits, what would happen to your consumption of these items?”

Subjects were told that the study “was about the effects of a change in environment on how consumers express opinions about products”, and so were directed into another room and offered a choice between snacks placed on a cart between the rooms: chocolate cake or fruit salad. Another group, the control group, was not asked any hypothetical questions.

In the control group, 25.7 percent chose cake. In stark contrast, subjects who were merely presented with the hypothetical question, and no further elaboration, selected the cake 48 percent of the time. Merely urging subjects to “think carefully before you respond to the question” to prepare to justify their answer, later increased cake selection from 48 percent to 66 percent. And subjects were clearly unaware of having been manipulated by the hypothetical question, as without exception they denied that their preferences or their behavior were influenced by the hypothetical question in subsequent in-depth interviews. Every subject maintained that his or her choice was unaffected by being asked the hypothetical question.

The 2000 Republican presidential primaries pitted Gov. George W. Bush against Senator John McCain. Before the South Carolina primary, Mr. Bush’s campaign polled prospective Republican primary voters with a hypothetical question: “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” Mr. Bush subsequently won South Carolina.

This is a case in which it is the language, the way of phrasing something, that has power; in a hypothetical question, after all, no reason has been given to accept the hypothesis. Another striking example of language manipulation, from the social psychologist Christopher Bryan and colleagues: If we ask you “How important is it to you to be a voter?” you’re much more likely to vote than if we ask you “How important is it to vote?” Hearing the first makes you reflect on your inherent characteristics regarding voting; the second merely questions your plans. Rhetoric has power; it affects attitudes, behavior and perceived obligations.

Understanding the mechanisms that give hateful rhetoric its power illuminates the nature of its danger. One way that rhetoric changes perceived obligations is by the recommendation of certain practices. In her 2012 paper “Genocidal Language Games”, the philosopher Lynne Tirrell describes how, for some years before the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches” and “snakes”. In Rwanda, snakes are public health threats. Ms. Tirrell writes, “in Rwanda, boys are proud when they are trusted to cut the heads off snakes”. Calling a Tutsi a “snake” connected slaughtering Tutsis to the heroic practice of killing snakes.

Calling immigrants “invaders” has the effect of connecting practices one would employ against hostile intruders to immigrant groups. If one simultaneously advances the value system of nationalism, then the kind of practice one is recommending by using “invaders” to describe immigrants is violence. This rhetoric has force because it leads people to view violence against immigrants as obligatory. Denouncing “illegal aliens” in an Oval Office speech in March, President Trump said, “People hate the word ‘invasion,’ but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people”. When the rhetorical power associated with describing immigrants as invaders is augmented with the authority of a presidency, it has an especially significant capacity to shift perceived obligations.

Rhetorical power may seem like a magical idea. The fact that the power of words is hard to take as seriously as other varieties of power, however, contributes to its significance as a social force. Rhetorical power changes our attitudes by manipulation. But manipulation is usually something hidden, whereas speech is out in the open. Its openness reinforces the normalcy of the practices it recommends.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale and the author, most recently, of How Fascism Works. David Beaver is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. They are co-authors of the forthcoming book, Hustle: The Politics of Language.

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