Persuasion we live by: symbols, metaphors and linguistic strategies

Benedetta Baldi, University of Florence

Persuasive discourse, typically in political communication, implies arousing adherence. Persuasion aims to bring out a shared semantic territory in the audience, a common, often hidden or unconscious, worldview. Naturally, persuasion is the privilege of a person someway associated with signs denoting “power, commitment, fairness, and social attractiveness”.

Substantially, persuasion is a cognitive process triggered or implemented by messages capable to influencing the attitudes of persons and their representation of the world. Thus, language of persuasion involves linguistic and pragmatic tools effective in influencing the collective imaginary and the feelings and beliefs of the people.

Argumentative and rhetorical devices, metaphors, the structure of the sentence, lexical selection, symbols and images contribute to achieving persuasive effects by evoking a common cognitive ground as the basic dimension of legitimization and identity.

This theoretical framework is tested on the basis of the political communication of some leaders which played or currently play an important role in the past or current Italian politics, such as Mussolini, De Gasperi, Togliatti, Berlusconi, Salvini and others.

Their rhetorical choices and the symbols they rely on will be analyzed with the purpose of investigating the concealed or implicated semantics of their messages. Defining persuasive communication, and specifically persuasive discourse, implies eliciting compliance. In this direction, Bülow-Møller (2005: 28) recalls that persuasion aims at creating a common ground, a sort of “shared territory” favoring possible “common visions and solutions”. Together, persuasion is the privilege of a person connoted by “linguistic signals denoting power, commitment, fairness, and social attractiveness”.

So, persuasion is a cognitive process responding to the communication of a message whereby interlocutors or an audience change their “attitudes or behavior regarding an issue” (Perloff 2003: 34). According to Perloff (2003: 8) persuasion includes linguistic and non-verbal symbols and involves the deliberate intention to influence. Moreover:

People persuade themselves to change attitudes or behavior. Communicators provide the arguments’ and the influence is freely accepted by the receiver. Self-persuasion is the crucial mechanism. It is no accident if theoretical models foreground the crucial role of the audience, in other words they are concerned with ‘how sender and receiver come together to create a shared reality. (Borchers 2013: 17)

Persuasion is, ultimately, the “coproduction of meaning”, the issue that this contribution aims to investigate along the lines of analysis in Baldi (2017, 2019).Is a very special use of language necessary for persuasion to take place? Virtanen and Halmari (2005: 5) note that an intrinsic property of language use is being persuasive, since any linguistic interaction entails some sort of change in the thought of interlocutors. However, persuasion strictu sensu is associated with “linguistic choices that aim at changing or affecting the behaviour of others or strengthening the existing beliefs and behaviors of those who already agree”.

As underlined by Sperber and Wilson (1996: 57–58) the interpretation of a linguistic act combines the content of a proposition with the propositional attitude of the communicator and the implementation of implicatures and inferences:

informative intention is better described as an intention to modify directly not the thoughts but the cognitive environment of the audience. The actual cognitive effects of a modification of the cognitive environment are only partly predictable.

This definition of the way in which language influences the informative contents of interlocutors seems to be suitable to characterize the basic effect of persuasive language in “strengthening” the beliefs and symbolic universe of the audience rather than changing their thinking and behavior. This to say that persuasion, however conceived, is a property inherent in the way of using language by humans, insofar as natural language semantics is based on and mediated by mental operations (Chomsky 1988, 2004, 2005) underlying the conceptualization of experience and the world. Turning to political language, a longstanding question is how it is able to change or re-elaborate the worldview of persons, and affect their beliefs and values. Naturally, we know that linguistic expressions have the effect of transferring pieces of a semantic representation into the mind/brain of the recipient, insofar as speaker and hearer share the common language faculty and a common conceptual model of the world and the mind. The point, here, is how, through the ability to interpret a sentence, in the particular language known by the interlocutors, the ideas of one can (possibly) migrate into the worldview of the other. We move here at the interface between linguistic knowledge (I(nternal)-language) as establishing a specific lexical-syntactic level of meaning, and the use of language in discourse, where the intentions of the speaker shape a particular representation of reality. More to the point, the sharing of thoughts and beliefs is the result of the communicative process, whereas linguistic expressions, in themselves, do not imply the strict correspondence of meanings and sounds in the speaker and the recipient, as highlighted by Chomsky (2000: 30):

Successful communication between Peter and Mary [two interlocutors] does not entail the existence of shared meanings or shared pronunciations in a public language (or a common treasure of thoughts or articulations of them), any more the physical resemblance between Peter and Mary entails the existence of a public form that they share.


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University of Florence

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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

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