Psycholinguistics and Democratic Culture
Many progressives are wondering how we can counter the advertising success of the right wing of the Republican Party. Too many, it seems to me, are being guided by the premises of psycholinguistics, which assumes that certain words or phrases “trigger” primitive human responses. Given this assumption, the task boils down to creating more effective code-words than the conservatives, and thereby turn the tide of public opinion.The problem is not that psycholinguistics in wrong in its analysis of human behavior. It is probably as correct as many other theories of why we behave the way we do. The problem is that it ignores, or perhaps is totally unconscious of, the necessary conditions for a democratic culture—a culture that expects citizens to engage in conversations with their minds, their values, and their emotions.
In classical rhetoric, the three forms of persuasion were logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos involved the logic or reasoning process of an argument, pathos referred to an audience’s valued-laden emotions, and ethos referred to the speaker’s character. A democratic culture requires all three.
Committed speakers, for example, could argue that we should be angry about the rich receiving tax cuts because their riches comes from an economic system that works to their benefit and to the disadvantage of others. The system, on other words, is unfair, and taxes are one means of re-balancing the system. Such an argument could invite counter-arguments and thereby promote a democratic culture. Quite a different culture, for example, than a culture created by continually repeating, until it is hammered into our brains, that the rich suffer from “money-obesity.”
We do not need to throw out psycholinguistics, but we do need to create practices that promote a democratic culture, and the evidence right now is that psycholinguistics is leading us down a different path.