Sticks, stones and lexical nudges

Government campaign, 1943 artist: weimer pursellWe have known for sometime that words have the power to radically change our patterns of behaviour and to potentially cause hurt to our personal lives and circumstances. The rise of commercial advertising during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries illustrated how the strategic deployment of catchphrases and media messaging could radically alter people’s patterns of consumption and brand preferences. The twentieth first century is, however, bearing witness to new forms of governmental intervention within the lexical worlds of advertising and promotion. The state is, of course, no stranger to the use of persuasive words in its own attempts to encourage changes in citizenly behaviour. Numerous public marketing campaigns have used powerful taglines to bring moral weight to governmental desires. Famously, for example, the British government’s fuel efficiency campaign during the Second World War was under-girded by the assertion that to ‘ride [one’s car] alone was to ride with Hitler.’ However, what we are seeing now is not the crude replication of such obvious ideological discourses by states, but an active recognition of the more subtle of enduring powers that reside in syntax. This is a form of lexical power that appears to reside much more in the adjective than the sentence as a whole.

photo by joan thewlis@flikrThe governmental deployment of Lexical nudges operates in two primary ways. First, governments have recently become much more proactive in regulating the adjectives that make unhealthy or financially damaging practices appear to be relatively healthy or benign. In the US, for example, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act proposes inter alia to give the Food and Drug Administration power to control the marketing of tobacco products. In a nod to the persuasive potential of the adjective, it is thought that the FDA will use its new powers to prevent the rather misleading use of “lite” and “mild” qualifiers in naming of cigarette products (Economist, 2009 Vol. 39 no.8636:55).

A second approach to the lexical government of behaviour is suggested within the UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research’s recent report, Warm Words (2006). The IPPR commissioned the Warm Words report in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the ‘linguistic landscapes’ that are shaping and informing British understandings of, and behaviours towards, climate change abatement. Produced by Gill Ereaut (qualitative research practitioner) and Nat Segnit (novelist and journalist), Warm Words identifies a complex and confusing set of linguistic repertoires used to describe the climate change threat by British newspapers, government departments, businesses and media outlets. Focusing on linguistic codes, routines of language, and tonality, Ereaut and Segnit identify three dominant linguistic representations of climate change in Britain: 1) Alarmism (characterized by ‘quasi-religious language tropes’ and adjectives such as “awful”, “terrible”, and “immense”); 2) Mockery and British Comic Nihilism (identified by the use of ‘blithe’ and ‘whimsical’ language); and 3) Pragmatic Optimism (focusing on the everyday language of ‘small changes’, ‘ease’, ‘convenience’, and ‘effortlessness’) (IPPR, 2006: 7-8). Outlining the confusing and ineffective nature of each language trope in promoting changing public behaviour’s towards climate change, Ereaut and Segnit claim that Britain requires a more shrewd and subtle approach to the linguistic framing of climate change (ibid: 8-9). According to Ereaut and Segnit, the words used to promote the government of climate change in Britain need to tap into a distinctively British linguistic tradition that invokes the ordinary hero of Dunkirk and Live Aid.

In the context of the broader debates that surround the normative potential of libertarian paternalism, it appears that the second approach to lexical nudging carries with it the greatest potential dangers. To control adjectives that are misleading, and potentially promote destructive behaviours, appears to constitute an important part of good government: namely not to deny the opportunity to pursue personal choices, but at the same time ensuring that these choices are not made under false pretences. It is the more comprehensive promotion of effective government-speak suggested in the Warm Words report that is more worrying. Its suggestion that the syntax of climate change government should be grammatically sealed within a psychological appealing narrative appears, in part at least, to be about the lexical closing-off of response options. Ereaut and Segnit admit as much when they assert that the presentation of facts about climate change should disappear from government rhetoric (their presence merely suggesting that the state has something to prove). The most important lesson of Orwell’s 1984 is that the control of language options is directly linked to the ability to determine how to think and choose in different ways. Language, in all of diversity, provides a varied matrix of freedom. Surely the role of the state should be to protect us from a varicious exploitation of lexical forms that lead to personal harm and not to circumscribe the freedom that we can all find in independent expression: win the argument, don’t close it off.



One response to “Sticks, stones and lexical nudges

  1. Pingback: Deep Frames and the Environment | Placing the Anthropocene

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