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Language is our most potent tool for communication, a vessel through which we express thoughts and emotions, which shape the very fabric of society. In imPRessions episode 18, we speak with Fred Garcia, Founder and President of Logos Consulting Group and professor at NYU and Columbia University. Our discussion covers how language can be a force for communication as well as a dangerous weapon when wielded with incendiary intent.

imPRessions Episode 18 Transcript

Kalli: Language is the most important tool we have for communication. It’s our way to express our thoughts, feelings and has the power to shape both people and culture. A truly amazing thing. However, incendiary language, which has the power to excite or inflame its listeners, can be used as a dangerous weapon. Unfortunately, we’ve seen, both historically and in our lifetimes, incendiary language used to encourage terrorist mindsets. Joining us today to discuss the power of language and how people from business leaders to journalists, civic leaders and public officials can use rhetoric to persuade their audiences is Fred Garcia, Founder and President of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and NYU and Columbia University professor. Having coached more than 400 Fortune 500 CEOs and thousands of other high-profile individuals on leadership and communication and authoring four books on the topic, it’s an understatement to say that Fred is well-versed in the power of communications. Fred, thank you so much for joining us today to share your insight and knowledge on this ever-important topic.

Fred: Thank you so much. Delighted to be here.

Kalli: So, Fred, it’s no surprise that the use of language can solicit specific responses in your work. You study patterns through language of leaders to see how they inflict change. How did you stumble into this calling?

Fred: Well, I have been working in professional communication for about 43 years, and for 36 years, I’ve been a professor of leadership and communication, including at NYU, the past seven years at Columbia and in other universities around the world. And one of the things I study is patterns of leadership, patterns of how stakeholders respond to leaders, patterns of trust, patterns of civic order. And I began to worry about eight years ago that the language that was being used in the American political system had recognizable features that had preceded prior acts of mass violence up to and including genocide. And I began to sound the alarm about those patterns. And as the patterns became more and more intense, I realized I needed to not merely sound the alarm, but to rally others, to recognize the patterns, to call out the patterns, and to begin to hold leaders accountable for using language in ways that have historically and in current time, provoked people to commit acts of violence, including acts of mass violence.

Jenn: So I want to touch on that a little bit in your book, “Words on Fire”, which I read was fantastic and highly, highly recommend it. You discuss a communication tactic called framing, which you feel sort of provokes emotion in people, usually sort of changing what they feel before what they think. Can you elaborate on this a little bit more?

Fred: Sure. Framing is a phrase that was coined by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff at the University of California, Berkeley, and it describes how humans understand things. And there’s a conceit in much of the Western world that we are intellectual creatures, that we make choices using the neocortex in the front part of our brain. But all of the recent neuroscience and cognitive linguistics shows that human beings actually make choices in the limbic part of our brain, which is the part of our brain that governs emotions, but to which we have no direct access.

Framing is a tool that is used all the time in marketing and advertising, in public relations, in civic life. And it is the creation of context, using language to trigger what George Lakoff calls worldviews, that help us understand how the world works and help us understand what makes sense. So, for example, if you want to promote a woman’s right to have an abortion, you could use the phrase I support bodily autonomy.

