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02/29/2013 on “The Middle Ground”

Kathryn talked about polarizing political talk  January 29th on internet radio. “The Middle Ground” is presented by Coffee Party USA, and covers a variety of topics on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, but always with an eye to finding the place where both sides share that ‘middle ground.’ Co-hosted by award-winning filmmaker Eric Byler and political author Michael Charney, the show airs every Tuesday 8:00 – 9:30 PM (EST).

Listen HERE (Mp3)

9/15/2012 WFMD Radio Interview

Kathryn was interviewed 9/15/2012 on “Frederick’s Forum” (WFMD.930 in Central MD) by talk show host Pattee Brown and her guest co-host, Michael Kurtianyk. Commercials have been edited out of this recording.

Full interview (MP3 format)

Article in The Chestertown Spy, 9/25/2012

Article in, 9/14/2012


The Charleston Gazette, March 27, 2012

Richard Schiffman: Political dialogue at a low
By Richard Schiffman

(Kathryn’s clarification: I studied the language of extremism in Trier (not Munich), West Germany, in 1982, ten years before I began to hear similar words being used on political talk radio in the U.S.)

From my balcony on Manhattan’s Westside, I can see the spot on the Palisades above Weehawken, N.J., where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in July, 1804. Hamilton, a Federalist, had called his Democratic-Republican adversary “a dangerous man … not to be trusted with the reins of Government.” Burr responded by challenging America’s first Secretary of the Treasury to a duel. Hamilton, mortally wounded, died the next day.

Nowadays, politicians no longer settle their scores on the dueling grounds. They reserve their best shots for debates and Sunday morning talk shows. And they don’t limit themselves to expressions of patrician contempt. Hamilton’s rebuke of Burr would scarcely register on today’s Richter scale of political insult. It would not even make it onto Fox News.

As the Republican primary season drones on, we have seen a level of rancor and character assassination rare in the team-playing GOP. Never before have so many violated Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment … thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

Should we begrudge the candidates their harmless mudslinging? Linguist Kathryn Ruud, a contributor to the book, “At War with Words,” argues that much of what we hear today is no longer harmless, but destructive of the minimal level of civility which a democracy requires to function. We should learn some lessons from our founding fathers. While they were no strangers to political controversy, Ruud says, America’s founders exercised restraint in public because “they understood the difference between the ethical and unethical use of strong language.” Nowadays this crucial distinction is being lost.

Politicians aren’t the only ones to blame. They’ve taken their cues from the tribal blogosphere and talk radio, where the battle for ratings has fueled a race to the bottom of the verbal pack. In such an environment, politicians ramp up their rhetoric to appeal to their own increasingly radicalized base. Moderate views are marginalized and America gets divided into mutually non-communicating camps, where it is OK to express hatred and contempt for ones political rivals.

History demonstrates that hate speech leads to hateful acts. The abuse of language on talk radio and elsewhere was surely a factor in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 of the the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which claimed 168 lives, and in the Tucson shootings of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others last year.

As a linguist, Kathryn Ruud traveled to Munich where she studied Hitler’s speeches in the original German. She was shaken by the chilling resemblance of his language to some of what she had been hearing on American talk radio.

Ruud is quick to add that America’s homegrown demagogues are not in the same league as the founders of National Socialism. Yet they employ many of the same verbal tricks to create revulsion in their listeners for “the other.”

Hitler, a master of dehumanization, called Jews “parasites,” “bacteria,” and “vermin,” thereby preparing the German mind for the holocaust. Limbaugh, for his part, calls liberals “maggot-infected” “parasites” and Glenn Beck refers to progressivism as “a disease,” “an infection,” “a cancer eating our constitution.”

Another of the German Fuhrer’s techniques was what Ruud calls “lexical fusion,” lumping together hated groups, however dissimilar they may be, into a single monolithic enemy. Hitler spoke of “Jewish Marxists,” and “fascist capitalists.” Rush rails against “the liberal media,” and “liberal, socialist, communists.” This vague and faceless group is made the scapegoat for all that is evil in society.

A key to brainwashing is keep it simple. Nazi information chief Joseph Goebbels wrote: “Propaganda … must always be essentially simple and repetitious. Only he will achieve basic results in influencing public opinion who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form despite the objections of the intellectuals.”

To be sure, the dumbing down of political discourse owes more to focus groups and opinion polls than the teachings of Joseph Goebbels. Political campaigns are increasingly engineered by marketing specialists who rehearse politicians in talking points, and craft negative ads to demonize their rivals. Rather than using their election year soapbox to reason and persuade, candidates now routinely play to the fears and the prejudices of the crowd. They employ fighting words designed to tap into people’s hidden wells of rage.

