Talk Decoded

a blog about the power of language in politics

“Digong” and “the Donald”

“Digong” and “the Donald”

The Indiscreet Charm of Informality in Politics

 Illustration by Joy Lau

Illustration by Joy Lau

Due to the obvious differences in terms of context, power, and global significance, it is difficult to compare the current President of the Philippines, Rodrigo R. Duterte, and the US Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (known to their supporters as “Digong" or “Rody" and “the Donald”, respectively). Yet, there is a compelling reason to discuss the two politicians together. Both Duterte and Trump have caused outrage, both locally and globally, with their offensive and vulgar communication styles.

During the presidential campaign in 2015, Duterte bragged about using Viagra, called the Pope a “son of a whore”, joked that as mayor “I should have been first” in the gang rape of a Christian missionary during a brutal jailbreak in which she was later murdered, and said about criminals “if I have to kill you, I'll kill you. Personally.” In office, Duterte told Barack Obama to “go to hell” when the US President criticized him for the thousands killed in an anti-drug crackdown, said “fuck you” to the European Union when they also raised human rights concerns, and even compared himself to Hitler to threaten drug dealers and users in his country with “slaughter”. 

Donald Trump labeled Mexican immigrants “rapists”, referred to the leaders of China as “motherfuckers”, called on a ban on Muslims entering the US, insulted disabled people, said of a critical female television presenter: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever…” Before becoming a presidential candidate, Trump told publicly to a contestant in a reality TV show that it “must be a pretty picture you dropping to your knees.” In a recently leaked video from 2005, Trump bragged he could kiss and grope women without their consent and even “fuck” them because “when you are a star they will let you do it”. 

Although these comments generated national and international outrage, both politicians enjoy significant public support. Duterte won the Philippine presidency in May 2016 with a clear plurality, with his popularity rocketing to over 90% once he took office in June. According to opinion polls, Trump has often only narrowly trailed Hillary Clinton in the national polls and has even been leading in some traditionally Democrat states. Why? 

A number of reasons have been offered for their popularity, including their policies, programs and the current political, economic, and cultural context. This article explores why their communication strategies have been widely considered to be effective despite their vulgarity. It highlights how an obscure language-related trend, the lack of style-shifting, has helped covertly boost the popularity of Duterte and Trump.  

Informal vs Formal Speech  

By early adulthood, people acquire the common codes and norms of behavior of their societies. Our socialization involves learning key linguistic skills. Among these, style-shifting enables us to adjust our speech to different situations. The ways we talk with a friend and our boss are different. A family dinner and a public talk call for distinct speech styles. To use the terms introduced by the American linguist William Labov, we are conditioned to opt for an informal language in casual, relaxed settings and to shift to a formal speech style when we speak publicly. 

Informal language tends to be loose, filled with incomplete sentences and containing words — sometimes even swear words — that we would not say publicly. Talking to family and friends, we also tend to jump from one topic to another quickly, paying little attention to the coherence of our speech. By contrast, when speaking in official and public situations, we aim to speak in a grammatically correct fashion, we are careful in our word choice and strive for accuracy and consistency.

Although style-shifting is voluntary, most people do it automatically, without thinking. We also expect others to engage in style-shifting with similar ease. This expectation can make us slightly suspicious when we listen to professional public speakers, such as politicians. We presume that the bigger the audience people face, the more attention they will pay to their discourse. Most of us also know that politicians aim to influence us through their talk, relying on the help of PR and communication experts. Therefore, in the case of politicians, we take it for granted that they engage in heavy style-shifting, speaking differently in everyday and public life.

However, Duterte and Trump’s rhetoric generally runs counter to the public’s expectations of style-shifting. They are speaking from the political stage but are using the language of the “backstage”. Indeed, the communication style of the two politicians is characterized by its radical informality.

“Backstage Rhetoric”  

Duterte and Trump’s “backstage rhetoric” is filled with offensive comments and vulgar words — both politicians frequently swear in public. What they say is often incoherent, jumping randomly from one topic to another, regularly leaving their sentences unfinished. Duterte does not even seem to bother to prepare for his speeches by at least double-checking some basic historical facts. For example, when recently comparing himself to Hitler, he claimed that “3 million Jews” were killed during the Holocaust while actually an estimated 6 million Jewish victims perished. Fact checkers have had a field day with Donald Trump’s untruisms, with Politfact even claiming 91% of Trump’s statements are partly or completely false.