I support a woman’s right to choose control over her body. Those who want to oppose it say that abortion is murder. And you could actually look at the American political debate and see framing is what both sides of the debate use. What I became alarmed about was framing that was dehumanizing individuals and groups. And that framing is powerful. And one of the things that Lakoff describes is that framing determines what makes sense. So take, for example, something from the early part of the last president’s administration. For months and months and months, the president of the United States, starting in 2017, began to refer to people who were seeking status in the United States as asylum. They were seeking asylum in the United States. Asylum is a protected category under international law and under American law, and those who are seeking asylum are essentially refugees, and they are legally at the border seeking asylum. That’s the only way to do it. You can’t do it at an embassy in another country. You have to come to the border to seek asylum. The president said that those people were invaders, that they were animals. And at rallies he would have his crowd chant, they’re animals, they’re animals, they’re animals. And we can track the frequency and volume of he and his followers, referring to migrants as illegal invaders and animals. And starting in the spring of 2018, the public policy of the United States was to separate children of those seeking asylum from their parents, with no mechanism to keep track of where the children went and which children went with which parents. So think about animals. If you think of a subgroup of humans as animals, what do we do with animals? We put them in cages. What else do we do with animals? We separate their offspring from the parents. What else do we do with? With animals? We sterilize them. And a meaningful number of women were forced, sterilized at a Department of Homeland Security detention facility in Georgia. Now, that kind of behavior, kidnapping children and taking them from their parents without any mechanism to keep track of the children and the parents. Is a kind of crime against humanity. We, the United States, have prosecuted other national leaders for doing that kind of thing. But if you think of these human beings as less than human, if you think of them as animals, then that kind of behavior is far more likely. It is a behavior that in that frame seems to make sense.

Jenn: It’s amazing how just one sort of word or terminology had created what it did. And, you know, just saying animal or calling cockroach or parasite it. You’re totally right. It completely frames this idea in concept that we’re the good guys, those are the bad guys, and we see this sort of communication happening a lot in politics and even sometimes in business. And it’s amazing how just one word kind of ricocheted this whole horrible situation.

Fred: Yeah. And let me give you another example of one word. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm campaigns, the president used invader, invasion, animal dozens and dozens of times per rally. And as he got closer and closer to the election, he was actually using some form of invader or animal or invasion about 40 times for every rally. And every time he would do that, it would be amplified in not only social media, but white supremacist platforms and also through mainstream media. Well, there’s a white supremacist neo-Nazi in Pittsburgh who had been very active on white supremacist social media, in particular on a platform called gab, which is where people went after Twitter kicked a lot of the white supremacists off Twitter. Well, in early October, that guy posted, I see they’ve stopped calling these illegals. They’re calling them invaders. I like that, and he used some form of invasion or invader dozens of times between early October and late October. He also picked up another meme that the campaign, the president’s campaign was using in the run up to the midterm, and that is, that the invasion was being funded by mysterious Jewish financiers, including George Soros. And you can track the use of the word Soros in social media and mainstream media. It went from almost no mentions to millions of mentions on Trump’s social media platforms, his Facebook pages, Twitter campaigns, his Twitter platform and others. Well, this guy in Pittsburgh began to equate the invasion with Jewish funding, and he began to target synagogues that were funding something called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAs. And he posted the locations of the synagogues that were raising money. And then one day on a on a Saturday, he posted, I see that HIAs likes to bring in invaders to slaughter our people. The heck with the optics. Screw the optics. I’m going in. And then he went into the Tree of Life synagogue and he shot the place up. He murdered many, many people, injured others. He was wounded himself. Well, he was just sentenced in the last month to the terrorist attack. And he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison if he isn’t given the death penalty. But that’s an example of how, essentially, a passive white supremacist who had never harmed anyone, here’s the language, gets activated and considers himself the good guy in a noble fight against these evil invaders and these evil funders. And he goes into a house of worship on the Sabbath, and he murders people, thinking that what he is doing is what the boss wanted. The power of two words. They’re invaders and sorors.

Kalli: It’s so scary to think that, you know, like you said, it’s two words that can make such a difference. And actually, the examples that you just gave, you know, segue really right into my next question. And like you said in those examples, like these people believe that their actions are justified when these acts of violence are carried out, you know, what is it that leaders should do or could do to identify these individuals ahead of time to, hopefully, you know, stop another instance like this. How do we stop these people from harming others before it happens? Is there is there even a way to do that?

