This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.
Today’s guest blogger is Mary-Grace Gannon, who currently teaches AP®English Language and freshman English at Xavier High School in New York City. In her 17 years of teaching, she has taught at all levels from elementary to middle to high school. She is also a reader for the AP® Language exam.
A recent Washington Post article reports that Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, is the Democrats’ new hire in Washington. It will be his job to revamp the party’s rhetoric to appeal to the emotions of their listeners, or as Westen says, “one side appeals to people emotionally, the other side appeals to people through twelve point plans.” Or, as the Washington Post article states:
Democrats should not talk about ‘the environment,’ ‘the unemployed’ or ‘the uninsured.’ Instead, they should replace those phrases with ones that have more appeal to voters, such as ‘the air we breathe and the water we drink,’ ‘people who've lost their jobs’ and ‘people who used to have insurance.’
In his book, The Political Brain, Westen analyzes the effect of language on the electorate by comparing the “vision[s] of mind” that each of the major political parties subscribes to – and why the Democrats, with their “dispassionate” approach, have been losing rhetorical ground to the Republicans for so many years. By appealing to the emotions of the electorate, Westen posits, the GOP is more often successful in motivating them to vote.
In the AP® English Language classroom, Westen’s ideas are an interesting real-world application of the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. In one of Westen’s videos on YouTube, there is an intriguing piece (4:13) about the power of tapping into a subconscious “network of associations.” His PowerPoint chart (6:32) illustrates the subconscious connections at work in the experiment he performs on the audience. As a follow up, students might listen to the opening of Sarah Palin’s keynote speech at the Tea Party Convention in February and draw a network of associations as Westen does in his demonstration. Within the first minute and a half of Palin’s speech, she has already planted in the minds of her audience several key words, phrases, and images connected to patriotism, spirituality, freedom, disenfranchisement, and revolution – all before she even attempts to talk about any issues or politics. Thus, just as Westen does with his audience, Palin primes her audience to subconsciously connect their feelings about God, country, and responsibility with the points she will make in her speech about America and politics today. She primes her audience with a ‘vision of mind’ that her party espouses – one that taps into the American sense of patriotism, responsibility, love of freedom, and desire for belonging.
Westen’s points about why the GOP is successful and how Democrats lose policy battles (5:48 – two minutes) is a strong opening for the following activity in which students can help the Democratic Party rework their language and unify their approach. Students can continue watching the remaining five minutes of Westen’s talk on their own if they would like more clarification and explication.
A party’s national convention is a prime opportunity for speaking from a unified “vision of mind.” With Westen’s observations in mind, students might go to the videos from the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and choose several speeches to observe how the party misses the mark. Upon study, students might note that some speakers do try to make connections to a vision of family, love of country, but some do it better than others.
Beau Biden’s emotionally powerful introduction for his father makes a good starting point. After listening to Beau Biden’s opening and following up with Joe Biden’s speech, students might try the following activities:
- Draw a network of associations that the father and son use to reach their audience.
- Suggest a “vision of mind” that the Democratic Party could advise other members of the party to espouse and speak from when they write their speeches.
A follow-up activity might be to look at the speeches of Al Gore (video; text) and John Kerry (video; text). Students could watch the first five to six minutes of each speech, read the rest of the text for homework, and do the following in groups:
- Choose specific phrases that Gore and Kerry use to describe some aspect of public policy and rewrite them with more appeal to the listener.
- Advise Gore and Kerry as to what appeals are missing from their speeches that the Bidens used in theirs.
- Make a list of strong points in each speech. In what ways might the speakers make more of their strengths?
- Are there points in each speech at which audience engagement lags? Analyze why; make specific suggestions for rewriting this portion.
Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, and Frank’s articles in Harper’s Magazine from the August 2008 and April 2004 issues might also be suggested as good follow up reading assignments for interested students.
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