For all who care about the future of the American democracy, these are worrying trends.

Schiffman is author of two biographies. His work has appeared on NPR; in The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post, where he is a regular blogger.


Here, an article on Kathryn and the topic of polarizing talk, written by German journalist Sabine Muscat, published in Financial Times Deutschland, 03/19/2012

FTD has given Kathryn permission to translate and publish the article on this website. Full text below.

A Domestic War of Words

Article by Sabine Muscat, Financial Times Deutschland, March 19, 2012.

The political debate in the U.S. grows ever more hateful. One woman is trying to stop it – with warnings from German history.

Kathryn Ruud still remembers the first time she felt worried about her country. Driving one day in the summer of 1992, she turned the dial of the radio to a station, and a new voice caught her attention, someone she had not heard before: In an agitated tone, the speaker insulted his political opponents, and called them “parasites”. To Ms. Ruud, these words seemed to come from another time. The now 60 year-old had studied linguistics at university in the German town of Trier, and she knew: this is how the Nazis in the “Third Reich” had spoken. But the voice she had tuned into on the radio was not that of a Nazi. It was that of Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular right-wing radio entertainers in the U.S.

Back at her home, she climbed to the attic, and pulled a book from a box that she had brought back from Germany years ago. “Missbrauch der Sprache: Tendenzen nationalsozialistischer Sprachregelung” (The Misuse of Language: tendencies of national socialist language control”) by Siegfried Bork. She read it once again, and realized: talk show hosts like Limbaugh were employing similar methods. In the following years, she documented how extreme language began to seep into political dialogue in the U.S. – from the right as well as from the left. Last year the at-home mom and independent scholar decided she did not just want to analyze rhetoric, but rather become active as a traveling ambassador for civilized debate. To Ms. Ruud, political dialogue in the U.S. seemed to have reached a new low. “It is like a civil war, only the attacks are verbal,” she said.

Even though President Barack Obama had come into office hoping to unite the country, the political climate in the U.S. has become more poisonous than ever before. The right-wing Tea Party calls Obama a “fascist” as well as a “socialist”. The left-wing Occupy Wall Street movement agitates against “greedy” bankers. The media eagerly join the fray. Attacking from the front lines, yet again, is Rush Limbaugh. Recently, he called a Georgetown University student a “slut”, because she advocated that health plans of religiously affiliated institutions should include coverage for birth control. In this instance, at least, he apologized.

The language of polarization is not just a business model for media stars. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum regularly compares Obama’s America to Mussolini’s Italy. Democratic Representative Steve Cohen accused Republicans of spreading lies, “just like Goebbels,” about Obama’s health care reforms. As Democrat Gabby Giffords campaigned for re-election in 2010, the website of populist firebrand Sarah Palin posted a map marking Giffords’ district with crosshairs on a map. On the 8th of January, 2011, Giffords was severely injured in an assassination attempt. The shocked nation looked inward: Had rhetoric somehow prodded the mentally ill perpetrator to act out his fantasies? There seems to be no clear connection. But according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of extremist “hate groups” in the U.S., organized against government, or blacks or gays, has now climbed to 1018.

In February 2012 Ruud stood in Martinsburg’s Good Natured Market and Vegetarian Café in rural West Virginia. A white sheet on the wall served as the screen surface for her PowerPoint presentation. About 20 listeners of all ages sat at bistro tables. They wore knitted sweaters and pullovers. Most of them were participants in Occupy Martinsburg, a local offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Ruud, who lives in neighboring Maryland, has given her talk to college students and religious groups throughout the region, and she has also discussed her topic with Tea Party supporters.

With serious faces, the audience listens, as the speaker appeals to reason. “We can all live in the same country without killing each other. This is a great country, but it would be much better, if we could deal with one other in a civilized way,” she says. To demonstrate the source of her concern, Ruud gives examples from history, from the language of fascists and communists. She argues that both extremes exploit stereotypes and propaganda that twist the meanings of words and denigrate opponents through derogatory language.

Ruud shows short videos in which right- and left-wing talk show hosts label opponents “parasites” and “vermin”. Ruud says that in Germany today, it is unimaginable that someone would say such things in public. But in the U.S., this historical experience with dangerous demagoguery is missing.

Most of her examples are from right-wing talk radio shows, as these dominate over left-wing programs in both air time and intensity. But Ruud does not let the other side off the hook. She makes clear that Germany has experienced not just Nazis, but also the Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist group that kidnapped and killed prominent business figures uring the 1970s.

“Wall Street bankers are maggots,” says Ruud, an example she uses to test the audience. “Which word dehumanizes?” she asks. “The word Wall Street”, says one participant, as others laugh. Another one sounds more serious. “It doesn’t matter if it is the left or the right,” he calls out. “The truth is that all of us are being screwed by those at the top!” And so a new enemy has been identified. The self-appointed ambassador for civilized debate has much work yet to do.

