What’s in a (candidate’s) name?

Every campaign season, I become a bit fixated on all of the lawn signs (bumper stickers, etc.) proudly broadcasting candidates’ names. Not their accomplishments, not their credentials, just their names. And maybe even a schnazzy design!

Sometimes it’s because they’re hilarious: a personal favorite from Columbus, OH in 2008 said simply “Serritt [Sherrit?] has Merit.” For whatever reason, that cracked me up; it seemed to say simply, “S/He’s okay. Worth considering, anyway.” Then again, I just checked “merit” the Oxford English Dictionary, and it turns out s/he was actually making a pretty good claim to excellence, entitlement to gratitude or reward… and/or “quality (in actions or persons) of being entitled to reward from God.” Impressive. I take back my mockery.

But still (and apologies for the Seinfeld-ism): What is the deal with all of these names plastered all over every neighborhood? Has anyone ever seen one of these signs and thought, “You know, that’s really persuasive. I’m going to vote for that guy.” or “That name sounds trustworthy and intelligent — and look at that innovative use of red, white, and blue! She’s got my vote.” or even “Well, if all of these strangers who live around here think that’s the right choice…”?

I guess there’s some hope that familiarity breeds comfort or that perceptions of popularity breed actual popularity. In theory, that makes sense… though I remain skeptical. Especially when opposing candidates’ names appear alongside each other’s…

But then again, name recognition might backfire when people are fed up with all of the campaign materials — someone’s name plastered all around town can seem pretty invasive and obnoxious. While waiting (for hours) to vote early this morning, I chatted with other voters about whether the campaign supporters waving signs and shouting their candidates’ names would actually alienate people right before they step into the polls. If I’m standing online (for hours) to vote, chances are I’ve already made up my mind. And that you’re annoying me.

I’m genuinely curious: Does anyone know whether this name-inundation “works”? And at accomplishing what, exactly? Generating awareness and conversation? Accumulating actual votes?

It’s probably very lucrative for sign-makers. Otherwise, it just seems wasteful in so many ways.

Recommended Reads: Politrick-or-Treat Edition

Happy Halloween. Hope everyone out east is safe and sound on solid ground. After gorging myself on Frankenstorm footage for three days, I’ve decided meteorologist Jim Cantore should run for president. He’s got the face for it. Plus, we’d know we’re in for a national crisis when he breaks out his dry suit. You wanna talk ethos? The Weather Channel may be the media’s last bastion of good will, practical wisdom, and virtue. Maps with colors other than red and blue. Storms with no patience for polls. Justified hype. And no faux holograms.

Since there’s no rain delay in politics, it’ll be a hoot watching the campaigns tiptoe to Tuesday’s finish line. But today’s for trick-or-treating, so here are some election-flavored reads for your sweet (sour?) tooth.

Slate looks at one party’s advantage in microtargeting the ever-elusive persuadables.

Libertarian journalist and good-tempered man Julian Sanchez proposes a required university course in basic argumentation to counter the tone of outrage politics.

For data-viz enthusiasts, xkcd draws an illustrated history of partisan and ideological trends in the U.S. Congress.

Playboy interviews political satirist Stephen Colbert. Bonus treat: Kathleen Hall Jamieson on the frailties of fact-checking from this spring’s Truthiness Conference.

Binders full of women, Big Bird, and bayonets: Nathan Jurgenson explores meme-literacy and the lulz-filter’s effects on political narratives.

Four debates, not a single question. Behind the haunting silence.




Language Intelligence: A Non-Academic’s Take on Rhetoric

Not really a book review (because I haven’t read it, duh!), but more of a heads-up: political blogger Joe Romm (from ThinkProgress) has just released his book Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion From Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga. As you can tell from the subtitle, it’s more or less a pop take on rhetoric, partly a “what to look for” and partly a “how to” manual… Romm delves into politics (naturally), but also into areas like scientific discourse and popular culture. I’ve glanced at some blog posts about the book, and from what I can glean, it delves heavily into matters relating to style (lots of references to “the figures of speech”) and oratorical performance. Maybe worth a read?

Capitol Words

I was recently asked what type of digital corpuses are available to track word frequency changes over time.  In addition to Google’s N-gram I would recommend their Insights project, which allows for a more recent and detailed picture.  Though the time span is considerably shorter (’04-’12), Insights is a remarkable tool, since search queries have a more democratic tinge to them than publications.  It reveals what populations are curious about and willing to seek out.

