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The power of words: the role of speeches in the political sphere

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thelanguageofpolitics (Référence survolée pour mon exposé en anglais)

The power of words: the role of speeches in the political sphere

The word “politician” comes from Greek, politic meaning city. Politicians are essential to the working of our society because they deal with the lives we lead. They vote on law, they enforce laws. So, they are powerful. Now, in a democratic country, to gain power, you must run successful campaigns and win elections. Although the term “campaign” makes us think of battle and war, weapons are not guns in the political sphere, but victory is due to ideas and words. Speeches are made to inform and instruct voters and to persuade people to vote in a certain way, but the speeches’ role depends on the way they are shaped. The speeches’ role depends on where the politicians stand.

  1. Hence, some candidates, usually not yet in power, sell their aims or sell themselves. They usually are assisted by press agents (we call spin-doctors) to present a better image. For instance, in 2017, the candidate Macron brand was “neither right, nor left, at the same time.”
  2. Other candidates have a different plan: they prefer attacking opponents rather than selling themselves.
  3. Lastly, the politicians in power try to sweeten the pill of their unpopular measures by communication chosen words.

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When a politician wants to act in our organized communities, he must convince fellow citizens he is right. Hence, he needs rhetorical skills to federate. A common mean of having approval is the use of a « list of 3″. Three-part list is actually linked to our culture as giving a sense of unity and completeness, as showed by the Christian Trinity « the father and the son and the holy spirit”. Abraham Lincoln in a 1863 Address gave a good definition of democracy, using a repetition of the word “people” with a different preposition each time: “Government of the people, By the people, For the people.” In 1990, when he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela made a speech, speaking to a 50 000 crowd in Cape Town. He said: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” Note that a binary opposition can be as efficient as a three-part list. In the same 1990 speech, Mandela said: “I stand before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people” Mandela was very clever: he claimed humility and service to the people and no doubt he was sincere, but, rejecting the role of prophet, he had planted the idea he might be one. Further on, he added: “We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait.” We note that the second part of the sentence is shorter than the first one: Mandela meant freedom conquest was an emergency and they needed to act like it. Moreover, the pronoun “we” is fundamental because it links speaker to audience. As far as “we” is concerned, Margaret Thatcher used it once on the steps of 10 Downing Street, not to introduce a measure she intended to implement, but to announce her son had a baby: “we are a grandmother.” The pronoun “we” sounded funny and political opponents mocked at her.

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Other politicians don’t seem to be ready to act but they are good at criticizing. They choose the less interesting way to do politics and confirm the saying: “it’s easy to criticize, but hard to act.” Of course, it is necessary to hold the government accountable and to prevent yourself from being yes-man or yes-woman, but reviews can be constructive, and solutions can be offered when you have a civic role. Now, there are politicians who can’t help speaking ill of the authorities’ choices or measures while they have no better ideas. Maybe they would have opted for the same solutions if they were in power. For instance, Florian Philippot wants his followers believe he is a furious antivax, hence he has fallen into excesses. He has compared the Covid certificate to the yellow Jude star. Those who are in the opposition are fond of hyperboles: “The Republic, it’s me” said Melenchon during the 2018 search at his headquarters. They are also keen on suspect puns. They want to convert words into swords. For example, Philippot talks about “passe nazitaire” or “passe stalinitaire.” Another feature of his political speeches is antithesis. For instance, Philippot expects a great effect of his play on words when he opposes the Professor Raoult’s Hippocratic Oath against Hypocrite Oath. For those politicians, there is no limit, and they don’t hesitate to spread fake-news

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What about the words the politicians in power use? Rhetoric sometimes seems to be not far from manipulation because language is a great tool to shape ideological arguments. What you call political communication is in fact a kind of propaganda. For example, when President Macron said to an unemployed man: ‘I cross the street and find you a job”, he wants French people think that prosperity only depends on individual responsibility. State can’t do anything for him. Nevertheless, people have to make an effort to support the State’ policy even if it is hard for some. For instance, Margaret Thatcher (whose surname was “the Iron Lady”) put forward a strange economic argument to explain her austerity policy. She used an analogy, comparing the UK economy with the economy of an individual household. Everyone agrees it is dangerous for a family to run up a debt, so no one will disagree it is dangerous for a country to do the same. As a result, thanks to a common fear of debt, it was easier for the Prime Minister to spend less for her fellow citizens. Nevertheless, many economists noted her analogy was wrong because budget on a national scale doesn’t look like a family one.

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We are aware that the power of words is great, so we must be careful when politicians expose their ideas. We must realize where they stand (are they in power? Are they in the opposition?) and we must try to partially analyse their speeches to avoid big manipulation.

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