Get Better At Using Progressive Language – A Series

Since I have some new followers recently, I thought I’d mention and recommend my ongoing series (nine articles so far) on Progressive Language. Originally published in Fall of 2011, the topics are still as juicy and topical as ever. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on this topic – it’s a critical conversation as we head into the final lap for the November elections.

This set of articles – which will be growing over time – is meant to form the basis for a cookbook for improving progressive political communication. (And when I say “book” I’m not speaking metaphorically. More on that over the next few weeks!)

Occupy Wall Street is Telling a Morally Compelling Story

(OMG – had the link to Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk wrong! Fixed now.)

One reason the “Occupy” movement has resonated so well is that they are NOT making an “enlightenment-type” argument, with positions and statements and platforms. Instead, it’s a lot of people (group members, “people just like us”), sharing their stories (stories are much better for engaging other people), and showing how fairness has been violated, how authority (such as the Bible and the law, and of course how local police have often been seen as oppressive) has been violated, and showing how purity and sanctity have been violated (e.g., by doing a great job of cleaning up after themselves).

The story of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) – both from the OWS movement itself, as well as the attacks against it  – is totally aligned with Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy of moral dimensions (link to excellent TED Talk) that I talked about in a previous post. (The dimensions are fairness, harm/safety, group membership, respect for authority, and a purity/sanctity dimension – liberals often focus on the first two and give short shrift to the last three). Looking at the OWS story, we see the following:

  • The “We are the 99%” message creates an “us vs. them” situation where more or less everyone can be “us,” and the “them” is a small but immensely powerful and privileged group. It’s a very effective story – nearly everyone can look at their paycheck and say “Oh, I’m definitely not making $1 million per year, and I’m a long way from that, too.”
  • And their own actions – cleaning up after themselves, being non-violent – is clearly respectful and sanctimonious, in the good sense of the word. They are clearly taking care of their environment, playing by the rules, cleaning up after themselves, and all that. So the purity/sanctity thing is happening.
  • Of course fairness is at the heart of the argument, and they’re all over that.
  • Their “respect for authority” is kind of a mixed bag – an area where they can maybe do a little better, honestly, but the underlying things are there. They have been working with the police and city halls – that’s the local authority. I think the Ten Commandments and its “Thou Shall Not Steal” is hugely resonant in this story – depicting the “them” as thieves is incredible positioning. And there are the laws and regulations – “we’re just asking for the laws to be enforced” kind of thing, about the financial regulations.

On the other hand, the attacks on OWS from the right wing can teach us a lot about how the experts on the other side make use of the same dimensions (relatively unsuccessfully in this case). First of all, the OWS people are accused of being hippies (dirty), who are having sex all the time (violating purity and sanctity). Earlier on, there was a movement to create another group, the 54% – to invalidate the “group membership” part of the OWS message, although it didn’t really work at all. Along the same lines, they are trying to portray the OWS’ers as students who can’t get jobs – meaning not members of “our” group, but members of a spoiled elite, which is meant to go against both the group membership aspect and the fairness aspect (“those kids had all the advantages, and now when they aren’t handed a job on a silver platter, they go and sit in and have sex all day”).

And there have been many attempts not only to portray the OWS protesters as law-breakers, but also attempts to bait them into taking unlawful action – which happily have so far failed.

The key point for those of us trying to improve the way progressives talk about our policies is that OWS is being incredibly successful, and very difficult to discredit, exactly because of how well it is aligning with the five moral dimensions, and how authentic that alignment is.

Warning: Bad Is Stronger Than Good But It’s Terrible For Running A Country

A few days ago I promised to start working out some positioning statements for OWS (and progressives in general). The point I made was that the right wing has staked out some excellent (although also horrible in practice) positions such as “taxes are bad” and “government is bad.”

I argued that these are great positions from a marketing perspective because they focus on “bad” instead of good (taking advantage of “bad is stronger than good“). “Bad is stronger than good” is an important concept from a marketing standpoint, but there is a counterpoint. As Simone Weil observed,

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

I ran across this quote yesterday, in Gretchen Rubin‘s The Happiness Project, and it made me realize there are two sides to the “Bad is stronger than Good” meme. While “bad” is useful for marketing, “good” is boring as a marketing message but much better for governing. This is to a large degree the source of the GOP’s big problems, that are just getting bigger – their positions are fundamentally destructive and “gloomy and boring” – they can only take stuff away from us, not create stuff for us. And it points out a critical thing we need to keep in mind as we craft new, stronger positions for progressive policies. Our challenge as progressives is to come up with strong positions – which means they need to reflect the fact that bad is stronger than good, as well as other marketing basics – that also allow us to do effective governing.

