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War Words: New Book Shows How Political Leaders Use Language

June 21, 2010 – Former President George W. Bush and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demonized one another to create sense of community at home and a sense of threat abroad, according to a new book edited by Georgetown professors.

In Words of Conflict, Words of War: How the Language We use in Political Processes Sparks Fighting (Praeger, 2010), Georgetown’s Fathali Moghaddam and Rom Harré offer a series of essays showing how heads of state ¬use language to redirect collective politics supporting conflict or peace.

Positioning Goals

Drawing on the relatively new field of positioning theory, the essays in the book provide insights into the ways words position leaders’ goals for better or worse.

Positioning “presumes the existence of a local moral order, a cluster of collectively located beliefs about what is right and good to do and say,” write Moghaddam, a professor of psychology and conflict resolution program director, and Harré, distinguished research professor, in the book's introduction.

“Looking at the way challenges to acts of positioning are handled reveals the role of deep moral principles …” they explain.

A Focus on Narratives

According to Moghaddam, the focus on narratives, from the interpersonal to the international, leads to a better understanding of political processes and conflict resolution. This analysis of positioning theory bridges both psychology and linguistics – something Georgetown’s long-standing strength in linguistics has helped to develop.

Part of the book deals with micropolitics and personal positioning, while another section explores macropolitics positioning by political parties and factions. The book shows links between both types of positioning in the leadership styles of President Barack Obama, Ahmadinejad, Bush, Sarah Palin and the Rev. Ian Paisley.

Constant and Ongoing

“Positioning does not apply to one group or one person in isolation, but is constant and ongoing,” says Moghaddam. He and Margarita Konaev, who graduated from Georgetown with a master’s in conflict resolution this year, conducted the study of Bush and Ahmadinejad.

The book also includes contributions from 19 scholars offering an international perspective on positioning, detailed case studies and an extensive reference list at the end of each chapter. William Costanza, who is pursuing a doctor of liberal studies at Georgetown and Naomi Lee, who received her doctorate in psychology from the university in 2009, are among the contributors.

This is the third positioning theory book that Moghaddam and Harré have collaborated on. The earlier titles are Global Conflict Resolution Through Positioning Analysis (Springer, 2008) and The Self and Others (Praeger, 2003).

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