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Rhetoric In Media And Politics


We're now going to take a look at this moment when things are feeling, frankly, scary - the shooting in Pittsburgh, the suspicious packages sent to critics of President Trump. So let's take a breath for a moment and take stock. Are we getting it, getting it as in understanding? Are we all as Americans aware of how this moment in history is affecting us and the effect we're having on the events happening around us? How are we talking to each other? And what are we listening to, and what is it doing to us all? One big factor in that is language and rhetoric. Think also about the way the caravan of migrants is being discussed. Ariela Schachter teaches sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and she's been looking at how language impacts our perceptions of immigrants. And Carolyn Lukensmeyer is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and we begin with her. She says she sees a direct line between a politician's words and bombs in the mail.

CAROLYN LUKENSMEYER: We want to look back actually to the 2016 presidential campaign, where in that campaign we saw the rhetoric being used to attack certain populations in the country - Muslims, African-Americans, women, disabled reporters. We actually saw physical attacks following the kind of virulent rhetoric that we're now seeing again going into the election. Now we came back from that precipice during the presidential campaign, but now here we're at that precipice again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And is there a similar line between rhetoric and the attack on the congressional baseball practice? Because that man was targeting Republicans and was enraged about the GOP's position on health care.

LUKENSMEYER: Definitely, and the institute that I lead was created at the University of Arizona after the same kind of attack on Gabby Giffords. It was a clear assassination attack after the very tough 2010 election where the hot issue was the Affordable Care Act. So we've now seen three instances in which elected officials are targeted physically after a period of virulent political rhetoric.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a long history of political invective, as you rightly point to, harsh, sometimes hateful speech stretching back even to the founders. We've had moments of turmoil. I'm thinking of, you know, white supremacists in the 1960s, the Weather Underground in the '70s. What sets this moment apart in your view?

LUKENSMEYER: The phenomena we're seeing post-2016 hasn't been seen in modern political history, which is once the election was over, people - ordinary people - Americans who voted for Trump continued to demonize and hate Hillary voters and vice versa. And that's still going on today two years later. The National Institute has actually had calls from major U.S. corporations. We have product innovation teams that have not come back to the same level of productivity since the election.


LUKENSMEYER: This is a very different phenomena. It's like a virus in our society. That is different and new.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ariela, I want to turn to you now. The caravan of Central Americans, many of them seeking asylum, has been in the news as you know. You have actually researched how language informs social discussions and perceptions in the context of immigration. So you are looking at how the way we discuss certain groups - the way this political language gets processed by people actually has a real effect on how we as individuals view an entire group of people.

ARIELA SCHACHTER: Absolutely, yeah. So in one recent study with Rene Flores, who's a sociologist at the University of Chicago, we found that white Americans overwhelmingly associate undocumented immigrants with criminality. And of course this is factually unfounded. All of the research points to the exact opposite. But when the president of the United States is constantly tweeting about the many criminals and terrorists and rapists coming from Mexico and Central America, it's not hard to guess what is driving this stereotype.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think one of the most interesting things that your study shows is that people who are anti-Trump in general also absorbed this language and associated undocumented immigrants with criminality.

SCHACHTER: Yeah, we were really surprised by that finding. And we actually - we hypothesized we would find something different, that, you know, we have - we are living in these echo chambers where we're consuming very different news and media. And we thought that that would be reflected in the types of ideas and stereotypes that liberals versus conservatives held. And yet, this criminality stereotype is - it seems to have overwhelmed people's kind of political divides and has invaded our minds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the wider issue is that we are affected by the language that we hear in ways that we might be unconscious of.

SCHACHTER: Absolutely. That's right. Yeah. I think, you know, really interestingly so, my colleague Rene Flores has another paper where he found that people do measurably become more negative directly after being exposed to Trump's negative messages of immigrant criminality. But the effects on their own don't last very long. So with just one dose, he finds that they're gone within two weeks. However, the fact that we are being bombarded by this rhetoric over and over again from President Trump and his allies and also the way that it gets amplified by the media - so even the kind of fact-checking stories that say this tweet is absolutely incorrect; it's based on no reality - that actually amplifies these negative messages.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And of course that puts the media, of which I am a part, in a quandary with this kind of moment where you have these messages coming through and they are news. I have a question for both of you. I can hear Democrats saying that Republicans are the reason for this descent into political violence listening to this conversation, that the president is amplifying dangerous and dehumanizing messages about immigrants, his political opponents and journalists. But on the right - and I got an email from members of my family who are on the right and President Trump supporters. And they see Democrats protesting and view that as hounding politicians. And they say that there has been many inflammatory messages coming from the left, and they lay the blame on them. Is this an endless cycle of whataboutism (ph)? You've both looked at this. How do you litigate this? It is so hyperpartisan now.

LUKENSMEYER: I definitely - we run in to people. It's probably 10 to 12 percent on the far-right and 8 to 10 percent on the far-left, the researchers tell us, who have no interest in closing this divide, who want to feed this divide. But that leaves a full 75 or 80 percent of us who - when we are put in a different context with the purpose of stepping back and taking a look at who are you in a larger context than your political label, what they discover is they often like each other and can actually work well together. And that's the hope of how we get out of where we are today.

SCHACHTER: I agree with Carolyn. I do think, though, that we have to consider the power dynamics. So the president of the United States has a uniquely powerful position to amplify the messages that he's sending out in ways that the rest of us don't. I also think we need to think about the impact of this rhetoric on immigrant communities in the United States. There is research documenting the pernicious health effects. People are afraid to send their kids to school. They're afraid to go to the doctor. And so, you know, when we think about rhetoric and language and how it's - how all of us need to take responsibility to see past it, we also need to account for those whose lives are being deeply affected by it right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, and Ariela Schachter, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you to you both.

LUKENSMEYER: Thank you for having us.

SCHACHTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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