Peacocks, Politics, and Persuasion

Why Name-Calling and Insults Just Aren’t Worth It

Name-calling and insults aren’t just a part of politics: they’re an artform dating back to the earliest years of US politics.

Rosemarie Ostler, who uses the knowledge gained from her PhD in linguistics to write on topics related to language, recently published a book on the topic, Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics (you can read an excerpt here). Intriguing snippets and historical invectives have trickled onto the Internet, revealing the course of political insults over more than two centuries.

Washington Post book reviewer Steven Levingston relates how opponents of George Washington referred to the president as “a horse beater, a gambler, a tyrannical monster, a most horrid swearer and blasphemer.” Ostler herself cites 19th century Georgia politician H. W. J. Ham to define a snollygoster as “a political hypocrite” in a post about listing 12 Classic Political Insults.

Even before Ostler’s book was published, some people were taking notice of the long history (not to mention enormous creativity) behind our political insults. From dismissing opponents as having “the backbone of a chocolate éclair” to being “the Peacock of American politics, all fuss and feathers and fireworks,” jibes listed in a CBS article on The Art of Political Name-Calling, political insults have been around for a while and they haven’t gone away. Today, while we may not talk much about éclairs or peacocks, we do get people involved in politics referring to those who disagree with them as Nazis, fascists, dirty hippies, or money-grubbing conservatives. Not everyone, of course, but enough people that it’s certainly a problem.

With the Republican debates already begun and campaigning for next year’s presidential election already well underway, we’re at a a great point to look at political name-calling. Even this early in the election season it’s already come up, with Newt Gingrich arguing in an Associated Press article that “it hurt everybody to have bickering going on the way it was going on in that debate.”

And that’s the problem, really. Insults like this, whether they’re saying your opponent has the backbone of a Twinkie or is just a complete idiot, don’t help. They’re the kind of rhetoric that gives rhetoric a bad name. But why, and what can we do about it? To explain, I’m going to have to use the other kind of rhetoric.

This is the kind of admission that can get me some weird looks, considering I work for a political organization, but I love rhetoric. It’s what I study, what I read books about, and what I ramble on to my friends about (sorry guys). It’s also what I write blog posts about when I can get away with it (sorry to all of you, too). I won’t get into the gritty details of what exactly rhetoric really is, but just know that there’s a difference between the popular definition of “just rhetoric” and the more academic definition of rhetoric that I’m using.

The easiest way of understanding rhetoric is that rhetoric is simply persuasion, a concept we have thanks to Aristotle. That’s it. Rhetoric = persuasion. When you were a kid and tried to convince your parents to let you have another cookie, you were using rhetoric. When you try to convince your boss for a raise, you’re using rhetoric. We all use rhetoric every single day without even thinking about it. It seems pretty obvious why rhetoric got the connection it did to politics (how often in politics are you trying to persuade someone of something?), but where do insults find their way into the picture?

Enter Kenneth Burke, an impossible to categorize academic extraordinaire. Educating himself by reading the New York Public Library pretty much in its entirety, Burke was a prolific writer, founder of the theory of dramatism, a snazzy dresser, and generally awesome. (In case you couldn’t tell, I love Burke almost as much as I love rhetoric and social media.) A large portion of Burke’s work, particularly in his book A Rhetoric of Motives, focused on the process of identification.

Without getting too esoteric about it, identification in the Burkean sense is making two people or groups identify with each other by making them realizing they have characteristics or goals in common. And in getting them to identify with each other, you can persuade them. For example, even though Republicans and Democrats are obviously individual groups, if you can create identification between them by getting them to focus more on what they both want rather than on what each individual side wants, you can get them to compromise. It may sound so obvious that it’s naïvely unrealistic, but that’s the basic idea. If you want to know more I highly recommend reading Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives.

And it does work. What doesn’t work is insulting opponents rather than trying to identify with them. Instead of creating identification and then persuasion, insults cause the exact opposite effect. Insulting people just creates further divisions between you and your constituents, between your goals and their goals. If you want to alienate them, good job! If you want to persuade them, then you’re unfortunately not doing the best job you could be.

Just because someone doesn’t agree with you right away doesn’t mean you aren’t succeeding at persuading them. The goal of persuasion isn’t to move them all the way from their position to yours; that’s generally really difficult, especially if you’re already at opposite ends. Instead, the goal is to move them closer to your position. And you can do that a lot easier by not insulting them. It’s the equivalent of giving your opponent an éclair instead of calling them one; they’re much more likely to listen to you if you do the second.

It’s definitely naïve to think that American politics can get rid of the insults and bickering altogether, but efforts can be made to reduce such counterproductive actions. Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune suggests that every time someone insults an opponent they need to put a dollar in a “jab jar” so that “at least our leaders could do something useful to close the government’s budget deficit instead of just talking about it.” If nothing else, the embarrassment of being treated like toddlers might help lessen political name-calling.

Maybe American politics just wouldn’t be the same without all the insult-hurling and invective-unleashing from both sides of the aisle. Politicians and laypeople alike engage in such behavior often enough that its absence would seem weird. It’s probably not even possible to dispense with insults entirely (much as I’ve tried, I’m sure that I’ve insulted at least someone in this blog post, and the irony does not escape me). Even so, if decreasing the amount of insults in politics would help people communicate better and reach compromises more quickly (persuasion is, after all, a two-way street), then we’ve really got nothing to loose.

Except for some really clever remarks about peacocks and éclairs, but that’s a sacrifice we’re just going to have to make.

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