Style-shifting and narrative manipulation

Politicians everywhere are reshaping narratives and distorting priorities for political self-promotion or preservation.

 A winding road: The roundabout, manipulative nature of political discourse. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
A winding road: The roundabout, manipulative nature of political discourse.
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
One of the valuable assets possessed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is his impeccable English. But few people notice his ingenious use of accent variation as he addresses different audiences. When speaking on CNN, he uses his American accent, while when publicly addressing Congress he brilliantly cloaks it with a distinct Hebrew accent.
“Style-shifting” means deliberate intra-speaker variation in accent, dialect, tone or mannerisms, aimed at controlling the level of solidarity and intimacy according to a specific target audience and desired effect.
We all do it subconsciously on a daily basis. For instance, we don’t speak to our spouses the same way we do to colleagues at work.
Politicians do it as a trick of the trade. Under the guidance of well paid PR advisers, they try to tailor their public image and convey precision- guided messages.
George Orwell said it more bluntly: “Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
A commonly used style-shift in Israel is adding Baruch Hashem (“Thank God”) when trying to appeal to traditionally oriented voters.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog has been recently trying to boost his image as a worthy opponent to Netanyahu. However, his reading slogans in a tough, high-pitched voice fails to convey the desired impression and seems unnatural and ineffective.
Some politicians are masters at playing the crowd, and US politics offers the best examples. Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and even George W. Bush are masters of style-shifting. The audience dictates whether a Southern drawl will be put to use, a “black preacher” mode switched on, or an evangelical touch applied.
Politicians not only proactively attune their style, but shape their agenda as well. Sometimes they tailor-make their political platform according to the people they are trying to influence, and many times they simply tell different things to different audiences so that everybody is happy.
There are many Western examples, but they are relatively subtle and implicit compared to the ways of the Middle East.
Iranian leaders don’t spare harsh Farsi words when calling for Israel’s annihilation, while sweet-talking in English for the international media. Even their facial expressions are totally different, and their smiles are truly engaging and convincing.
We are shocked to see this deceptive behavior, and try to expose their true face and intent to the world. But isn’t it true that politicians everywhere are doing the same?
I recently attended an IDF ceremony at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, and happened to meet a senior Jordanian official who was touring the historic site where both our armies bravely fought a bitter battle in June 1967.
To an outsider, our warm and friendly conversation may have seemed out of place, considering the fact that his king had just said that Israel was “slaughtering children in Gaza and Jerusalem every five minutes.”
But he knew, as did I, that the king had not really meant it.
I would argue that most of what we see about Israeli-Jordanian relations in the media is for appearance only. The Hashemite Kingdom has internal and external challenges, and is bound to this form of expression in order to keep it all in check.
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is a master of style-shifting. To his people, in Arabic, he voices the most venomous incitement toward Israel, instilling hatred and promoting violence. But in English, he rejects terror, and promotes compromise and peace. The English versions are the ones regularly quoted by the White House.
Abbas isn’t stupid. He knows very well that there is no “assault on Jerusalem and the Aksa Mosque.”
He also does not want an all-out intifada, as the head of Shin Bet recently explained. But he’s a politician, so he balances his messaging, and plays his people to garner support.
Nobody really thinks that Israel is trying to change the status quo in Al-Aksa, and certainly no one in his right mind believes that there is a secret plot to destroy it and build the Third Temple. Yet Arab leaders throughout the Middle East use these narratives to promote their political agenda.
It’s what their people expect to hear. It’s what makes them appear strong, and it’s what helps them stay in power.
Another obvious and extreme example is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Listening to his rhetoric toward Israel, one might think that the man has lost his mind. But he’s only being a politician.
Of course he doesn’t think that Israel is attempting a “systematic genocide” in Gaza. But his cost-benefit calculations allow him to lose points with his NATO partners, and even seem a little crazy, in order to rally up support from millions who will see him as the champion of the Muslim world and rebuilder of the Ottoman Empire.
Understanding this phenomenon explains a lot of the seemingly strange behavior of political leaders everywhere.
This is true even with our closest of friends. We keep getting disappointed every time statements by US officials do not perfectly align with Israeli policy. We must understand that the US possesses global responsibilities and considerations.
Secretary of State John Kerry has no choice but to speak vaguely and diplomatically, for he is addressing a wide circle of countries and conflicting interests.
The same logic can explain much of the political turmoil in Israel.
From Naftali Bennett on the Right to Zehava Gal-On on the Left, it seems like everyone is trying to portray a boosted image of himself in the eyes of his voters. The result – if you ask me – is awkward and pathetic.
Does Bennett not understand the negative ramifications of his attacks on the US administration? Maybe, just like Erdogan, he knowingly sacrifices in the diplomatic arena in order to gain support from his right-wing constituency?
But the wizard of narrative manipulation is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent months I have been repeatedly disappointed by his belligerent and demagogic statements relating to instability in Jerusalem and riots in Arab villages.
We deserved acts of leadership and proactive promotion of conciliation, but instead we got a politically driven agenda, constructed mainly for the ears of Likud voters.
Just like Abbas, Erdogan and Abdullah, Netanyahu seems to be dominated by political constraints, and the need to direct his policies toward a prime target audience.
A case in point, why has Netanyahu made the disputed “Jewish state” bill his flagship agenda in the midst of all this turmoil? I believe that there is a need to define the national foundations of our homeland. But this rushed, aggressive and politicized manner is no way to promote such a fundamental and sensitive issue.
How was it even possible for the prime minister to invest so much time in reviewing and debating the legislation, with all the burning internal and external challenges? It seems like a misappropriation of his resources toward political campaigning, at the expense of much-needed leadership.
The only answer I can find to explain what seems like Netanyahu’s irresponsibility, insensitivity and stubbornness is that our political system leads him to divert his efforts from national priorities to political survival.
Another example is Yair Lapid’s stubbornness in holding on to his widely criticized zero-VAT plan.
A wise leader would have valued the advice of his financial experts and withdrawn, but apparently political ego trumps value-based leadership.
The shameful political circus leading to the disintegration of Netanyahu’s government has not been based on deep concern for national causes, but political and personal intrigues. Israeli political demography will not change overnight, so the same bunch will now play musical chairs, and play us with shallow campaigning and narrative manipulation.
What are we to make of all this?
The good news is that we don’t need to take everything so seriously. When someone sounds stupid, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he is.
The bad news is that politicians everywhere are reshaping narratives and distorting priorities for political self-promotion or preservation.
Sadly, millions of people believe them and are led to actions based on a distorted image of reality.
I will not end with optimism this time, but only quote from the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel: “Bestow Your light and truth upon its leaders, ministers, and advisers, and grace them with Your good counsel before You.”
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.