Code Words

By Sean Carroll | January 8, 2008 1:19 pm

One of the skills that many successful politicians have is the ability to speak separately to two audiences using the same words. It used to be that you could speak to different groups by just saying different things — go visit them, and tell them what you want them to hear. But these days, the default assumption is that everything you say in every context is up on YouTube the next day, so you have to be more subtle. A great strategy, if you can master it, is to use code words — language that seems sensible but unremarkable to the majority of listeners, but carries special meaning for a particular audience. George W. Bush is a master of the technique, but both winners of last week’s Iowa caucuses have also demonstrated the ability.

For Barack Obama, the particular audience is African-Americans. He rarely brings up race directly, but continually hammers on the theme of bridging divides and bringing people together. The surface appeal is to overcoming the tensions between Blue and Red America, but the parallels with Black and White America are pretty clear. More subtly, he borrows phrases from the civil rights movement — “the fierce urgency of now” — that have powerful resonance for the people who fought in those struggles.

For Mike Huckabee, the particular audience is evangelical Christians. A good example of Huckabee’s use of code words was flagged by Josh Marshall, who picked up on the repeated use of a notion of “vertical thinking.” Without much explanation, Huckabee drops this phrase liberally into his speeches, and it is displayed prominently on his website.

Huckabee vertical thinking

What’s going on there? Marshall found explanations here and here. I suppose context has given away the secret by now, but “vertical thinking” refers to how we conceptualize the role of God as the origin of all things.

vertical thinking

“Horizontal thinking,” meanwhile, is what happens when you leave “Man” to figure it all out by himself.

horizontal thinking

Count me as a committed horizontal thinker. There’s a great benefit to recognizing that it’s we human beings who are conducting an ongoing conversation about how the world works and how we should live our lives, rather than taking instructions from a (literally) higher authority — namely, we can change our minds when we realize that we’ve been making a mistake. If we’re beholden to a set of ancient cryptic mythological texts that were all about reinforcing the prevailing norms at the time, we get stuck with vertical thinking of the form “Wives are to voluntarily submit themselves to their husbands as the head in their marriage.”

Most of we horizontal thinkers didn’t even notice Huckabee’s formulation, I’m sure. It will be interesting to see what happens if he wins another primary or two.

  • tacitus

    “Vertical thinking” sounds like one of those ugly corporate-speak concoctions like “out of the box thinking” and “six sigma”, and although I have been following the machinations of the religious right for a long time, I must admit that this is the first time I have noticed the phrase.

    Of course, since God does not exist, vertical thinking is simply wishful thinking. It may make you feel good, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

  • Nami

    Your post raises an interesting question about the “vertical thinkers” who believe they are “horizontal thinkers”. I don’t want to be specific, but I guess this kind of people are even harder to deal with than the true “vertical thinkers”.

  • Cyde Weys

    Darn, I’m a horizontal thinker like you are and I totally missed this. Code words are frightening. I bet I would miss the majority of religious code words in use today, so the politicians’ tactic against me would be successful.

  • Crosius

    “Vertical Thinking” seems to require a belief in some sort of (external, pre-ordained) “destiny,” whereas “Horizontal Thinking” seems to require the creation of one’s future by one’s actions (bootstrapping).

    Colour me a horizontal thinker.

  • Brett

    While “vertical” does seem to be a code word for some evangelicals, and Huckabee certainly knows this, he also uses the word in a slightly different sense–“vertical” as in bringing the country “up,” instead of getting caught in side-to-side, left-right political bickering.

  • the Almighty Bob

    I’m a vertical thinker – I fall asleep when I’m horizontal.
    Sorry, but it was irresistable. :-)

  • Lab Lemming

    I’m a convective thinker- vertical when too hot or cold, horizontal at other times.

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  • lylebot

    “Vertical search” is currently a buzzword in the search industry.

    Wikipedia on vertical search

    Maybe Huckabee is trying to appeal to all those Google PhDs at the same time!

  • JoAnne

    I checked out the Vertical Thought website that Sean linked to and have to admit that it is just plain scary…

  • Pseudonym

    In Australia, we refer to this (especially when applied to terms that a racist would pick up on) as “dog whistle politics”. The implication is that words and phrases act like a dog whistle: dogs can hear the noise, humans can’t.