Fred: There’s a way to name the problem. Now, when I was working on the book and the book that you mentioned, Words on Fire, was published three years ago this month, it was published six months before the January 6th attack. But you’ve read it. You can see it essentially predicts the January 6th attack. And one of the things that I found is I was speaking to the news media and on podcasts and on radio, as I was writing the book people said, “yes, but what about the First Amendment right to free speech?” And one response is the First Amendment does not condone and does not allow the incitement of violence. This kind of language is an incitement to violence. And when I was writing the book, very few in the news media, very few in government, were willing to call it out. But all of that began to change in the last year of the president’s term. And you may remember when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, the president of the United States called out the US military, called out the 82nd airborne, and had them get fully armed with bayonets and automatic weapons and standby in Virginia and Maryland to take to the streets. And the defense secretary, Mark Esper, held a conference call with governors and mayors in which he said, we will command the battlespace that is your cities. And that proved to be too much for the recently resigned secretary of defense, James Mattis. And Mattis broke an 18 month long silence, and he came forward and he said loudly and clearly, Mr. President, what you and your Secretary of Defense are saying is dangerous. Using the word battlespace to refer to American cities is dangerous. Dehumanizing people the way you are is inciting violence, and that is dangerous. And I call on you to stop. Secretary Esper reversed himself and said, we’re not going to use the military. I’m not going to refer to it as a battlespace. That was the first example of a public figure actually standing up to President Trump for the use of language and the public policy that followed it. That began a trend where people began to call this out. You also recall Michael Cohen, whom the president called a rat, and that led to death threats against him and his daughter and his wife. Threats of worse than death to his family. Michael Cohen went in front of a House committee and said, anyone who hears those words knows that that is a call to people to put my life and my family’s life at risk. The chair of the committee also said that that is the kind of language that puts people’s lives at risk.

It took something as dramatic as mobilizing the military and calling out a hit against a guy about to go to prison. They got the news media to finally say, whoa, this is probably going too far. And now they do call out when the president and others say things and note when he when the president says that Jack Smith’s Trump hating wife, that Jack Smith’s communist approach is doing this and that. Well, Jack Smith now has to travel with a security detail. His own Secret Service protection. And special prosecutors have never had to have that. We also saw the death threats against the two Georgia election workers who are now suing Donald Trump. But those death threats came from the president and Rudy Giuliani, who’s also being sued, naming them as the evil people who are stealing the election. And they also used racist dog whistles to describe them that they were passing memory sticks to each other as if they were vials of heroin and cocaine. Again, they had to move. Their lives were threatened. We need to call out when people dehumanize and demonize especially, it’s not enough that people use dehumanizing language. It is when they use dehumanizing language. They have a bully platform or a loud megaphone. They have committed followers who will take those words and act on them. And when there is a social context in which violence seems to make sense, again, it’s the framing. So in the context of Stop the Steal, it makes sense for followers to think they’re doing an honorable thing to go after an attempt to harm the people who are stealing the election. It’s remarkable how many people who marched on the Capitol and assaulted police officers and destroyed property believed that they were following the orders. That was their explicit defense in their trials. They believe that they were following the president’s orders, doing what was good, even as they were maiming and harming and killing police officers on Capitol Hill, even as they were calling for the assassination of the Vice President of the United States or the speaker of the House of Representatives, they believe they were following orders. And that’s a terrifying thing.

Jenn: It’s interesting, too, because in your book, you actually pointed out a couple of examples in which maybe dangerous language was used, but it was unintentional. So President Bush, for instance, I know you talked a little bit about it in the book where during 9/11, he used a couple of terms. I think he used the word crusade, right? Obviously, it set a group of people off that that thought he meant something differently. So I was curious what you would say to a leader who accidentally said something. What should they do to make sure that they don’t accidentally ostracize a particular group of people or allude to something that could be taken out of context?