Usually the lack of style-sifting is not tolerated. A person who uses the “f-word” during an office presentation is likely to be fired. A student who is disrespectful of a teacher is likely to be thrown out of class. However, there are some trickier cases when the lack of style-shifting can actually be an advantage. The rhetoric of Duterte and Trump exemplifies this trend.

Implications

By cultivating an informal way of speaking, Duterte and Trump can shape their listeners’ thinking in unexpected ways. Without being aware of it, listeners can be unconsciously influenced by the fact that the speeches of Duterte and Trump are filled with incomplete sentences. Other components, like vulgarity which generates a sense of informality, are more explicit. As a result, people may decode the public rhetoric of these politicians as actual informal speech. This has at least four important implications. 

(1) By resisting a shift from informal to formal speech style in public situations, Duterte and Trump create the impression that they are genuine, honest politicians who speak their mind instead of strategically manipulating their audience. 

(2) The lack of style-shifting also provides an important background for these politicians’ agendas. Through radical informality, Duterte and Trump can present themselves as outspoken, brave, and even heroic politicians who dare to say what is usually left unsaid and liberate their people. Duterte still speaks like a tough talking local mayor (a label which, despite now being president, he still often uses when referring to himself). He also uses expletives when referring to foreign officials (Obama and UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon) or foreign governments or entities like the EU criticizing his violent anti-drug campaign in the name of restoring Philippine “dignity” on the international stage. Trump’s “backstage rhetoric” portrays political correctness as “censorship” and demonstrates with his own discourse that it is possible to confront and fight it.

(3) By resisting the style-shift, Duterte and Trump show that they are different from most other politicians. Their “backstage rhetoric” allows them to present themselves as political figures who side with the people and not with other politicians. As Duterte himself put it: “I really speak that way because I came from a poor family” (although in reality Duterte comes from a middle class family with strong political connections — his father was governor of Davao province). The powerful and rich Donald Trump also appears to be a “layperson” in the American context due to his radically informal speech style. Unsurprisingly, an expert argued that people think “he’s saying what we are saying at the coffee table.”  Trump was also described as “a rare politician who speaks in plain English.” 

(4) While shocking many people, the “backstage rhetoric” of Duterte and Trump entertains crowds. Major political figures who break the common, expected norms of style-shifting, can be perceived as unusual and “funny”. A reporter who covered Duterte’s campaign wrote: “Believe it or not, it’s his cursing that never fails to generate laughter even in formal, upscale settings.” In fact it is not despite but exactly because of the context that Duterte’s cursing makes people laugh. 

 Illustration by Joy Lau

Illustration by Joy Lau

Evading Responsibility

Our linguistic socialization is an imprinting process, the effects of which cannot be changed easily. The reception of the recently leaked recording in which Donald Trump brags in 2005 about sexually harassing women demonstrates this tendency well. The video caused a kind of “moral panic” among several prominent Republican leaders in the US. The leaked recording undermined their ability to play down Trump’s rhetoric as exaggerated but harmless. This is also due to the fact that Trump’s misogynist words (including his explicit mention of female genitalia) were recorded in an informal setting — backstage and not onstage. With the “Access Hollywood” video Trump’s words suddenly seemed all too real. 

Downplaying the significance of the leaked video, Trump labelled it “locker-room talk”. Similarly, Duterte has dismissed outrage over his rape joke and other sexist language as overblown: “You judge me, not by the cuss words, epithets, and curses that you hear. Judge me for what I stand for, the values that I hold dear.” On such occasions, the two politicians evoke a false but culturally deep-seated dichotomy between doing and saying things (“actions speak louder than words”). This defense strategy belongs to the informal, private realm as well. It is appropriate to apologize to a friend after an impulsive, heated debate, by saying “I didn’t really mean it”, it just “slipped out,” “you know I’m actually not like that”. The same arguments uttered publicly by powerful politicians concerning their deeply disturbing words, can be considered as highly inappropriate attempts to evade responsibility. 

Given Trump’s sexual predation with a number of women who say Trump had groped them coming forward to the American media in recent weeks, and Duterte’s “sticking to his guns” in carrying out his campaign promise to wage a violent “war on drugs” that has resulted in 4,400 killings as of mid-October — their denial of personal culpability appears absurd. Yet, a large number of supporters continue to be charmed by the familiar informality of their political discourses.

 

This article was co-authored by Anna Szilagyi and Mark R. Thompson.

Mark R. Thompson is a Professor of Politics and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Center at City University of Hong Kong.

Political Correctness Wanted Dead or Alive

Political Correctness Wanted Dead or Alive

Mighty Words

Mighty Words