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Semiotics and the Development of Political Discourse


Language can be viewed as a means of domination, meant to consolidate the relationship in the system of organized political and social power. It means that the language is ideologized in its nature. Moreover, the less explicit the relationships between different parts of a political-social system are, the more substantial number of implicit meanings may be hidden in various linguistic and imagery symbols used within political messages.

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In their articles, Charlton McIlwain and Joseph Zompetti provide semiotic analyses of distinct relationships between cultural symbols, and the way they are used to form the political reality. While McIlwain focuses on the theory of critical semiotics and uses its major tenets to evaluate the promotion of racism through political communication activities, Zompetti synthesizes the principles of critical rhetoric with a Gramscian understanding of hegemony to explain the idea of cultural dominance and freedom. The given paper will aim to analyze the major takeaways from both of the works to show the role of various semiotic symbols including power, freedom, and domination in modern political communication media and social reality.

Political discourse

Overall, semiotics may be regarded as a tool for measuring the meanings in human activities in various spheres of performance and the analysis of political language, as well as its conceptual base and content, in particular. The exposure of inequality and injustice, the refusal to see ideologies as something natural, the disclosure of linguistic mechanisms through which domination and power persist, and the reporting of these findings to those who suffer from oppression – these are the primary goals, which supporters of the critical semiotics pursue.

In his article, McIlwain attempts to accomplish similar objectives through the analysis of “an ad produced by David Perryman, a white candidate for the U.S. Congress in the Fourth District of Oklahoma in 1994 against his black opponent, former Congressman J. C. Watts” (171). As the author argues “the primary imagery, language, and their arrangement in this ad connotes the historical image of black militancy as a way of appealing to white’s fears about black criminality” (171). It means that through linguistic and imagery symbols, political messages may be used as an instrument of control and power consolidation in politics and contribute to the marginalization of particular population groups, e.g., racial minorities.

In the mentioned ad, the producers did not include any explicit racist messages yet the selected visual images and audible speech, which did not have any racist connotations initially, were put in such a context and arranged in such a way that they evoked adverse perceptions of the African-American candidate in the predominantly white audience. It happened because the video styling and other semiotic components in combination referred to negative stereotypical notions of the black culture compared to the white culture.

For instance, Congressman Watts’ hairstyle (an afro) on the picture used in the advertisement as one of the major semiotic elements of the implicit racist message as it signifies “the turbulent time in U.S. history in the late 1960s and 1970s coinciding with the rise of the black power movement” (McIlwain 177). For the white audience, the time of African Americans’ struggle for their cultural and ethnic identity is often associated with crimes and violence committed by them against the representatives of the U.S. white population because those events were presented by the media as a threat to whites’ well-being.

In this way, such a visual symbol as the afro, which has a positive meaning for African Americans, has a negative connotation for white individuals, especially those who lived during the 1960s and the 1970s. The major takeaway from the given observation is that the semantic implications associated with symbols can be used to promote racism, as well as to encourage other attitudes, and influence voters’ decision making by politicians. In this way, by contrasting a negative perception of an African American with a positive perception of a white farmer, Perryman tried to win over Watts by employing racial stereotypes in the representation of his opponent and, in this way, provoking racist sentiments in white voters.

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McIlwain’s analysis of the ad shows the role of elites and political players in the reproduction of racism. The development and dissemination of implicitly racist messages can be regarded as a form of power abuse operating at an ideological level. It means that individuals and entities that control the largest part of the discourse elements and can directly influence themes, rhetoric, participants, and circumstances within the political discourse have greater power because through changes in the discourse they may significantly impact social structures.

The analysis also shows that the realization of particular social and cultural structures occurs through the mechanism of cognition. For instance, such a social-cultural structure as racism can become legitimate when cognitively accepted by the majority population groups and become repeated through speech and other means of expression conveying the same semiotic implication.

Similar ideas can be observed in the Gramscian conception of hegemony discussed by Zompetti. In general, the essence of hegemony as intellectual and political governance of the society is in the acceptance of the ideals and values of the ruling class by other social strata. Hegemony as such implies the ability of a particular class to lead the historical development of the society as a whole, the ability to instill certain rules of conduct.

A culturally significant result of politics is not a long-term or a short-term rule of a particular party, but a specific format of the collective living in the society. Considering that any political and social system is primarily defined by the relationships among its elements, the semiotic analysis of that system should aim to reveal and criticize the mechanisms supporting those relations. It is possible to say that in hegemony, the concepts of freedom and dominance play a pivotal role in the establishment of a particular order.

Freedoms largely define the way of life, and the relations between different civil freedoms form the basis of the constitution. Nevertheless, freedom can also be regarded merely as another side of dominance because “each maintains a separate space, is used at different times and for different purposes, that freedom for one person is domination for another, etc.” (Zompetti 70). This conflict between freedom and domination is inherent with hegemony. It means that the dominant ideology can promote a particular view on freedom and implement various strategies to urge others to accept it. As Zompetti notes, the creation of a political myth as a form of rhetoric is one of the best ways to mobilize people (80).

Thus, the symbols of freedom and domination can be widely exploited in the development of ideological messages that can be consequently used by a ruling class to form a specific social order. At the same time, marginalized populations can utilize their symbols of freedom and dominance to build a collective will needed to bring social changes. For instance, in Soviet Russia, the symbol of oppression by the bourgeois was one of the primary stimuli to commence the revolution.

In the USA, the symbols of white dominance and equal freedoms for African Americans was used by civil right activists to persuade people to fight against inequality and change the law. Even the Nazi ideology of the Third Reich incorporated the symbols of freedom to a large extent as it was based on the principles and values of democratic socialism including social justice and equality. Based on this, contexts in which myths and symbols are interpreted by diverse populations play an essential role in defying the formation of social-political discourses and dominant ideologies, in particular.

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The analysis of works by Zompetti and McIlwain revealed that linguistic and imagery symbols perform multiple interconnected functions including the generation of ideologies through the establishment of connections between semiotic structures and individuals’ experiences, determination of interpersonal relationships among the members of communication, and the establishment of coherence and cohesion among diverse texts.

The implementation of semiotic symbols always leads to the establishment of social and political identification, social relationships, knowledge systems, and public attitudes. Additionally, any manipulations with either social or political discourse (i.e., the inclusion of new elements, reproduction, and exclusion of texts, etc.) can change the social-political reality. Of course, some parts of the discourse may conflict with each other, as well as different social groups can oppose each other. However, a set of the most frequently reproduced texts always constitutes the basis of the social-political order.

Works Cited

McIlwain, Charlton D. “Race, Pigskin, and Politics: A Semiotic Analysis of Racial Images in Political Advertising.” Semiotica, vol. 167, no. 1/4, 2007, pp. 169-191.

Zompetti, Joseph P. “Toward a Gramscian Critical Rhetoric.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 61, no. 1, 1997, pp. 66–86.

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