Then just this morning I discovered Capitol Words, a project by the Sunlight Foundation.  As they describe it,

Capitol Words scrapes the bulk data of the Congressional Record from the Government Printing Office, does some computer magic to clean-up and organize the data, then presents an easy-to-use front-end website where you can quickly search the favorite keywords of legislatorsstates or dates.

The new version now allows users to search, index and graph up to five-word phrases that give greater context and meaning to the turns-of-phrase zinging across the aisle. Where we once could only track individual terms like ‘health‘ or ‘energy,’ now we can break down the issue further into ‘health care reform,’ ‘renewable energy,’ ‘high energy prices‘ or however you wish.

Such a site promises to be a playground for rhetoricians.

Now go play.

The Rhetoric of Eco-Terrorism

Here are some selections from Will Potter’s book, Green is the New Red, that chart the genealogy of eco-terrorist rhetoric.  Regardless of where you stand with regard to environmentalism or monkey-wrenching, it’s nevertheless important to understand how the  term terror is being specifically deployed in an age increasingly defined by such a label.

The mainstreaming of animal and environmental concerns, combined with tiers of lawful and unlawful groups, was undeniably a threat to the corporations [they] targeted.  [Corporations] needed to displace activists from their moral high ground.  A key development in orchestrating this fall from grace was the decision to wield the power of language.

“Whoever defines the issue controls the debate,” says Timothy Cummings, a clinical professor and poultry veterinarian at Mississippi State University.  Instead of saying “bled to death,” Cummings advises farmers to say “exsanguinated”; rather than “killer,” say “knife operator.” For those who break the law in the name of animal rights or the environment, industry groups would change the language from “monkey wrencher,” “saboteur,” or just plain “criminal” to the much more powerful “terrorist.”

Indeed, it’s a far more powerful phrase, but the difference is that now such a label has salient consequences for law enforcement, governmental policy, and judicial proceedings.  So when I read, say, Rick Santorum’s recent sweeping claims about environmentalism, I get anxious on a whole lot of levels.  At a campaign stop in Oklahoma City, Santorum argued that environmentalists are using fracking as “the new boogey man” to needlessly scare you about a perfectly safe practice.  But what’s really happening here, Santorum claims, is that “they will use this [fear] to raise money for the radical environmental groups so they can go out and continue to try to purvey their reign of environmental terror on the United States of America.”

(The irony of Santorum scaring potential voters and donors with phrases like “reign of environmental terror” and denouncing those seeking to implement a radical agenda is so rich I’m going to use it to ice this cake I just made.)

Here’s some history on the use of “eco-terrorism” from Potter:

Government official slowly incorporated the term into their lexicon and change how they spoke of sabotage [toward the end of the ’80s].  After a 1987 arson at the University of California at Davis, the FBI labeled an animal rights crime “domestic terrorism” for the first time.  The next year, Senator James McClure introduced the term eco-terrorist into the Congressional record (oddly enough, by comparing the tactics of drug lords to those of environmentalists).

Despite these linguistic victories, eco-terrorism was not a top governmental priority.  Ron Arnold’s organization [the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise] and the anti-environmental “Wise Use” movement operated on the fringes; the eco-terror meme remained loosely confined to this niche of free-market true believers, and sympathetic media portrayals continued through the late eighties […] This began to change when politicians got involved in the issue.

Use of the “eco-terrorist” label picks up substantially throughout the nineties, especially following the well-reported arson of a Vail ski resort in 1998.  It was 9/11, however, as the phrase goes, that changed everything.  Greg Walden, a Republican Representative from Oregon said on September 12 that the Earth Liberation Front was a threat “no less heinous than what we saw occur yesterday here in Washington and New York.”  Before the steel of the towers had even stopped smoldering, “Industry groups hired PR firms to insert eco-terrorism into the national security dialogue,” writes Potter.  Since 9/11, “the eco-terror language went viral, replicating by spreading from host to host.”

But this is not a conspiracy, Potter is right to point out.  It’s framing.  It’s the introduction of and normalizing of key terms that shape attitudes and perspectives.  “The shift was gradual,” he writes, “slowly merging the rhetoric of industry groups with that of politicians and law enforcement.  Eventually, what was once a fringe argument became official government policy.”