Fred: That’s a great question, and thank you for asking that. In the book, I point to three examples of leaders who went over a line, and they didn’t intend to go over the line; they just misspoke. In one case, a guy had a change of heart, but in each case, it took someone whom they respected to call them out for the risk that they were creating. In the case of President Bush, right after 9/11, he said that we are now engaged in a great crusade. A lot of people in the United States took that. As we’re in a fight against Islam and people who wear seemingly Islamic headgear, women who wear Hijabs, men who wear turbans were suddenly being assaulted, in some cases shot at, in some cases killed by people who thought they were doing what President Bush told them to do. As soon as he said crusade, a whole bunch of European leaders got on the phone with the president, including Tony Blair, whom he respected a lot, and Tony Blair, the prime minister of Britain, said, you’ve got to walk back the crusade remark. You can’t be calling this a crusade. That’s putting the Muslim communities around the world at risk. To his credit, President Bush immediately the next day went to the Washington Islamic Center and surrounded himself with Islamic leaders. And he said there is in no respect any animosity between the United States and the Muslim faith, that Islam is a religion of peace, and the terrorists were not exercising Islam. And I’m here with these Islamic leaders, and I’m here in solidarity with them. And they also spoke about their commitment to peace in the United States. Two days later, the president met with the Prime minister of Indonesia, I’m sorry, the President of Indonesia in the Oval Office. And he told the president, Madam President, we know that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and we know that Islam is a religion of peace. And I’m here to assure you that the United States will continue to support you and will continue to support your nation in all of the work that you do. It takes those two acts. It takes someone calling attention to the leader that the leader has stepped over a line, and then the leader being willing, as I give President George W Bush credit for walking back that misstatement and demonstrating commitment, in this case in a physical community with Muslim leaders to show his followers, don’t mess with these people. They’re the good guys. They’re on our side.

Kalli: But you also stressed the importance of citizens holding leaders accountable for their actions. You know, not just leaders, you know, calling out other leaders or even the leaders themselves. You know, especially when leaders are taking advantage of their platform and using the language to aid themselves. You know, what’s the best way for an everyday citizen to help, to fight, to stop threats on our country?

Fred: Whether it’s at a school board meeting, whether it is at a Boy Scout troop meeting, or whether it is just in a social relationship. When we hear someone dehumanizing another person because of their identity, when we hear someone demonizing another person or group because of their identity, not because of their acts, but because of their identity, that’s the red flag. That’s the alarm. And it’s important for citizens to call out before others begin acting on it. So say, hey, that’s inappropriate. You might disagree with them on one thing or another, but it isn’t right to dehumanize. It isn’t right to demonize. One of the things that I’ve seen a lot recently is people on Facebook saying, if you’re dehumanizing this group because in the current political environment, lots of groups, whether it’s trans or LGBTQ or people who read certain kinds of history books in school or African Americans and other people of color, I have seen many instances of folks on Facebook proclaiming, if you dehumanize any of these groups, then please unfriend me. Or if I see you doing it, I will unfriend you. I want nothing to do with you. And that’s something small that individual citizens can take is to make clear there are boundaries that can’t be crossed in dehumanizing others because of their identity, dehumanizing others because of their demonizing others because of their identity. Name that when it happens and be in solidarity with the at-risk groups. One of the things that I was really proud of, and as you may know from the book, for many years, I was on the board of and chair of the board of Interfaith Alliance in Washington, DC, when President Trump initially floated the idea of a Muslim registry for Americans who are Muslim. The President of Interfaith Alliance, Rabbi Jack Moline, went to the Islamic Center and with his Muslim colleagues; he said, Mr. President, if there should be a Muslim registry, I will be the first to register. Now, the president of the Interfaith Alliance is a Rabbi. He’s a conservative Jewish leader. But he was ready to stand in solidarity with the at-risk group. And individual citizens can stand in solidarity in their own communities as well.

Jenn: Absolutely. It’s so important for everybody, like you said, even if it’s as simple as removing a person from your social media or your life or a friend who is saying something that you don’t. One thing is to not agree with somebody; it’s another thing to use dangerous language to incite other people to follow suit and fall in line and do or say really horrible things. But politicians, so they’re not the only ones that need to watch their language. So we really have to talk about any person of influence, right? Celebrities and prominent founders and CEOs, they too can influence their audience, maybe not as strongly as somebody like the President of the United States, but they still absolutely kind of guide their own narrative or agenda. So how do you think language and leadership sort of differ across various industries or even across different personalities?

