Ideology, Discourse and Power: The Illusion of Truth in Political Communication.
Karl Marx once asserted that “language is as old as consciousness” and true enough, our ability to understand complicated linguistic codes in order to communicate with one other is a capacity that no other species possesses.
From the moment that we are born, we are engendered by these webs of linguistic “codes”, which will later inform our personality, values and interactions with the world around us and we are all well-versed in practising these codes without giving a second thought to how they represent broader ideological positions.
Marx defined ideology as the [unconsciously-held] set of beliefs that perpetuates the “status quo” of the dominant culture and interests of a ruling group or class that hold power in society.
Other leading social theorists of the post-structuralist movement in the late 20th century such as Louis Althusser identified ideological infrastructures within education, politics, communications and cultural institutions such as literature and the arts. All of which, he argues, are used to shape public opinions and beliefs.
‘The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.’
– Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845)
So, we know that ideology produces both ideas and behaviours in people but how are these patterns of thought mediated within society?
Well, one way is through images and language embedded within the media.
The Cognitive Biases Contained in the Language of the Mass Media
In the 21st century, we are currently in the “age of spectacle”, as forewarned by Guy Debord. In his book, ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ (1967) Debord philosophised that to be human in the modern world means to inhabit an ideologically-constructed reality where “truth” in society has been substituted for illusion and human relationships have been replaced by commodities such as the media, where subliminal images and coded words become “effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour”.
‘People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what, what they do does.’
– Michel Foucault
The Language of Bias (below)
In politics, language serves the same purpose as there is a correlation between the communication of power, ideologies and biases within the codes used across public discourse and the formation of rather unpleasant social realities. This is often displayed in the use of “dog-whistle politics” in which power relations are maintained by a form of covert [ideological] persuasion.
After all, words both written and spoken, are more powerful than swords.
– Edward Bulwer-Lytton
What is Dog-Whistle Politics?
Dog-whistle politics is a strategic form of communication used by politicians to target sections of the populace through employing coded words and phrases that appears to mean one thing to the general population but holds a different resonance for a sub-group in society.
The implications of post-truth politics is that political language is predominantly framed by addresses, which are disconnected from the factual “truths” of policy but instead, appeals to the sentiments of a small section of the populace and refutes the factual rebuttals of their opposition by emotionally-charged rebukes.
Take the U.S presidential election of 2016 for example, in which derogatory remarks and prejudice towards Mexican immigration in the U.S inevitably shaped public opinions towards the ethnic group and has now given rise to socio-cultural and legal realities such as the Mexican border policy, in which nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families. The dog-whistle politics used in this scenario was the covert appeal [outside of the conscious awareness of the audience] to the Right-wing to support tighter immigration laws grounded upon racial prejudice.
The same use of passive aggressiveness can also be seen in 2012, when congressman Newt Gingrich referred to then President, Barack Obama as the “food stamp president”. In doing so, Gingrich made a biased correlation between Obama’s race and the negative racial stereotype that African American’s use up a disproportionate amount of food benefits due to poverty, when in reality the largest percentage of the then Food Stamp Program were mainly White Americans given that they made up majority of the population.
In the UK, the same political jargon and subliminal messaging can be seen in the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016, through the misrepresentation of the facts towards the prospect of austerity should the UK leave the EU and public spending. This is best exemplified in the infamous red bus of the Leave campaign that pledged an extra £350 million a week for the NHS and became an iconic symbol of the Brexit referendum campaign.
What is interesting, however, is that the Leave campaign chose to omit the fact that the total gross figure that the UK would gain control over is closer to £250 million, when the money the UK gets back from the EU is included in the sum, leading the UK Statistics Authority to condemn the campaign’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.
The fact that the misrepresentation of facts became both a public and political spectacle in all cases, shows just how far we are sold on the illusions fed to us by the collection of images and coded words within the media. So, the main question of today is: will we ever be able to distinguish between illusion and truth?
Given the times that we are in, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is our responsibility to not blindly receive information that is fed to us but instead, to critically engage with the narratives of public discourses by reading in between the lines.