"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 11, 2017

How To Use Language To Get What You Want–From Churchill To Trump To Lawyers And Errant Husbands

During his campaign, critics of Donald Trump consistently attacked him for lying, distorting or fabricating the truth, and deliberately misleading the public.  His stump speeches were nothing more than overblown rhetoric, a cross between carny barker and big-tent evangelist preacher.  “Where does he actually stand?”, they demanded.  Where are his position papers, on-record statements of policy, and definitive parsing of the news?

Image result for images carny barker

Trump’s supporters on the other hand paid little attention to what he said, but listened to what he meant; and his meaning was clear.  He would put America first, save and return jobs, defy Islamic terrorism, and roll back the intrusive liberal agenda of race-gender-ethnicity and environmentalism.

Donald Trump claimed to be as radical as Reagan in his challenge of the culture of entitlement, diversity, and cloture of free speech.  He would be defiant of ISIS and Islamic radicalism, would call out its name, and would pursue it as an enemy.  His pure, Wild West Americanism would be a final line in the stand.  His refusal to bow to the arrogant claims of politically correct activists would finally deny those whose illiberal sentiments pass for righteousness.

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As President he has been true to his word (meaning); and despite his many missteps - the transition from Hollywood and the mean streets of real estate to cloakroom wheedling, and scratch-my-back compromise always has been an uneasy one - he has held firm to his basic principles. 

The point is not governance but language.  Trump was elected because his message, his delivery, his venues, and his production (his language package) had little to do with the meaning of words themselves but the total presentation.  He understood that the Americans whom he was addressing loved the circus, Hollywood soaps, Las Vegas glitz and glamour, and bare-knuckled, old-fashioned, confident men.

While his zingers and one-liners were exactly right for attacking liberal cant and political arrogance, they are wrong for the Presidency.  Trump has not yet learned that language is only a device for achieving desire ends and never an end in itself.  He continues to speak (write, tweet) as though he were running for office not governing from it.

He has shown that while he may be committed to leadership and governance and to promoting his political philosophy, he has shown himself to be surprisingly inflexible. Adaptability – the ability to change course and to reconfigure approach, presentation, and production while still focusing on established goals – is an intellectual ability far more important than dogged principle.  Trump’s language package got him elected but is now getting him into trouble.

Most successful people have learned this lesson long ago.  You can fool all of the people all of the time if you can convince them that you have what they want.  Logic and intellectual discipline are scarce commodities in any society, and the most adept politicians, financiers, film producers, preachers, and entrepreneurs know this and use it for their own ends.

Image result for images evangelical preacher at pulpit

An advertiser will never use the same pitch to sell two different products.  A politician will change his tune depending on his audience.  Paul crafted his letters to suit the Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, and Philippians accordingly.  Preaching to Jews required a different language, context, and approach than evangelizing to Hellenized diaspora Greeks. 

Savvy husbands know when sweet talk, candlelight, and wine (the language package) will do the trick and when silent indifference works better.  Courtroom lawyers know when to intimidate and when to confide.  Priests know when to instill the fear of God and when to invoke the compassion and love of Jesus.

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Successful people know that one of their most important attributes is a silver tongue – the ability to charm people into believing in their causes, buying their products, or voting for them.  New research suggests that they have a particular genetic advantage.  Their circuits are hardwired around Broca’s Region, a section of the brain which for unexplained evolutionary reasons slows down uptake, wit, and verbal agility.

Broca's Region

Scientists have been at a loss to explain why such a region of the brain in fact exists.  One would have expected that a quick wit, easy sarcasm, dry humor, and above all the ability to present one’s ideas confidently and well would be a Darwinian advantage; but never mind. The One Percent – hucksters, politicians, evangelical preachers, and Lotharios – could care less how they inherited their ability. They are simply happy that they have been blessed.

The most successful people are those who have a silver tongue and know how to use it in different ways to cajole, flatter, camouflage, intimidate, persuade – whatever it takes and whatever the audience and the situation demand.

Bad politicians are caught in their lies and deceptions not necessarily because of their lame excuses but because of the ineptness of their language.  Mark Sanford, the Southern governor desperately in love with his Argentine mistress who left the State House to be with her in Buenos Aires chose the wrong cover – hiking the Appalachian Trail – and the wrong cover-up language. 

His electorate and the American public would have forgiven him immediately had talked of wine and roses, quoted Petrarch’s love odes to Laura, invoked the passion of Antony for Cleopatra; but he was ham-handed and tongue-tied and talked until laughed at about exercise and nature.

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Language, most sinners and liars have learned, offers an easy way out. 

