Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Manufacturing Power with Words

We glibly throw around the idea that words have great power, which is true, but we don't usually think overly about who has the power to wield that power. Not everyone does, at least not beyond the personal sphere.

I can call you a bad name, or a good one, and hurt or help your feelings. Repeated name calling, for good or ill, can also influence a child's development over time. But I can't, by myself, label social policy, cultural attitudes, spending behaviour, and the level of support for wars, governments, and businesses with my words, at least not with great influence.

The power to use words to shape huge social issues and attitudes rests with those very power brokers with the most control and the most at stake - governments, media, big business.

Of course, this idea is not new: One famous example is Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent. Media is big business and editorial policy functions to keep the media outlet in good standing with news providers, especially with government.

The book traces the uses of the words "terror" and "terrorist," as examples, and how the labels are applied (or not applied) as the political currency of people, groups, and countries changes. The power to call someone a terrorist (or not) and make it stick shapes public attitudes towards law, policy, and actions.

In a recent post , about "looting" in Haiti, I linked to an article by Rebecca Solnit in which she correctly sees that the media is really creating much of the "looting" in Haiti, simply by using the term over and over and showing pictures with captions that lead the reader to see what the media wants the reader to see - looting!

Solnit proposed the term "emergency requistioning" instead. In a comment on the article, corfubob suggested "rescuing" (resources) as a useful term. Most likely, neither term will have much influence because there are too many power sources lined up behind the term "looting" -   property owners in Haiti, the predisposition of media to focus on property issues, even racial attitudes, according to Solnit, lurking in the coverage.

Yet we do have the power, jointly, to wield our own words and resist the words and labels we disagree with. Web 2.0 and the internet, generally, give individuals' words more power. The last US presidential election was won and lost, at least in part, on the internet.

Rachel Maddow at msnbc has exposed the corporate roots of many of the grassroots organizations opposing health care reform in the US. Big pharma and others well understand the power of people's words when they all join together and the media listens to the growing chorus of voices.

Bloggers Unite is a good place for people to wield the power of their words in unison with others. Writing letters to editors, politicians, and businesses is another good way to have your words gain more power as they join together with those of others who write.

So sing out - alone if you want to. But find a choir to join and you can sing out with influence.


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Belle Isle said...

Great, thoughtful post! I find that since I have been blogging I am much more likely to take advantage of the internet to express my opinions via commenting on local newspaper articles, e-mails to my mayor and other community figures. Blogging has helped me to feel that my voice matters and I can have an impact.

ChrisJ said...

Belle Isle,

Yes, I find it empowering too. Nobody at the gates to approve one's comments or not.

KAK said...

American manufacturing has been exported, "Manufacturing Power with Words" is our unexportable duty at this point, it is almost all we've got left. Let us pray that it rises to a sense of duty.

A good read girl!

LEE said...

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