The Subconscious Power of Language

, by Jan Detering

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The Subconscious Power of Language
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Refugee crisis, “welcome culture”, upper limit on asylum seekers, mass immigration – these buzzwords symbolize one of the greatest challenges of our time. But isn’t it the right moment to reflect on how we discuss and communicate about these issues? A contribution on the power of language.

A German dictionary defines language as "a system of signs and rules that serves as a medium of communication for a linguistic community”. This medium is of fundamental importance for coexistence among individuals, but also for a society as a whole. In this respect, language is a lifelong learning process: personal experiences will establish neural connections in the brain.

Political language adds an important aspect of this definition: the communication of political content and values. Political interest, the ability to convince people and cause sympathy are not naturally given but have to be achieved through linguistic communication. Political ideas therefore need a linguistic frame. But are we even aware of the potential influence of language?

Framing and the shaping power of language

George Lakoff’s and Elisabeth Wehling’s so-called framing theory (or metaphor theory) addresses the above-mentioned questions precisely. This theoretical background explains the reasons and effects that language can have in the political and social environment. In this context, framing means thinking in frames of interpretation. Frames are activated by language in the brain and are responsible for how we perceive political facts.

At this point, it should be mentioned that the concept of framing is transferable to many other policy areas and is not limited to the migration issue. Terms such as “asylum tourism” or “waves of refugees” can distort and emotionalise a debate. In this way, the strategic use of language can create ideas in people’s minds that are detrimental to a balanced discussion culture and make it almost impossible to discuss political ideas realistically.

Human thinking is 98 percent subconscious, which is why the framing theory explains that the concept of a rational and reason-oriented individual is no longer relevant. Facts and information get their meaning by communicating frames through language. Moreover, frames establish a relationship between our physical experiences and our level of knowledge. Findings on the subject of language and its effects on the neuronal structure in the human brain show to what extent people give up their political independence through supposedly conscious decisions.

In addition, people are receptive to so-called metaphors – linguistic images that can also determine people’s thoughts and their behavior. Language makes it possible to determine political discourse in such a way that people develop thoughts, consolidate them in their brains through neuronal processes and carry out a predictable action, as Wehling describes in her book “Political Framing”.

Language is not a means to an end, but the decisive instrument in shaping political opinion and ultimately the essential factor that contributes to which party or which politician wins in an election. At this point, it is more than questionable whether this fact should not be discussed much more publicly in order to build sensitivity.

The road to the 2019 European elections

Especially in the light of the European elections in May 2019, this issue should play a much bigger role in the political discussion and the media coverage. 27 countries, around 440 million people, have the obligation to elect the members of the European Parliament. This parliament will form the heart of European democracy for the next five years – and therefore political language must be used consciously in the upcoming election campaigns.

It is not a question of censoring discussions, but quite the opposite: current challenges should be considered more intensively. Balanced communication is needed in order to refrain from placing emotionality before reality and instead, to take a realistic view of how things are changing in politics.

Considering Europe’s status quo, the Union cannot afford to let debates get out of hand and risk the most important values: unity and strength. Acute challenges – such as migration, economic and social disparities between the individual member states, and the rise of populist forces – require realistic and pragmatic solutions, but not endless illusory discussions with no recognisable value.

Regardless of what content language communicates, whether conservative, liberal or populist values, how ideas are formulated and placed plays a more important role. In this context, the metaphor theory comes into play, as does the question of the extent to which linguistic metaphors and frames can influence communication. Framing is based on human influence and on the recognition that humans do not act as rational beings in their social, economic and political environment. This fact can and will play an elementary role in a European election campaign and – without any doubt – will have serious consequences concerning the election results.

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