  • Eugene

    Vertical sounds like a hot stud. Horizontal sounds like somebody who has too much beer.

  • Dr. Free-Ride

    It will be interesting to see what happens if he wins another primary or two.

    Can we please do a less scary thought experiment, like maybe talking about what could happen if lab-generated black holes escaped?

  • the Almighty Bob

    #9, lylebot
    The references on that Wikipedia page are all 2005 or younger, which tends to confirm my theory: that it’s a new buzzword on an old ‘Net concept – the specialist search engine. The joys of Web 2.0; everything old is new again! And probably in perpetual beta. 😉

  • Ian B Gibson

    Most of we horizontal thinkers didn’t even notice Huckabee’s formulation, I’m sure.

    Yeah; we’d never have known he represents the antithesis of our own world-view if not for this post, since he’s just so subtle!

    Close shave there.

  • TomC

    “Most of we”? “MOST OF WE”?

    When I saw that, I forgot what the rest of the post was about. Perhaps that’s Sean intended…

  • The Almighty Bob

    What, you’d prefer “most of us horizontal thinkers”?
    “[many, most, some, few, etc.] of we [collective noun]” is correct English.

  • Chanda

    Sean — you might want to have a look at Gary Younge’s analysis of Obama in relation to the Civil Rights movement, which was published in Monday’s Guardian (UK). Younge has a history of incisive writing about that movement and its legacy, and I think what he says is quite insightful. You can have a look here.

    When I read your entry last night, I was wondering why that rhetoric hadn’t seemed to speak to anyone in my circle who participated in those struggles, and I think this article answers that question.

  • TomC

    I disagree strongly (even though no one’s reading this thread anymore). “Of” is a preposition, the following noun of which will always take the objective case. “We are horizontal thinkers, most of whom didn’t notice Huckabee’s formulation.”

  • Sean

    TomC, I think you’re right. I wrote the “we horizontal thinkers” first, and modified it later. But I’ll leave it as it is, as we’re now the number one Google hit for “most of we”, and that can’t be bad, can it?

  • TomC

    Absolutely, Sean. No such thing as bad publicity for we horizontal thinkers.

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  • The Almighty Bob

    Thanks, TomC. It was giving me a slight itch, but I have heard it used before, and said itch has produced false positives before. I knew “most of us [whatever]” was very wrong. Perhaps I should have said “more correct.” :-)

    Of course, the correct formulation also grates slightly – but that’s merely my dislike for the passive voice( unless absolutely necessary).

  • Jeff Dickey

    @Tacitus: That in itself is an expression of faith, hence ‘vertical thinking’ in the opposite direction. Cf. Rush’s song ‘Freewill’

  • The Almighty Bob

    Um, not so much. It may be faith, but there’s no ‘vertical thinking’ to go with it. Vertical thinking, in this case, is believing everything is dictated by God (whatever that means). Rather difficult when you thoroughly believe there isn’t one….

  • Blacksmith

    I know it is difficult to consider such a notion seriously, but what kind of notoriety would a scientist gain if s/he were able to prove the existence of divinity?

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  • JimBob

    Fauth, my foot, it’s worse….

    It isn’t vertical thinking, as one word. READ, firstly. Huckster stated “…vertical [comma] who is thinking”.

    Vertical reads as a referral to being ‘upright’, like man, not primate. Period. Adding thinking, reads as a referral to said first comment, inferring that primates do not think. A slur, period.

    Good riddance to your rubbish, Huckabee. We don’t love thee.

  • The Almighty Bob

    Or there’s the direct translation: basically, “The President needs to be alive, and possibly allergic to sitting, and needs to in possession of a pair of frontal lobes”.

    Probably the only reading that accurately describes the next incumbent, too. “,)

    What a shining example of complete bullshit that statement is.

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  • squidboot

    interestingly, this use of interpellation can also be used as a means of pacing; speaking directly to a subject in such a way that (s)he becomes a split spectator, establishing the character of subsequent encounters as pertaining to a sense of defensive heightened awareness – establishing the grounds to suggest a state of trance.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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