On Intersectionality and “The Code”: Did AOC “Switch” or Pander Using the “Plain Folks” Fallacy?

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

In the last year or so I’ve occasionally heard the comeback “Learn to code” in the context of advice given to millennials regarding how to get on in the social and/or political world.

At first I thought this referred to learning computer technology, if I gave it much thought at all. But recently, I learned that “code” is a shortened version of what linguists call “code-switching,” which means to speak the language (the vernacular, including accent and cadence) of the audience one is addressing if it is not one’s normal way of speaking. In the context of code-switching for business or political gain, it is known as pandering.

Code-switching occurs several ways: by triggering back to one’s native linguistic culture, by education on how to speak in a certain manner (for, say, an acting job), or by affectation. However, and to my focus in this post, when code-switching happens suddenly in, say, a political rally, it becomes highly suspect.

I believe an illustration of the suspect kind of code-switching occurred recently when freshman U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez suddenly changed her native east coast, middle class vernacular to a southern dialect when speaking to a room full of African-Americans at the National Action Network’s yearly meeting in New York. (Not unlike the switch Hillary Clinton employed when she told a crowd of predominantly southern Blacks back in 2007, “I don’t feel no ways tired,” in a slow, thickly accented drawl.) AOC received a number of negative responses to her own speech change and angrily explained, in several tweets, she was just code-switching.

It occurred to me that this kind of code-switching might be closely linked to another modern term, “intersectionality” which is formally defined as “an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.[1] Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, religion, creed, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are woven together” (Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw quoted here).

Why the association?

If politics, specifically the identity politics of this era,  is about how many intersectional groups one fits into and/or relates to (and it seems the more the better), if you are a smart, ambitious politician, you will want to learn how to appeal to as many groups in those demographics as you can.

One way is to employ the propaganda technique known as “plain folks,” including appropriating the diction of your audience if necessary. This technique is defined as follows, from here:

Plain folks

“Plain Folks” is a form of propaganda and is…a fallacy. A Plain Folks argument is one in which the speaker presents him or herself as an Average Joe, a common person who can understand and empathize with a listener’s concerns. The most important part of this appeal is the speaker’s portrayal of themselves as someone who has had a similar experience to the listener, and knows why they may be skeptical or cautious about accepting the speaker’s point of view. In this way, the speaker gives the audience a sense of trust and comfort, believing that the speaker and the audience share common goals and that they thus should agree with the speaker. Also using an “ordinary background,” such as a park or a building, depending on the item you are advertising, will usually give it a higher possibility of more customers.

So it helps to employ the (linguistic) codes of each of the groups.

The better to persuade them by.

But if you use the plain folks fallacy to do so, don’t be surprised if you get some ribbing–and maybe alienate a number of your constituents, or hoped-for constituents, as well,  because such a sudden code switch can sound not only affected but also disingenuous.

And it strikes many listeners not as switching back to your previous linguistic culture (or perhaps a culture you would like people to believe you come from) but as blatant pandering.

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