Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sarah Palin and the "Other"

Starting at the Republican National Convention I noticed a rhetorical pattern beginning in Sarah Palin's acceptance speech and now carried through on the campaign trail. While Barack Obama and Joe Biden named John McCain repeatedly in their speeches, sharpening their criticisms of him and directing them personally, Palin and McCain have done the opposite. The words "Barack Obama" have been replaced largely by the words "my opponent" or "our opponent." In Palin's speech, she uses names only once, and then deep into the speech. Frequent references to Obama and/or Biden are through the words, "Our opponent(s)," "This is a man," and "The Democratic nominee." I count 23 references to Obama or Obama and Biden in her speech before she mentions their names in her 24th and final reference to them.

This is played out repeatedly in the sound bites that reach national play on the nightly news. From a fundamentalist perspective, there are several strategic reasons for this move in the McCain campaign. It seems that Obama has succeeded in branding himself as the candidate for change, and that it is change that Americans want in the face of the massive and mounting issues facing us today. In this case the very words "Barack Obama" activate that same brand, even if spoken by McCain and Palin. McCain and Palin run the risk of activating the positive message Obama has attached to his name even when they use his name in a critical context. To break this, they need to remove his name, criticize the generic designation of "opponent" and then hope to turn the tide in their direction.

A more sinister interpretation points to the ability of fundamentalist thinking to activate threats, fears, hates, hurts, prejudices, scapegoating, and otherwise dark psychological material and project it onto the Other--the one who is different and unlike me. It is much easier to do this with the generic non-personal "opponent" than it is to go up against the brand that Obama's name projects. If McCain and Palin can successfully detach voter's opinions of Obama and Biden from their names, then they have more opportunity to activate that unconscious material in the audience and use it against the Democrats. If anyone thinks that they aren't attempting this, simply watch the attack strategies that they have both put in place. Fear of the "other" rules the language. "(He is) palling around with terrorists." "Who is he? Do we really know?" "Too risky for America." Need I go on?

How this works is written into the grammar. A name denotes a person. It is a pronoun, the highest form of words in the English language. "Opponent" is a category, and thereby reduces the person to a group. We know that prejudices and biases operate based on categorizing entire groups of people so that all members are assumed to have the same traits as the stereotype. To get to know a person, as Obama has so effectively presented himself, is to break those categories and get to the sense of an individual.

This categorization of a person is especially effective where one of the groups that they belong to is the collective recipient of such projections as have been leveled towards blacks by whites in this country.

We know that there is an amount of latent unconscious racism at work in this election. Across the board among voters Obama is given an estimated 6 percent handicap. [This has been contested in recent polling.] In some groups the handicap is much higher. Currently Palin is drawing huge crowds of the party faithful with her self-described attack dog in lipstick rhetoric. I have written before on the dangers of evoking such strong and volatile affect in masses of people without critique or context. Her speeches seem designed specifically to avoid either of them.

Addendum: Back in May I wrote a piece on John McCain and hate speech where I called for him to categorically reject hate speech as a tool for his campaign or as a tool of his campaigners and followers. He was then benefitting from a series of virulent and hateful email campaigns that were in circulation in support of McCain for president. The seeds of this hate speech spoken out at his town hall meetings have been long sown and he has avoided taking a stand against it.


suttonhoo said...

you nailed it.

I've been fretting since this began because I don't know what the remedy is.

and it's making me nuts.

Aric Mayer said...

It is hard to say what the remedy is. This would have been fixed a long time ago if it were easy. It seems to me though that the Republican party has run out of ideas, played out its cards and is reaping the fruit of their control of congress from Newt Gingrich through Tom "the hammer" Delay. If they had something better to offer, they would put it out there.

But I do know that the more people can recognize what is happening in the campaigns, in the words, in the aesthetics of the politics, the more that they are able to take up conscious positions about them.

That is a good place to start.