Scholars of language and rhetoric have for long identified certain words and expressions that instinctively evoke warm fuzzy feelings in people, that effortlessly sway opinions, and that galvanize people into action. The words are often so broad and so semantically indeterminate that anyone can read any positive meaning into them. In other words, they are clean semantic slates on which people inscribe whatever positive attributes they want.
American rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke called such words “god terms.” In his book titled A Grammar of Motives, Burke describes god terms as the “names for the ultimates of motivation.” They are words that are unquestioningly sanctified by a cultural community, which inspire and drive them to act in a certain way.
Another American rhetorician by the name of Richard Weaver expanded on Burke’s notion of god terms. In his book titled The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver defined a “god term” as a “rhetorical absolute” with “inherent potency,” that is, an inherently vague term that most people in a society, culture, and age associate with affirmative attributes and for which they are prepared to make sacrifices.
Words like “justice,” “democracy,” “progress,” “accountability,” “good governance,” “transparency,” “change,” etc. are examples of god terms. They are vague enough to defy semantic precision yet likeable enough to attract positive cognitive and emotional associations. The words are used by public relations experts, advertisers, politicians, and other kinds of professionals in the mind management industry to persuade people to pursue predetermined courses of actions such as buying a product, voting for a candidate, having a certain kind of opinion or attitude toward a person, a company, or a cause.
God terms are often so universally positive that their underlying assumptions are undisputed, even if they are ill-defined. Who argues with “progress”? Who doesn’t want “justice”? Who resists “democracy”? Who rejects the virtues of “good governance”? Who doesn’t cherish “transparency”? However, although our culture predisposes us to automatically process these terms as invariably positive, we have no precise meanings of the terms, and that’s why they are powerful instruments of persuasion. The best propaganda is one that isn’t suspected as one, and that creatively taps from the cultural consensus of the society.
But there is also something called the “devil term.” A devil term is a word that evokes revulsion in us, that dislocates our sense of emotional balance, and that mindlessly activates negative feelings in us. The most popular devil term of the last two decades is the word “terrorism”—and its many inflectional extensions such as “terrorist,” “terroristic,” “terrorize,” etc.
In Nigeria, “sentiments,” “tribalistic,” “unpatriotic,” etc. have become devil terms. The painfully idiotic expression “wailing wailer” (or “wailer,” which simply means a critic of President Buhari) has also now become a devil term among hordes of low-wattage Buhari partisans on social media.
God terms that are overused, that have exhausted their persuasive power, or that have reached the end of their rhetorical shelf life can transmogrify into devil terms. For example, in the United States, “liberal” went from being a god term to a devil term, no thanks to the propaganda of conservatives who successfully cast liberals as unpatriotic. Now politically and culturally liberal Americans call themselves “progressives.”
Even in northern Nigeria, “liberal” has transmuted from a god term into a devil term. This connotational transmutation explains why Kaduna State changed its license-plate slogan from “liberal state” to “center of learning.”
The term “politically correctness” used to be a god term. It meant social sensitivity, especially in language use, toward marginal groups in the society. Now it has become a devil term that means underhand, Orwellian censorship of free speech.
“Change” as a God Term
The term “change” is historically a powerful god term in politics. It is thought to have endless rhetorical utility, and its invocation especially in moments of great national stress can be enormously potent. A few examples from US political history illustrate this.
Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign slogan was, “Some People Talk Change, Others Cause It.” He lost to his opponent, Richard Nixon, by a painfully narrow margin—what some analysts called by “seven-tenths of a percentage point.” Well, perhaps it was because Humphrey was the incumbent vice president who represented the old order, or because he was ambivalent about change. He dismissed people who “talked” about it and cast himself as someone who “caused” it.
God terms are supposed to be vague and devoid of concreteness to be effective. Voters’ material conditions probably reminded them that the government Humphrey was a part of didn’t “cause” the kind of “change” they identified with, so they chose to stick with “some people who talk change,” even if it was an indeterminate change.
In 1976 Jimmy Carter won election as America’s 39th president, and his campaign slogan was, “A Leader, For a Change.” However, his administration came to be beset by runaway inflation and a biting recession, much like Buhari’s is shaping up to be, and he became thoroughly unpopular by the end of his first term. Ronald Reagan defeated him in a landslide in 1980 with the campaign slogan, “Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?”
In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan, “It’s Time to Change America,” resonated with Americans, and helped him to handily defeat George Bush Sr., ending 12 uninterrupted years of Republican rule.
Sixteen years later, Barack Obama reengaged with the persuasive arsenal of “change” with the slogan “Change We Can Believe In” (or just “Change”), and won a massive victory against John McCain.
In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari caused an unprecedented political upset by defeating an incumbent president through his deployment of the “change” slogan.
When “Change” Becomes a Devil Term
Judging from the vast disillusionment that the Buhari administration has instigated in Nigerians so far, “change” may become a “devil term” in Nigeria by 2019, if it hasn’t already become one.
Change has now come to be associated with lies, deceit, hypocrisy, double standards, endless whining and blame shifting by people in government, descent from bad to worse in living conditions, incompetence in high places, unpreparedness, astonishing elite insensitivity, economic and social bondage, pauperization, reverse Robin Hoodism (which I once defined as robbing of the poor to enrich the rich), personalization of power, extreme nepotism and provincialism, facile and arrogant disavowal of promises made during campaigns, etc.
These are all attributes the current “change” administration embodies in colossal measure, which will certainly cause the “change” slogan to become irretrievably damaged in Nigeria’s linguistic, rhetorical, and political landscape.
Perhaps the greatest violence to the notion of “change” in Nigeria is the “ChangeBeginsWithMe” campaign whose conception and execution ironically undermine its very notional core. The campaign was irreparably marred by two grave legal and ethical infractions that bordered on barefaced intellectual theft. The concept itself is the appropriation of somebody’s copyright. That’s a legal infraction. The speech that formally introduced it to Nigerians plagiarized an entire paragraph from Obama’s speech. That’s an ethical infraction.
The campaign has now deservedly become the object of scorn, derision and anger, especially because government officials who champion it are steeped in the old ways while calling people who are already down and out to “change.”
An old woman I spoke to in Nigeria last Friday, who is a staunch Buhari supporter, captured Buhari’s “change” this way: Unhappy occupants of a leaky house hired the services of a new builder (Buhari) to repair their roof. The builder decided to take down the entire roof in order to rebuild it. But after taking the roof down, the builder is out of his depth, and has no clue how to put it together again.
Now he blames everything and everybody— from his tools to previous builders who put the roof together—for his incompetence and cluelessness. Meanwhile, the occupants of the house who thought being wet from their leaky roof during rains was bad now have to contend with being thoroughly drenched from the rains since they now have no roof at all.
No one in Nigeria will ever campaign again on a platform of “change.” The word is now an irredeemably damaged slogan. Its persuasive content has been depleted. When next a politician or a political party promises “change,” people would most certainly ask: What “change” do you mean? Change from what to what? From bad to worse? Or change in the faces of people in power while the same old order of corruption, cronyism, nepotism, impunity, intolerance, bigotry stays intact? Is this another bait and switch?
When people begin to ask for the precise meaning of a god term you know it’s no longer one. Or, worse, when a term evokes fear and trepidation in people, you know it has graduated to a devil term. “Change” is becoming a devil term in Nigeria. When Richard Weaker said in the 1950s that “a society’s health or declension was mirrored in how it used language,” he came across as overly linguistically deterministic. The story of “change” in Nigeria instantiates his assertion.