#rp17 Speaker Elisabeth Wehling: We Have to Talk

Last week we introduced you to speaker Caroline Sinders. With her sights set on the infrastructural level, she works towards changing what has become the battlefield of digital communication back into a discourse again. One can, however, approach the subject at a completely different level, as Elisabeth Wehling shows us, when she dissects our online and offline discourses.

We are very excited that this Hamburg native will be making her way from Berkeley, California to the re:publica. Especially in an election year, as we’re afraid we’re going to have to brace ourselves for a lot of unpleasantries in 2017. We are experiencing a raised awareness for the relevance of speech in political thinking and action – and, sadly, we are also witnessing a linguistic renaissance of nationalistic and authoritarian attitudes. Rubbing up against this type of language is healthy for our immune response, but we should be discussing the underlying concepts even more, says Wehling.

Elisabeth Wehling studied sociology, journalism and linguistics in Hamburg, Rome and Berkeley, then moving on to cognitive sciences. Her realization – one that even professional politicians seem to forget from time to time: hatred and lies have no place in responsible politics – ingenuity and vision, on the other hand, very much play a role.

She has been the director of research projects on ideology, language and unconscious opinion formation at the International Computer Science Institute since 2013, using neurological and behavioral research methods for cognitive linguistic discourse analysis. Areas which might not at first ring a bell, because one cannot really visualize what they might be. Yet it is exactly the visual aspect, the linguistic pictures that are the focus: because it isn’t (just) facts that determine our opinions, but also frames. Our brain has a whole warehouse full of stored knowledge at its disposal. Smells, memories and emotions are activated to understand words. It makes a huge difference if these words have a positive or negative connotation. A “wave of refugees”, for example, can sound dramatic and downright threatening.

Frames are what pull the strings in the brain and determine if information is recognized as important. Frames are always ideologically selective and are activated and consolidated through language – our public debates function like synaptic superglue which cross-links ideas with one another. Framing is the communication of one’s own perspective on the world. The reversion of this, however, by no means implies that the content itself is meaningless.

Right-wing populists are very successful in framing: Trump and the German AfD emphasize “emotional stories”. Most recently, Wehling analyzed the American presidential election, but has also offered explanations for Silvio Berlusconi’s political success in Italy. Wehling’s book “Political Framing” received extensive coverage in the media. One of the conclusions: being able to reach the biconceptual voters, meaning those who are not entrenched in their beliefs, is a decisive factor in every election. Traditional conservatives, on the other hand, will sometimes vote against their own self-interest, even when they oppose individual initiatives the candidate is championing.

Wehling emphasizes: “Above all, I would like for us to take the time in our daily lives to really think specifically about what terms and concepts are being used in our current debates concerning the most important political issues, for example after a talk show or after reading a newspaper article. This helps develop a feel for what the dominant attitudes are at the moment.”

She also has a suggestion for democracy itself: “If you are dealing with a big political issue, the best approach is to bring something completely new to the table as opposed to tinkering with something old.” This was, according to Wehling, ONE of the reasons why Clinton ended up essentially helping Donald Trump’s campaign and why she lost in the end: she repeatedly pointed out how much of a difference there was between the two of them. In doing this, she strengthened the frames set up by his campaign through her own repetition.

Democratic and progressive stories should be told through frames of togetherness, mutual empowerment and protection. Pop culture, with all its films, books and plays based on these values, has repeatedly proven that they work. “The parties have to sit down and precisely clarify the moral premises of their politics and outline them linguistically!” The same applies for the digital space as well.


Image credit: Elisabeth Wehling