However, even the most articulate and eloquent of politicians let pride and ambition get in the way of a nimble defense.  Bill Clinton insisted that “I did not have sex with that woman” and “it depends on what ‘is’ is” when Americans would have forgiven an early, proud admission of male sexual energy.

Europeans and Africans could never believe how a sitting President could ever have gotten himself into such a mess.  Their leaders all had mistresses and were proud of it, and instead of enjoying the laurels of manhood, here was Bill Clinton parsing the language like a sixth-grade teacher.

It is hard to make a case for the superiority of any language but some seem more suited to elegant excuses than others.  English has the largest vocabulary of any given our willingness to import any and all foreign words that make more sense than our own; but lacks the nuance of French.  Perhaps French politicians if ever called out for their cinq-a-sept liaisons and paramours can more easily craft a more subtle context for their dalliances than Americans. 

Latin American politicians can resort to the passive voice to evade and avoid responsibility.  The famous se me cayó defense something dropped, and  I was involved somehow, but circumstances are always as important than any personal carelessness – is classic. 

Turkish has so many linguistic complexities – verbs become nouns; nouns become verbs; adverbs can be either; word order can or cannot indicate priority of meaning; some tenses are used when the speaker is surprised or was inadvertently told of an event. 

Portuguese uses a future subjunctive to add a layer of uncertainty to the present subjunctive.  Most Romance languages are content with just one, but for some reason the Portuguese and their colonists see life far less certainly.  It is not enough to say in Russian, “I went to New York”.  The means of travel is as important as the destination, and the verb ‘to go’ differs by mode of transport.   One would expect that linguistic deception would be far easier in Spanish, Portuguese, or Turkish than Russian.

With the right language, the right words, the right context and proper presentation and production, anyone should be able to cover up anything, convince anyone to buy anything, and to get home scot-free and wealthy.

Language is going through a transformation in America.  Multiculturalism being what it is, slips of grammar and vocabulary in the name of respect and inclusiveness are not only tolerated but encouraged.  Ghetto street language is not a distortion of English but an enrichment of it.  Spanglish is an acceptable idiom of the American Southwest.

The social media have distorted English in other ways.  Twitter’s 140 characters may have reined in excess but in so doing has pared down the language to its bare bones.  SMS shorthand has become standard English. 

Gone are the days of metaphor, simile, and allegory.  It is no wonder that few students know what to make of Shakespeare’s plays.  Not only did he write in Elizabethan English, far more formal than ours, but in poetic metaphor.  Not only is his elegant, complex, allusive, and intricate language being lost, but our ability to enrich our language the way English was intended.

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The difference between American English and the English version can best be heard during ‘Prime Minister’s Question Hour’ – a Parliamentary free-for-all where opposition politicians grill the Prime Minister on any subject.  The craftiness of the language, the use of sarcasm, irony, innuendo, and suggestion are on display at its best.  Never a stutter, an ‘uh…uh’, or a stumble.

Compare an hour of the BBC World Service and NPR.  The British broadcast is fast-paced, precise, demanding, and fluent.  ‘Morning Edition’ and ‘All Things Considered’ by contrast are slow, filled with pauses for hellos, goodbyes, and thanks.  The broadcasts are tightly scripted, lacking in humor and spontaneity, and totally tedious.

George W. Bush, Yale and Harvard educated chose to dumb down his speech to suit American tastes.  He knew that Americans are suspicious of four-syllable words, trademarks of intellectual pretention and elitism, and kept his delivery straightforward and his vocabulary dead simple.

The British on the other hand were inspired by the eloquence of Winston Churchill which, some observers contend, was even more important than his message of defiance and courage.  Even the most middle-class Briton listened to Winnie with awe, respect, and admiration.

One of the most popular programs on French television a few decades ago was ‘Apostrophes’ an hour long roundtable discussion of literature, political philosophy, morality, and ethics.  The language was articulate, sophisticated, nuanced, and complex.  Le Monde a dense, impossibly intricate newspaper with long articles on politics and culture was widely read – perhaps not by the laborer at Michelin, but by a wide range of the middle class.

Image result for logo le monde newspaper

Language is a contract between speaker and audience; and those who understand the fine print can get far.  Whether it is Winston Churchill whose oratory matched the aspirations of his people; a George Bush who carefully hid his elite New England pedigree under cowboy brush-clearing and corral language; or Donald Trump who was a master of vaudeville and Las Vegas showmanship, these leaders have understood how to use language to achieve their ends.

Trump was brilliant during his campaign because he had mastered the whole language package.  His words were right.  His delivery was pitch-perfect; and the production of his events carefully choreographed, designed, lighted, and scored to a tee.


Not everyone needs to have the same package as Trump; but all of us could learn something from his canny use of language.  America is a land of getting what you want, and a silver tongue always has been and always will be they key to success.

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