Culture and research

We are the words we speak - The linguistic intelligence and media literacy that we lack

16 Dec 2020

Maria Cristina Origlia

The daily news offers countless examples of an inattentive – and, at times, deliberately unscrupulous – use of language in the description of reality by the media, politicians and experts, or those who are presumed to be experts. As I write this article, I am learning of the exciting election of Antonella Polimeni to the position of Magnificent Rector of the La Sapienza University, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, the first woman to lead the academy in seven centuries. Wonderful news, except that it has been polluted by repeatedly being described – almost everywhere – with the trite and outdated expression of the ‘glass ceiling’ that is being broken by another – heroic – woman. A rhetorical image that does nothing but underline what appears to be women’s ‘mission impossible’, taking attention from the programme presented by Polimeri – in which she speaks of diversity, inclusion, biodiversity – and knocking the wind out of the inspiration of that part of the population that believes in gender balance and intelligence.

And when I speak of wind, of the breath, I am referring to the chemical reactions that the ‘wrong’ words trigger in our brain, affecting our mood, our thoughts and our behaviour. Since the discoveries of neurologist Paul MacLean in the 1970s, we know that our reptilian brain is instinctive and needs to be able to trust, it seeks credibility; the limbic brain is linked to emotion, empathy, belonging, and selects what to transmit to the neocortex, which quickly evaluates and makes decisions based on the information filtered by the first two. Therefore, communicating in the correct sequence and using the appropriate semantics for the three cognitive steps is essential in order to transmit effective messages. Paolo Borzacchiello explains this very well in his latest book, Il codice segreto del linguaggio (The secret code of language, ROI Edizioni, 2019), where he analyses one of the most commonly used metaphors to recklessly describe the pandemic: war. Well, it has been proven that terms such as ‘assault’, ‘under attack’ and ‘cope’ cause adrenaline rushes, and words like ‘stuck’, ‘grope in the dark’ or ‘handbrake on’ are processed literally by the reptilian brain, causing micro shocks to the parasympathetic nervous system that ‘paralyse’ the body. That is, says Borzacchiello, they cause us great stress, creating a sense of frustration in which it becomes very difficult to make sensible decisions.

So what do you think the word ‘lockdown’ generates in us?!

Let's change the subject and tackle another extremely sensitive issue: immigration. In this case, too, if we define it as an ‘invasion’ or ‘a wave’, we trigger visceral reactions, alerting the reptilian brain, which receives the message that it must defend itself. ‘Defining immigration as a humanitarian emergency can radically shift the focus,’ writes the author, adding that the well-known American linguist and political communication analyst George Lakoff describes ‘how it is the metaphors chosen by the various political parties influence the perception of the topics proposed and therefore votes.’ I would argue that The Donald has offered us, over the last four years, a depressing and effective (to his uneducated target audience) repertoire of metaphors. If on the one hand the communication of leaders and decision-makers – political and non-political – is fundamental in guiding public opinion, on the other hand, however, we cannot ignore the responsibility each of us has in exercising active citizenship, which passes through our ability to discern and find our way through the information overload we are subjected to. And here, media literacy education comes into play, i.e. literacy and cognitive training for the media and the digital world. As Federica Spampinato argues in La nuova scienza del rischio. L'arte dell'immaginazione, della difesa e della protezione (The new science of risk. The art of imagination, defence and protection, Guerini e Associati, 2020), information responds more and more to so-called agenda setting. In essence, the media itself (and those who are behind it) decides which topics to emphasise and which not to touch. An example? Just think of ‘the television information during the COVID-19 19 pandemic, aimed at saturating viewers, polarising them now towards alarmism (which conceals sensationalism), now towards the compulsive reiteration of news and monothematic information, with the possibility of obtaining, in both cases, reactions that are not functional to the management of the social order.’ In the digital environment, then, the risks of manipulation increase dramatically and users – often and willingly – are unable to defend themselves again fake news, messages of incitement to hatred and violence, sexist, sexual and racist content, etc. According to the author, ‘the risk is not understanding that the digital world is not a digitisation of the physical world. In fact, identity dynamics change, and with them social dynamics, because they are governed by the same codes and by the same rules of context, language, communication. The relationship has changed: the entire awareness must evolve.’ An enormous job, which would require the commitment of all actors involved, generating the intergenerational dialogue necessary to create a new shared lexicon (as well as some good rules), with which to properly inhabit the digital environment. What we are experiencing, paradoxically, could be the right moment for a governed transition towards a true digital society, based on inclusive dynamics, which makes up for rather than aggravates the inequalities exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic. Certainly not the sort of tweet that the extraordinary Commissioner for the COVID-19–19 emergency, Domenico Arcuri, sent out, which read, ‘The vaccine in Italy will arrive in January, but not for everyone’. Rather, we need words like those uttered by Kamala Harris in her speech when she became Vice President–elect of the United States of America: ‘Black people, Latin Americans and indigenous people suffer and die disproportionately. This is not a coincidence. It is the effect of structural racism, of inequalities in education and technology, health and housing, job security and transport.’

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