March 6, 2014—You may not think that you spend your days steeped in political discourse. But visiting professor Ruth Wodak assures that it is everywhere—from newspapers and advertisements to your House of Cards addiction.
Wodak is spending this semester at Georgetown as the 2014 Royden B. Davis, S.J., Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies. She is also a distinguished professor of linguistics at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. She doesn’t simply study language. Instead, she describes it as “language in context.” She has studied hospitals, schools, and parliaments, analyzing the discourse and “power relations between individuals,” she explained.
According to Wodak, those power relations become particularly interesting in political spheres where the consequences of policy affect groups or minorities. “I became very interested in forms of exclusion, discrimination, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia,” Wodak said. In the past, she has studied parliamentary debates in six European countries to understand how the exclusion of minorities and discrimination were debated.
How we characterize others often comes in the form of a label. “[People] use a label to link [an individual] to characteristics that you believe they have,” she explained. In recent years, “illegals” has become a widely used—and often criticized—label for migrants and aliens in the United States. The creation of these labels is not uncommon, Wodak says. The term “bogus” is used in a similar way in the United Kingdom.
“Bogus has connotations of [being] illegal, unjustified, and illegitimate,” she explained. After reviewing ten years of British newspapers, Wodak found that bogus was used to describe migrants, refugees, political asylum seekers, but “bogus was always used with others, never ‘the real British.’” The underlying sentiment of the term implied, “you’re wrong or fake and you shouldn’t be here.” Of course, Wodak says, there are British people who could be fake or have illegitimate claims, but instead the term becomes a tool to separate “the real British” from “others.”
The way we talk about “others” and minorities crosses multiple forums from the media to government, and back again. “A label is disseminated and tickles up or trickles down,” she explained. “It’s decontextaulized and recontextualized in a different way.” It ends up like the children’s game of telephone, she says.
A few labels may not seem important, but language can provide valuable insight into individual perspectives on sociological and political issues. “Everything we say is full of values. Words are also always actions,” she continued.
This semester Wodak is teaching Discourse, Politics, and Identity in the Department of Linguistics. Her students are finding that political speech is not confined to debates and stump speeches, but works its way into advertisements, newspapers, posters, and slogans. “[Not] all of us are aware of how these ads, even when they advertise products, are [advertising] politics of a certain kind,” she explained.
Wodak was surprised when a Super Bowl ad provided the perfect example of political speech in unlikely places. “All of my students told me about it,” she said. The ad featured the song “America the Beautiful” sung in nine different languages, which prompted harsh criticism and fervent support. “It shows you how something becomes politicized. Suddenly just having this ad in different languages becomes an issue,” she said.
Exactly what is at issue, however, is not so clear. Wodak and her students use an interdisciplinary approach to untangle complex issues of cultural identity, nationalism, discrimination, and xenophobia.
Wodak hopes that people might start to recognize the array of sources that inform our understanding of politics—from The West Wing and House of Cards to newspapers and advertisements—and the impact those sources have on important policy decisions. “It’s incredible how much politics is a part of our everyday life, and then people still say, ‘I’m not interested in politics.’
“People don’t realize that all of this is part of politics.”
- March 27, 2014, 4–5:30 p.m.: Ruth Wodak will present the 2014 Davis Chair lecture, “Fortress Europe?—Unity or Diversity: The Discursive Construction of ‘The Stranger,’” in Reiss 112. Wodak is currently researching the rhetoric of right-wing European political parties and the American Tea Party.