Kathryn was interviewed on Feb. 21, 2012 at WSHC-FM at Shepherd University station, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Listen to interview!

Kathryn was interviewed on Feb. 22, 2012 from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. EST on local radio station WEPM (Eastern Panhandle of W.Va.)

04/12/2011 The Frederick News-Post (MD)

Linguist argues against ‘Nazi Talk’

Originally published April 12, 2011
(Web version originally published April 11, 2011, with the title “Politics needs to avoid polarizing language, says Frederick linguist” (K.R.))
By Patti S. Borda
News-Post Staff

Three dozen politically engaged people delved into dehumanizing speech to learn how to detect it, avoid it and raise the level of discourse.

Linguist Kathryn Ruud conducted a workshop Sunday sponsored by Organizing for America to teach useful strategies to use when encountering certain types of political activists in person and more often on the Internet. Ruud shared printed and audio examples of conservative and liberal propaganda.

The downward spiral to what she called “Nazi talk” occurs quite frequently on the Internet, she said, where rapidly produced blog entries and discussion threads reflect high emotions and knee-jerk responses. Her study of language leads her to the conclusion that political activists, encouraged by talk-show hosts, are employing tactics similar to those that empowered fascists in Nazi Germany.

Dehumanizing their opponents made it easier to commit horrific acts, she said.

“Extremes can take hold in democratic states,” she said. “I am quite worried. … We’ve got to find a way to tone it down.”

Polarizing language is central to propaganda, she said.

The use of polarizing language has moved from the political fringes to become a core business model among political programs, starting from — but not ending with — the conservative side, she said.

“The left is also capable of using similar strategies. We are all human. … People who think like we do are all vulnerable.”

Hateful hyperbole and bullying speech often encourage a similar response from the other side, she said.

“Everybody’s calling everybody a Nazi these days,” she said.

She has a list of techniques and words that indicate a slide into dehumanizing and unproductive conversation: references to people as insects, bacteria or diseases; assigning stereotypes to groups; blaming myriad and complex problems on a single cause or group. Ruud encourages people to recognize the behavior, call it out and defuse it by personalizing the situation, putting a human face on what is being dehumanized.

She urges people to find facts and seek the truth. Truth is hard to get from the news, said Patricia White, who was in the audience.

“It is almost impossible to get information without spin,” White said.

The Internet provides almost infinite conversation opportunities, and anyone might encounter political bullying, Ruud said. Published material does not have the gatekeepers it once did, she said.

“This is falling on our shoulders now,” Ruud said. “You are the gatekeeper.”

It does not help to gravitate toward news sources that only affirm a previously held point of view or to assume an opponent’s point of view has no merit, she said.

“We have to become more sophisticated news consumers,” she said. “It is really important to expose yourself to other points of view.”

Engaging people rather than accusing will help lift the discussion and help come to solutions, Ruud said. Those on the fringe may not respond, but most people hold some combination of conservative and liberal opinions, she said.

“Break up the downward spiral of conflicts,” Ruud said.

Mary Costello, a member of the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee, said she wanted to learn how to deal with situations that might not be as civil as she would like. She was appalled by examples Ruud shared, statements that equated social justice with Nazism and communism.

“This is so upsetting,” Costello said.


Postscript by K Ruud: There are a total of of 150 comments posted after this article, published on two dates (pixel and print) in The Frederick News Post (MD). This is a long thread, but viewers can see how I identify polarizing strategies and apply the 10 counter-strategies I discuss in the workshop (Civil citizen through Praise the positive). For your convenience, these have been placed in the following PDF file:

Annotated comments on article (PDF document)


News review of Kathryn’s Presentation Published 03/28/11

News Release on Kathryn talk / Kathryn I.D.s polarizing strategies in posted comments (PDF Document) (MD) article, March, 2011

View Article (PDF Document, created from article)

View Original Article (Will open web page)

2 Responses to Interviews/Articles

  1. Boyce Rensberger says:

    Excellent story, Kathryn. It’s great to see that you work is gaining international attention and interest. Of course, the Germans are especially sensitized to these things. One can only hope that Americans will develop a similar sensitivity.

    Thank you for your good work to serve our country.


    • Stop Polarizing Talk says:

      Your comment is deeply appreciated, Boyce. Viktor Klemperer, a German Jew who documented the increased use of extremist language in interwar Germany in a diary, and the changes in behaviors he witnessed, wrote of the need for citizens to counter such language. These polarizing strategies are enemies of democracy. They must be identified, and resisted. This is everyone’s business, everyone’s responsibility.

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