Fred: There are certain business leaders who, as part of their business, have promoted this kind of dehumanizing language. I’m thinking of Elon Musk, for example. When he took over Twitter, he took away the restriction of hateful, dangerous speech. And so, for example, the use of the N-word on Twitter, which had been banned before Elon Musk, he permitted it. And suddenly there was this epidemic of people using the N-word on Twitter and other hateful language. He took away the disinformation filter experts so people could say completely untrue and unbalanced things on Twitter, and that put lives at risk. And when Mr. Musk was called on it, he essentially dismissed it and essentially said, this is my company. I can do whatever I want with it. Well, I’m of the view that if Mr. Musk continues to be in charge of Twitter, another platform will emerge that will ultimately replace Twitter within years. That’s one example of a business leader who is facilitating the use of dangerous speech. We also saw, for example, Kanye West having dinner at the White House with prominent white supremacists. And people have stopped listening to Kanye’s music, or people have started to condemn Kanye’s music. So we see the same kind of things across sectors and across industries. And in a capitalist society, one of the ways to vote is to vote with your money and don’t use the products or services of the person who is exhibiting that kind of behavior.

Kalli: You know, it’s really interesting that you say that, and that’s honestly a struggle I’ve been having myself recently because, you know, when I was younger, I was a very big Harry Potter fan, you know, read all the books, saw the movies, like, soaked it all in. And, you know, fairly recently, J.K. Rowling has made some controversial comments and I, you know, was a little surprised by it because the whole point of Harry Potter and those stories is that, you know, it’s okay to not fit in. Yet. Her personal views skew very differently from that for certain people. And, you know, it has been a struggle to say like, okay, well, this is, you know, these are stories that like, I’ve enjoyed, I want to enjoy, like with my children when they’re, you know, when they’re old enough. But at the same time, I’m like, how do I kind of balance? And do I want to continue reading these books and continue sharing them and being a fan now that I don’t agree with J.K. Rowling’s thinking? I think that she is using her platform in all the wrong ways personally. But, you know, then it’s kind of like, where does that leave you?

Jenn: It’s a moral dilemma. Do you can you still appreciate and love the art? If you don’t love the creator more or less.

Fred: You can appreciate and love the art, but you can also make very clear that you disapprove of or disagree with, or even denounce the artist. So what you’re describing is a very common struggle. I have a very close family member who grew up just enamored of Harry Potter. And her house was adorned with Harry Potter memorabilia. And so we always knew what birthday presents to give because it them give her something from Harry Potter.

Kalli: Exactly.

Fred: Well, she’s now out queer and an LGBTQ activist and has struggled with this very same dilemma and has a much lower appetite for Harry Potter but is able to differentiate. I don’t necessarily want to buy anything that she has written. I’ve already read it. I can’t unread it. And I think it’s significant that the actors came out and said, we stand by our work, and we’re proud of our work, and that work is meaningful. And that work has influenced millions of people around the world, and we’re proud of that. We can be proud of that and still publicly declare that the views being expressed by the creator of that work are inappropriate, and we disavow those views. It’s also important to note that those views aren’t embedded within that art. Right. So it is possible to praise their involvement in the creation of the work because their involvement was honorable, and that work itself was honorable, even as in a separate domain in her life, the artist expresses what I consider to be dishonorable views.

Kalli: Yes, I’ve read her tweet this morning. It was a rough morning, put it that way. I was like, what? Like, don’t you think? Come on, you know, and again, that goes back to, you know, really being held accountable and respecting those who are around you and acknowledging that everyone is human.

