Messages as ‘cultural resources’

When the Trump campaign tweets, it seems to be a progressive instinct to reply “But facts!” But the point of a political message is not its truth value but what it does. Trump’s on-message tweets — when he’s not whining like a manbaby about his press — often seek to furnish his supporters with replies to common objections to his presidency that come up in everyday face-to-face discourse. ‘Oh, that judge in the Trump University case? I heard he’s Mexican, soo…’

For now, I am tentatively locating the empirical component of my PhD within linguistic anthropology. Here’s how Alessandro Duranti distinguishes that field from others:

What is unique about linguistic anthropology lies somewhere else, namely, in its interest in speakers as social actors, in language as both a resource for and a product of social interaction, in speech communities as simultaneously real and imaginary entities whose boundaries are constantly being reshaped and negotiated through myriad acts of speaking. (source)

‘Language as a resource for social interaction’ is a useful way of thinking about political messages. For instance, in a discussion panel I convened last year as part of the RegNet Conversations series on resistance, I argued that the Trump and Brexit votes can be understood, at least in part, as protest against bipartisan political support for neoliberal social and economic policy.

Just yesterday, my local member Andrew Leigh e-mailed his constituents about ‘the progressive case for competition’, in which he argued that ‘uncompetitive markets are a key driver of rising wage inequality’. The progressive side of politics has failed to offer working and welfare class voters cultural resources to protest the impacts of globalisation in ways that don’t draw on existing vocabularies of anti-immigration, sexism and racism.

I think we’re all a bit sick of reading think-pieces about the Trump result. Here’s a different example: recent articles have reported on research that argues that moderate drinking confers a health benefit. This is a classic example of a message — a cultural resource that can be used, in this case, stored away and recalled when needed in order to question future messages about alcohol being a health risk.

Outside Richmond Station in Melbourne (Andrew Sampson, Sep 2011)

‘Messaging’ is a key tool of lobby groups. In the case of the alcohol research, there was an article recently by Professor Charles J Holahan from a prestigious university in the United States, which did not disclose any conflicting interests. Reading his faculty bio, however, revealed that much earlier in his career, he had accepted funding from the ‘ABMRF/Foundation for Alcohol Research’.

holahan bio.PNG


The Foundation describes its approach in these words:

The Foundation’s unique partnership between academia and industry grew out of a shared concern over the lack of factual information about the health effects of alcohol for the vast majority of consumers who drink in moderation. (…)  Established scientists formulated epidemiologic studies to understand the effects of moderate consumption of alcohol. (source; my emphasis)

In fact, the ABMRF makes a point of funding early career researchers:

  • Highest priority is given to young investigators, new to the field or trained in the field, to start a new line of independent research. 
  • The next level of priority is given to investigators outside alcohol research bringing an innovative idea to the field. 
  • Lowest priority is given to established investigators in the alcohol research field unless the application offers an extraordinary new idea. (source)

The study I read recently might not have been funded by this foundation, but for the researcher who led the study, receiving this funding early in his career may have increased the likelihood of him continuing to work on the issue of moderate drinking — and publishing results that confirm, rather than overturn, his earlier findings.

Funding research that focuses on moderate drinking almost guarantees a steady stream of research publications and news coverage of studies finding little harmful impact from alcohol usage. (Bernard Keane is convinced by this data. Actual experts, not so much.)

The political effect of this stream of research is to support the moralising framing adopted by the Australian industry lobby for licensed establishments, suggesting the problem is individuals making unhealthy choices, rather than the widespread availability of cheap drinks.

For me, this is a nice example of why the “But facts!” response misses the point of political messaging. The message can be true and still have effects that we might want to challenge.