Politics of Language: Jason Stanley on speech as ‘hustle’

Yale’s Jason Stanley argues that all speech is imbued with subtle meanings. In a Q&A, he discusses the devious — often harmful — ways that speech is used.
Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley (Portrait by Mara Lavitt)

Since the publication of his 2018 bestseller, “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them,” Yale’s Jason Stanley has become a familiar presence on radio and television news broadcasts. The Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Stanley is often called upon to explain the ways in which political language is being weaponized, especially when it seems to be for authoritarian ends.

There are very few philosophers in the media — people are usually historians or economists or psychologists,” Stanley said. “But I think philosophy has something to add.”

Stanley’s new book, “The Politics of Language” (Princeton University Press), which he co-authored with David Beaver, a professor of linguistics and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that all speech is imbued with meanings that go well beyond what is being plainly said. Words evoke certain emotions and images in listeners depending on their historical associations. And those associations can be manipulated by politicians and spinmeisters for persuasive and possibly deceptive purposes.

A scholarly work eight years in the writing, “The Politics of Language” lays the intellectual foundation for this particular framing of speech practices, and then applies that framework to analyze harmful speech types such as slurs, “dog whistles,” and genocidal messaging.

Stanley spoke to Yale News about sneaky speech, the political power of plausible deniability, and his new teaching appointment in Ukraine.  

The primary focus of your book is a type of speech you call “hustle.” What is hustle?

Jason Stanley: Hustle is when you intend and give one message, but wrapped inside that message, as it were, is a sort of secret, other message that is not straightforward to your audience — and sometimes, not even straightforward to you. Straight talk is when everything’s transparent. You know what I intend, I know what you intend, and that’s all that’s going on. Hustle is everything else.

In linguistics, we assume transparency. The model of communication we assume is, “I want salt,” and you say, “I have salt,” and I say, “Good, can I have your salt?” But actually, communication isn’t like that at all, right? We always come out of conversations wondering what was really meant. A central novel move in our book, especially for the formal areas of linguistics and philosophy of language in which we work, is that we base our analysis of speech on speech practices and use these practices to elucidate speech that is not transparent. A lot of hustle is based on the properties of the speech practices in which words are embedded — their histories of use. I think that everyone outside of the disciplines of linguistics and analytic philosophy of language is aware that we hustle, and many people outside of these disciplines recognize the importance of speech practices. But we are trying to ground these facts in a detailed and foundational way.

My 2015 book, “How Propaganda Works,” was an attempt to use the standard tools of philosophy of language and linguistics to model propaganda. These tools just didn’t work. They also don’t work for more ordinary phenomena, such as slurs. That led me to enlist the support of the great linguist David Beaver to come up with new foundations for the theory of meaning that would be adequate to this task. To do so, we had to bridge multiple disciplines.

How so?

Stanley: Speech can be used in devious ways, and there are tests you can use to show this. One test is plausible deniability. If I say, “I met Sally at the mathematics conference,” I cannot add, “and I never met Sally.” That’s an obvious contradiction. Now, suppose that a politician says, “There is rampant corruption in inner cities.” The politician is engaging in racist messaging, using a dog whistle — in this case, the term “inner cities.” They are suggesting that the voting practices of Black voters are corrupted. But they can deny, without obvious contradiction, that they intended to convey a racist message. The tools of our disciplines have a hard time explaining this.

Another example is emotion. Some expressions are associated with negative emotions, like disgust. Politicians even try to imbue certain words with disgust. The scholar Moira Weigel has argued that this is going on now with the term “Marxist.” Other words encourage violence towards things described that way, such as describing immigrants as “vermin.” Ordinary tools in our discipline are not adequate to explain these phenomena, which is why you haven’t seen many analytic philosophers of language or linguists on TV in the past few years. If you recognize the embeddedness of speech in living practices, you can easily explain all of this.

This non-transparency of speech practices makes all speech “political” then?  

Stanley: Each word is part of a speech practice and has a history. And when you use a given word, you’re evoking that history in peoples’ minds. If you use the word “professor,” a whole bunch of images come to mind. And they’re involuntary. If you use the word “doggy,” one set of images comes to mind. If you use the word “canine,” those same images don’t come to mind. Words have these histories and the words we use consciously and unconsciously evoke those histories. So when we speak one way, rather than another, we’re evoking different histories. It’s a fiction to think we can speak without a history. In much theorizing in our disciplines we have employed this fiction as an idealization, and it has shielded from us a lot of the interest of speech.

Politicians use language very deliberately to evoke certain images. How does repetition of language function in political speak and propaganda?

Stanley: It sort of embeds the propaganda in your head. If Republicans keep repeating CRT [for critical race theory] or DEI [for diversity, equity, and inclusion], and they associate them with a kind of negative feeling, then after a while, the listeners don’t even think about what they mean. They just know they don’t like them. The content becomes irrelevant. Consider how Trump adds those adjectives before nouns, like “crooked Hillary” or “little Marco Rubio.” It’s a very effective thing, right? Or take pro-life versus pro-choice. Who’s against life? Who’s against choice? That’s a different way of coding.

One of your chapters focuses on “harmful speech,” including a discussion of genocidal speech. You offer as a prime example Russia’s justification for its invasion of Ukraine. Would you talk about that?

Stanley: It’s impossible to deny that Russia is appealing to genocidal narratives. When you represent other people as an existential threat to you, that you need to eradicate them or you will be eradicated, that’s genocidal and has been genocidal since the time of Cleon. Putin says Ukrainian identity is fake, and that all it means is “anti-Russia.” There’s no other content to Ukrainian identity other than, “we hate Russians.” And so you must extinguish Ukrainian identity.

What’s distinct about what’s happening in the Ukraine war is that the Russians think the Ukrainians really are Russian but have adopted this anti-Russian identity and a fake language.

You have a close connection with Ukraine, don’t you?

Stanley: I was there in August teaching a two-week course on colonialism and fascism to 300 Ukrainians. And I just accepted a permanent visiting position in Kyiv, so I’ll be going back this summer for two weeks. I’m an anti-fascist, and that is a very clear case of a fascist country attacking a democracy, so I felt I had to be involved. I’m donating my salary to Come Back Alive, an organization that purchases equipment for the Ukrainian armed forces.

Is the timing of this book especially meaningful given all that’s happening politically in the world?

Stanley: Liberal democracy involves this idea that we’re trading arguments to figure out the best outcome for all of us. But that’s not what’s going on in politics now. To understand this authoritarian moment here and across the world, this attack on democracy, it’s also a linguistic attack. It’s emphasizing the uses of speech that are sneaky, that are hustle.

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