Fred: And one of the things that we have found, and you touched on this in one of your earlier questions, the social scientists, the sociologists, others who study extremism have pointed out that one of the things that have happened in the last eight years is that privately-held views that were dangerous have now become normalized, and now people feel that they have permission to use dehumanizing language, that they have permission to use language that puts people’s safety and lives at risk, and they feel that there is no consequence. So one of the reasons it’s so important that not only leaders, but engage citizens, call out even small examples of this, is that we need to change the social dynamic where it’s okay to dehumanize, where it’s okay to demonize. And I’m very pleased that as I was traveling around different parts of the United States, everywhere I went, I saw pride flags, even in conservative states, even in conservative companies, in conservative states, there was pride memorabilia all over the place because right now, LGBTQ communities are at risk. They are being persecuted by political leaders around the country. They are the trans community in particular, is at risk of extraordinary violence up to and including murder. And it is important for them to see. And it’s important for a society to see institutions expressing solidarity with that community and doing it in a completely open and celebratory way and saying, you’re safe here. And not only for the LGBTQ community but for other at-risk communities. One of the things that came subsequent to my writing the book, but that I’ve written and spoken about since is during the last year of President Trump’s administration. While the Covid 19 pandemic was growing from the very beginning of the pandemic, the president kept calling it the China virus, the China virus, the China virus, and Asian Americans and Asians in America started getting assaulted. And as early as early March, there was a father and son of Asian origin in a target store in Texas, and a woman ran up to the child and slashed the child with a sharp knife across his face. It took him 18 stitches. The father came to his son’s assistant, and the woman slashed him across the face, took a dozen stitches; and when the police arrested the woman and asked, why did you do that? She said, I was protecting the United States from the China virus. She assaulted a Burmese man and an American child of Burmese parents simply for their identity, because the president had used the phrase China virus. All of this by dehumanizing and demonizing Asians and Asian-Americans. Whatever the at-risk community is, it’s important for citizens to stand with them. So that’s when you begin to see I oppose Asian hate and signs like that, that we live in an environment where people now believe it is okay to hurt others because of who they are.

Kalli: You know that. It’s so true. And of course. Terrible to see these acts against people just because of who they are, what they look like, they think, you know, it is hopeful to see that now there are people that are, you know, holding these signs that we don’t agree with Asian hate and other people outside of those communities supporting them. One of the good things about social media is that you also get to see that a little bit more as well. But I’m curious, you know, where do you see our political future heading? Do you think future leaders will be more mindful of their language, given the consequences of Trump and other conservative Republicans have faced in recent years?

Fred: I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and I regret that. I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think it’s going to require a massive social dislocation. One of the things we see just watching the jockeying in the Republican field for the next president, we’re still 18 months from an election, but as we see the jockeying, we see even more extremist language being used by some of the candidates who are trying to be even more Trumpy than Trump. And with Trump now focused on staying out of jail, that’s an opportunity for others to begin to rally his base on the social issues, and not just on the dehumanizing of the prosecutors and the judges, which the president is doing now.

The former president is doing now. But we see Ron DeSantis trying to be even more Trumpy than Trump. We see others coming into the race, and they’re all vying for the extremist, white nationalist, white Christian nationalist, and white supremacist vote that reflexively goes to Trump. Now, not all Republicans by any means are described by those words, but those are the communities that this kind of language is explicitly appealing to. And that’s a very powerful base. It’s not as big a base as the rest of the population, but that’s where the right political leaders are beginning to appeal. Just trying to get the nomination. Once they get the nomination, the challenge will be getting the general election vote, which is much larger than the primary vote. But I think it’s we’re going to see a lot more dangerous speech, dehumanizing and demonizing and targeting individuals and groups in the run-up to the next political and the next presidential election. And that makes it all the more necessary for citizens to be equipped to call out that language, especially when voters start using it in their community meetings. When you see it in the schools, when you see it on the youth soccer field, when you see it just at the school board. We need to call out the demonizing and dehumanizing language that puts citizens at risk.

Kalli: That is a good point. And hopefully, you know, our listeners have taken in everything that you’ve shared with us today. You’ve definitely given us a lot of food for thought, you know, in our everyday lives and especially as elections, you know, come up truly. Thank you so much for joining us today, Fred. This has been a great conversation, and thank you to our listeners. If you have any questions or comments, you can reach us at imPRessions@pollackgroup.com. Until next time.