Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Let Them Eat Yellow Cake: The Consequences of General Semantics Violations in Public Affairs

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Let Them Eat Yellow Cake: The Consequences of General Semantics Violations in Public Affairs

Article excerpt

Abstract: The authors provide an analysis of the "wars" on terror by the United States. The Oklahoma City bombing is compared with the war in Iraq. General semantics principles that were violated include the lack of understanding of the concept of dating (time-binding) and the use of intensional orientation as opposed to an extensional orientation. The authors describe such errors as providing a semantic domino effect in which one such error increases the probability of others as a consequence.

Politicians and other public officials generally work under the assumption that word choice is important because it serves to influence semantic framing of issues (Powell & Cowart, 2003). Word choice can also serve to frame the debate on an issue (Feldman & Lakoff, 2007; Lakoff, Dean, and Hazen, 2004) and to indicate the emotional distance between the speaker and the issue (Fraser & Gordon, 1994). Thus, the speechwriter works to carefully select "the word that does exactly what you want it to do, and nothing else" (Perlman, 1998, p. 129). In some instances, word choice is so important that drafts with blanks inserted are circulated so "that multiple suggestions for the right word are obtained" (Powell & Cowart, p. 156).

Political candidates, particularly Republicans, have a history of carefully choosing words for their anticipated semantic impact. For example, Ronald Reagan used the concept of "conservative values" to summarize moral positions in his successful presidential campaign (Dallek, 1999). That campaign eventually led to use of the phrase "family values" in later campaigns. Republicans also altered their discussion of the abortion issue by changing references from "anti-abortion" to "pro-life" and talking about "tax relief" (Lakoff & Dean, 2004). During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush never talked about spending "cuts" to reduce government expenditures, but always used the word "savings" instead (Bruni, 2000). Similarly, Lakoff (2008) argued that the Bush administration was successful at gaining initial support for the Iraq War because of the language it used to frame the issue. John McCain continued playing the semantics game in the 2008 election; he consistently used the term "Al-Qaeda" to refer to all terrorist groups in Iraq, for example, even though most of the Iraqi terrorists were not associated with that group (Cooper & Rohter, 2008).

The recent history of Republicans' focus on word choice goes back to the 1970s and President Richard Nixon. Nixon, in his on-going disagreement with the press (Liebovich, 2003), carefully pursued a strategy that involved changing references to the journalistic profession from "the press" to "the media." The assumption was that the latter phrase was devoid of connotations regarding the objectivity of "the press"; Nixon's efforts at this change was so effective that "media" is more commonly used as a description of journalism than is "the press" (Nolan, 2005). The Nixon administration's attacks on the press included assistance from his vice president, Spiro Agnew, and his infamous "nattering nabobs of negativism" description of the media (Barone, 1996; Hart, 1994). Agnew's use of semantics as a divisive strategy eventually was referred to in some circles as "The Spiro Strategy" (Fineman, 1995, p. 28).

Similarly, Democratic communication advisors have recognized the value of anticipating the semantic connotations of words, particularly during the 2008 campaign (Dewan & Brown, 2008). During that campaign, Democratic leaders used the works of Lakoff (2008) and Weston (2007) to redefine several Democratic themes. Lakoff's work emphasized the importance of using words to trigger emotional responses rather than relying upon winning an issue based upon a discussion of the facts of the issue. Similarly, Weston focused on how specific terms and phrases enhanced the party's message. These included use of the word "leadership" instead of "government," and having candidates make references to the "middle class" instead of the poor. …

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