If that isn’t enough to boggle the rational mind and quicken the passionate heart, there’s this:

Examining top-tier newspaper articles from 1984 through 2006, [Travis Wagner, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine] found that terrorism rhetoric appeared throughout the timeline, but its frequency increased dramatically after September 11th and has continued climbing since then.  Wagner notes that this increase in ecotage-related stories accompanied a decline in actual crimes.  According to the North American [Animal Liberation Front] Press Office–not one to downplay ALF and ELF attacks–crimes decreased by 47 percent after 9/11.  As warning of eco-terrorism made headlines, the threat itself waned.


The Art of Civility (or, I heart PBS NewsHour)

I don’t actually love the “I heart” expression, but it comes close to my warm, fuzzy feelings of affection for the NewsHour. After going years deliberately, steadfastly refusing to watch television news, I’m now hooked on my nightly PBS fix. (People are beginning to understand that I won’t talk to them between 6 and 7pm est. And the discovery that it’s replayed at 10 on PBS-2 has been a real relief for those days, like Fridays, when I can’t make it.)

Even when it’s depressing, and it often is, it’s reasonable, calm, thoughtful. There are no flashy graphics, tickers, or sound effects. There are no commercials. Gwen and Judy and Kwame and Jeffrey and Margaret and Hari and Ray are smart and sharp but never showy. They are reasonable. Coverage of national and global news–not just the big stories of the day, but actual journalistic inquiry into major issues–acknowledges disagreement without dogmatic bickering; it brings in actual experts in their field to discuss complexities rather than (usually) yell talking points (talk yelling points?) at each other. Even the most argumentative figures (like Newt Gingrich) know that when they come to PBS, the best rhetorical move is to remain calm and try to appear intelligent and nuanced…. reasonable.

It has restored my faith in “the news” in a way that I am daily, sincerely grateful for. It’s definitely made me smarter. I also think it’s made me a better teacher, citizen, and person. Seriously.

So it was a pleasure, today, to have Judy mention commentators Brooks and Shields’ recent award, the inaugural Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life. (The award sounds nice and is also limited: it recognizes the importance of respecting different viewpoints and pursuing reasonable discussion, but it deems “Democrats” and “Republicans” the categories within which public discourse fits. Problematic on a few levels. But still, it’s a good sign. Or a sign that things are so bad…) I enjoy Brooks and Shields and their insights, and I often even forget that one is “right” and the other “left” because they tackle topics with such clear-sightedness. They seem reasonable, and they make differing viewpoints seem reasonable. So it was cool to have that recognized.

And their response was to credit PBS, and the Lehrer and MacNeil NewsHour legacy in particular, for raising the bar of discourse, for setting a standard that they just try to live up to:

But we are the beneficiaries of the standards laid down by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. I mean, we literally stand on the shoulders of giants. It was they who demanded and insisted upon a standard of civility in dialogue which permeates this whole show and has been the gold standard, in my judgment.

So I’m grateful, but I’m appreciative. We stand as proxies for them.

Some days the news is less depressing.

With extra rhetoric, please . . .

Rhetoric in the news:

Herman Cain's Rhetoric Pie

Herman Cain's Rhetoric Pie

It’s true (and perhaps to be expected) that rhetoric is implicitly defined here as bombastic sound-bites, caustic charges thick with generalization, delivered with unexamined confidence. Sadly, we’ve gotten used to having rhetoric framed this way (though we certainly should not accept it). What interests me, though, is the use of “extra” that’s further emphasized with the heaping mess of pizza glob and goop. It points us to a quantitative framing of rhetoric instead of a qualitative one. To stick with the metaphor: rhetoric may be perfectly acceptable as a garnish, a topping to be sprinkled judiciously on something substantive, but if the “toppings” are piled too high and wide we’ll get sick.

It’s a remarkably unproductive way to frame rhetoric that should signal to rhetoricians everywhere that our work is cut out for us . . .

The More The Easier: Persuadability Scales Inversely

From ScienceDaily comes this report out of RPI, concluding that the tipping point of shifting public opinion is surprisingly low:

Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.

The implications for rhetorical practice, teaching, and study are intriguing.

From the Disinformation website comes this post that illustrates the “micro” level of persuasion: two AP stories five decades apart reporting on two similar examples of unanimous parliamentary votes, using two different descriptors to characterize the event…

AP diction

What institutional pressures determine these choices in diction?

A Statement on Family

As we at Harlot prepare for the publication of our upcoming special issue focused on family rhetoric, I am struck by the relevance and import of Zach Wahls’ speech about family. In his speech opposing a resolution that would end civil unions in Iowa, he makes a bold statement about the rhetoric of family.