Role of Political Rhetoric on Diversity

With the recent Brexit win, one can surmise some underlying factors that could have led to the favorable support for the “Leave” vote. First, political rhetorics fueling fear or suspicion of immigrants. Next, exploiting the less advantaged sectors of society, and finally, an exclusivist attitude.

While these may not be what could have really driven the Brexit vote, as some are saying that the Brexit vote is even a vote for diversity, as one opinion article tries to describe it in the sense that Japan is able to maintain its distinct culture, even as it builds relationships with other countries through trade and socio-cultural exchanges: “Those who oppose this homogenization with Europe tend to be those who voted to exit the EU. As much as anything, the polls show, they took the long view, protecting that which made them culturally distinctive, even if it came at a financial cost,” – it is clear that the above-mentioned can impact the diversity efforts of any organization, society, and country.

“We” Versus “They” Political Rhetoric

A look at Trump’s campaign makes it clear his statements on minorities, such as Hispanics and Blacks, show he does not have a high regard for them. And it can also stoke negative feelings towards these specific groups of people and other individuals/groups that are perceived to be, “stealing jobs, health/social benefits, and other opportunities from them.” Or even, “terrorists out to carry evil acts on American soil.” His trademark use of “we” demonstrates an exclusivist mentality, betraying the very ideals that founded this great nation. A report by The Atlantic quoted Trump as saying in his victory speech when it was apparent that he had become his party’s presumptive presidential nominee:

We’re going to bring back our jobs, and we’re going to save our jobs, and people are going to have great jobs again, and this country, which is very, very divided in so many different ways, is going to become one beautiful loving country, and we’re going to love each other, we’re going to cherish each other and take care of each other, and we’re going to have great economic development and we’re not going to let other countries take it away from us, because that’s what’s been happening for far too many years and we’re not going to do it anymore, he said. […] We’re going to have great relationships with the Hispanics, he said. The Hispanics have been so incredible to me. They want jobs. Everybody wants jobs. The African Americans want jobs. If you look at what’s going on, they want jobs.

The use of “we” and “they” when referring to others sets the tone of excluding others. It puts up a psychological barrier between ourselves and others, thus making it hard to forge a mutual understanding, and a better appreciation of the differences and similarities that make up who we are – as individuals, groups, and nations.

The Power of Language

The use of language – the way we convey our messages – is such a powerful psychological tool, and an exclusive language is always a barrier to unity, cooperation, and meaningful relationships. Here is an excerpt on the psychology of language use:

…our everyday language use often ends up maintaining the existing structure of intergroup relationships. Language use can have implications for how we construe our social world. For one thing, there are subtle cues that people use to convey the extent to which someone’s action is just a special case in a particular context or a pattern that occurs across many contexts and more like a character trait of the person. According to Semin and Fiedler (1988), someone’s action can be described by an action verb that describes a concrete action (e.g., he runs), a state verb that describes the actor’s psychological state (e.g., he likes running), an adjective that describes the actor’s personality (e.g., he is athletic), or a noun that describes the actor’s role (e.g., he is an athlete).[…] Intriguingly, people tend to describe positive actions of their ingroup members using adjectives (e.g., he is generous) rather than verbs (e.g., he gave a blind man some change), and negative actions of outgroup members using adjectives (e.g., he is cruel) rather than verbs (e.g., he kicked a dog). Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989) called this a linguistic intergroup bias, which can produce and reproduce the representation of intergroup relationships by painting a picture favoring the ingroup. That is, ingroup members are typically good, and if they do anything bad, that’s more an exception in special circumstances; in contrast, outgroup members are typically bad, and if they do anything good, that’s more an exception.

It behooves political leaders and politicians of all persuasions and classes to use language in a positive way, so they can promote diversity and inclusion. Through their language use, those in power and authority can either create walls or bring them down. Yet, some public leaders and personalities can be devoid of such sensitivity and compassion, and overcome with personal agendas, so they tend to cater to unfounded fears and biases of people with not enough knowledge and understanding of people, events and situations.

Using Fear As A Tool

It takes political will to make diversity working in all strata and sectors of society, yet political rhetorics that pander to populist sentiments can undermine diversity initiatives, or as in the Brexit case, populist Nigel Farage was said to stoke up fear or anger towards immigrants due to perceived threats from them focusing, obsessively, on the threat from immigrants, both from inside the EU and out, thus the LEAVE votes taking over the REMAIN votes. It also takes political maturity for people to discern whether some politicians are exploiting their rational fear of terrorism, or non-acceptance of other people’s faith or beliefs for personal agendas.

As this article explains, a group of social psychologists developed Terror Management Theory in the 1980s, which is based on the human awareness of the inevitability of death. According to the theory, people become anxious and scared when they’re reminded of this fact. This fear, in turn, makes them more likely to coalesce around a shared identity or worldview: a religion, country, culture or ideology. […]

Images of the aftermath of terrorist acts such as the horrific 9-11 tragedy are an effective means of reminding people of their human frailty, the article said. After attacks, politicians sometimes seek to capitalize on this vulnerability, turning speeches and press conferences into opportunities to rhetorically place the “nation” and cherished “freedoms” as at risk. The attack on a few becomes an attack on all. When speakers do this successfully, they are able to unite voters through a sense of shared threat. 

The world, not only America, faces all kinds of challenges: rising unemployment, unabated poverty, climate change, violence, and terrorism, to name a few, and the last thing humanity needs are walls that isolate us from one another and weaken our defenses.