A $40,000 Lesson in the Power of Words

What you’re about to read is worth a lot of dinero — I say that because it’s one of the most impactful fruits of the more than 40 grand I have invested (so far) in my doctorate in Communication Studies. It’s a lesson from political discourse, but there’s value for the rest of us in it.

The lesson comes from a man named Murray Edelman, who wrote the influential book most likely you’ve never heard of, called Constructing the Political Spectacle. While we all know that winning politicians tell the people what they want to hear, Edelman shows how they frame our realities, with their language choices. And it happens even if you don’t listen to their speeches. Enough people do, especially journalists, so what leading candidates speak affects us in a very real way.

You may remember how one U.S. presidential candidate put homelessness on the front page. All of a sudden it seemed like homeless people were everywhere, then, just as quickly, they disappeared from the news. What remains an open question is what actually happened to our country’s homeless, did they actually get any help?

What Edelman does in this book is explode the myth of the informed voter. There is this American ideal, the citizen who listens to speeches, watches the news, maybe even attends political rallies, and rationally decides which candidate offers the most tenable course of action to remedy our current problems. What most people don’t realize is that the very national problems you are perceiving, and the solutions you are contemplating, have been presented to you as objective reality, when in fact, you are confronted a situation that is constructed for you by politicians and their wordsmiths.

This is how Edelman put it:

The spectacle constituted by news reporting continuously constructs and reconstructs social problems, crises, enemies, and leaders and so creates a succession of threats and reassurances. These constructed problems and personalities furnish the content of political journalism and the data for historical and analytic political studies. They also play a central role in winning support and opposition for political causes and policies (1).

Consider this. Not for centuries, but for THOUSANDS of years, poverty was considered a natural state of existence. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that intellectuals began describing income inequality as UNnatural, rather than normal, as it had been considered up to that time.

What’s in this for you? You can realize that your language, the way you talk about your life, your problems, your situation, is either reinforcing or transforming. If you are worried about something, consider that it may be the way you’re thinking and talking about “the problem” rather than a real threat to your health and happiness.

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