In the wake of the horrific shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the words that we’ve been using in our political discourse may have impacted the situation.
Words are, of course, the vehicles of persuasion. We in the communication business know how powerful they can be. And if you have any doubt about their power, just ask the big advertisers, who all spend billions to find just the right words and phrases to pitch their products and services.
Political wordsmiths are also in the persuasion business, of course, selling candidates and points of view. And these professionals also understand three rules of persuasion very well:
- Find words that elicit an emotional response
- Repeat them over and over again, and
- Stick with them for a long time
The result of repeatedly hearing these messages over months and even years, is that even skeptics eventually find themselves slipping into buying mode.
Now, when an advertiser is selling soap by saying it’s “1/4 moisturizing cream” or a car by promising “the ultimate driving machine,” lives aren’t at stake. No one’s going to go into that car dealership and shoot it up because they disagree with that message.
But it is possible that a single individual listening to certain political messages may perceive his way of life and even his actual life is being threatened and take what he considers to be defensive action to eliminate that threat.
Now, I would not presume to know what motivated the shooter. And even with all the political vitriol that’s been spewed, assassinations and other serious violence are extremely rare.
But here’s what I do know. There is no escape for any of us from the daily onslaught of political language specifically intended to change minds and exert influence, and, yes, inflame passions. It makes sense, therefore, to be mindful about how we say what we say, to understand the reality that the words we choose make a difference and that it is in everyone’s interest to become more thoughtful about it all.
“Sticks and stones” is great for the schoolyard, but in actual practice, words do matter.
Copyright 2011 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.