Populism in Europe: radical framing wins

, by Jan Detering

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Populism in Europe: radical framing wins
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Populist forces are known for their ability to simplify complex issues - and feared by traditional powers. Jan Detering says: “You can deal with this if you create awareness.”

“Metaphors can kill,” said linguist George Lakoff in an interview for the German newspaper ZEIT, in which he explained the meaning and effects of language and of so-called metaphors. A radical statement that can always be related to current topics. Nowadays populism has a decisive influence on politics and social debates in many European countries.

We must ask ourselves to what extent populism influences our understanding of language and politics. A German dictionary defines populism as “an opportunistic, popular and often demagogic policy aimed at winning the favor of the masses by dramatizing the political situation”. In addition, one could add that populism drastically simplifies complex issues and builds politics on hatred of a minority. Populism exists in every political direction, which means on the right and left, but also in the so-called center.

Populism and framing

George Lakoff, linguist and professor at the University of Berkeley, California, states that language can have a fundamental relation to our thinking and behavior. Lakoff concludes his findings with the so-called framing theory - also known as metaphors theory. According to this theory, the interpersonal system of language makes it possible to use frames of interpretation and to place political content as well as values through a conscious use of language. This can influence voters as well as entire social debates.

The framing theory assumes that 98 percent of human thinking takes place subconsciously and is therefore highly influenceable. If we now speak of complex and highly political topics such as migration or social justice in Europe, then public discussions are always emotional.

The basis for populism is emotionality. Populism is so successful because the majority of people are exhausted by political events and do not sufficiently understand the complex processes in a democratic system. Frustration is a step that leads people to accept the minimization of complexity as a welcome alternative. Consequently, people are much more responsive to populism.

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Framing is based on human influence and the realization that humans do not act as rational beings in their social, economic and political environment. Elisabeth Wehling, also a linguist, defines frames as “giving meaning to individual words and placing them in the context of our world knowledge”.

Another component of framing is the so-called metaphor. In order to master and understand abstract concepts in a social context, people use metaphors. They transfer concepts and structures into an idea which can be directly experienced, which is known to the brain and is congruent with the previous state of experience.

At the same time, metaphors are a selective instrument that can decide on which aspects we concentrate most and which information is ignored. Metaphors structure human understanding and can even influence the behavior of an individual or a whole society. It turns out that language and its design is more than just a means of transmitting information, but offers the possibility of placing political content in the brain of the targeted person or group in the short and long term.

Don’t be blinded!

The decision which frame or which metaphor is activated by language is therefore crucial for understanding political language and the relationship between politics and the electorate. People are not - or only very rarely = aware that political truths are created by metaphors and thus our individual and social actions can be affected.

This observation becomes a problem. Frames that are used in politics are basically ideological and selective - and harbor the risk that people are not sensitive enough to recognize the unconscious functions of language. Thus, political language can blind voters and, for example, prevent rational election decisions.

In this context, too, populism plays a major role in ensuring that language is used at a level that has a detrimental effect on the complexity of politics. With a view to the upcoming EU elections in 2019, communication strategies are needed that comprehensively present the current challenges and offer solutions to voters.

Framing can have strong effects, but it can also significantly distort debates. In conclusion, we should become much more aware of what language can do in the human brain. Language is an instrument of shaping political opinion - for better or for worse.

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