I Demand No Demands From OWS!

Let's focus on a message, not demandsCreative Commons License photo credit: Jay Santiago
Let's focus on a message, not demands

So, I keep hearing that a problem with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the lack of demands, and I think this is actually a feature of OWS right now. If they had demands, then their overall message of suffering would get sidelined, I think. OWS should not be (at this point anyway) about demands, it should be about a message of deep unfairness and unbalance in the economy, a structural inbalance that’s caused by excessive influence of the financial and business sectors in politics. So there’s a message, but there are no demands in that. In fact, if you think of the right wing positions, there are not really demands, except stupid simplistic ones that we don’t believe, there are just positions – taxes are bad, government is bad, business is good, states are better than Feds, the government is corrupt. Some demands come out of there, but they are extremely inchoate – Lower Taxes! Smaller Government! But mostly they are just about positions.

So what OWS needs is some good positions – these are what Lakoff calls “frames” in a certain way. And OWS needs its positions to be highly simplified versions of things like “no special treatment for financial companies.” That does not roll off the tongue. Compare it to “taxes are bad.” We need phrases like that, that resonate, that are simple, that overly simplify, but that are simple to say and remember, and get the point across. It’s always harder to do this for positive messages – the right wing is all about negative messages, and those are easy.

But let’s think about the simplest possible trope here, in comparison to “x is bad,” which is the right wing trope. The simplest alternative is “x is good.” What can we say is good without sounding stupid? Or at least having a resonant position? “Police are good.” “Having a police force is good.” “Public education is a good thing.” Not quite as tripping off the tongue as the taxes one. Another possibility is “Government is good.” That sounds way too Big Brother-ish. I wonder if there is a version of that trope, though, that could work?

Tomorrow, a lot more on how to turn the weak-kneed “x is good” into something really compelling.

Some Bads Are More Equal Than Others – Or Why OWS Protesters Should Keep Their Clothes On

Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errorsCreative Commons License photo credit: mclapics
Error 404 - Need to avoid tactical errors

In my last post I talked about how “Bad is stronger than good” is playing out in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and elsewhere. But I also mentioned some specific tactical mistakes that some people in OWS are making, such as running around nude at OWS events.

In the context of attempting to make OWS a national movement that attracts people from across the political spectrum, people running around naked is a pretty big “bad.”

The reason it’s a bigger bad is related to a whole other set of cognitive concepts that Jonathan Haidt talks about in this TED Talk, which I will try to summarize. Haidt identifies five dimensions along which people make moral – and hence political – decisions. These dimensions are:

  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Harm/care
  • Group membership
  • Purity/sanctity
  • Authority

Simply put, liberals weight the first two much more strongly than the last three (which many liberals weight negatively, in fact), while conservatives weight all five dimensions strongly – they are equally strong on the first two as liberals, but much much stronger on the last three.

Now, think about the 1%/99% message – the central message of OWS. It’s primarily focused on the first two or Haidt’s dimensions – fairness (it’s not fair that the 1% has been able to amass so much wealth), and harm (because I can’t get a job, I can’t take care of myself or my family). One immensely clever aspect of the OWS movement has to be to articulate the 1%/99% divide, since it also activates the “group membership” dimension – essentially everyone can recognize themselves as being in the 99%.

But OWS has problems with purity/sanctity – because it’s a bunch of people camping out, which is a dirty, smelly experience at best – and with authority – because it’s intrinsically in opposition to various authority figures, such as the police, the city governments, and the owners of the places like Zucchotti Park.

So when you add in a naked man, which is horrendous from a purity/sanctity point of view, and not good at all from an authority and group membership point of view, (and at best neutral on fairness and harm) you suddenly have a very strong set of Bad that outweighs, for conservatives, the fundamental position of OWS. And, to be honest, it doesn’t do much for the liberals who are supporting OWS in the first place either, although they are generally not going to judge.

“Bad Is Stronger Than Good” and Why Occupy Wall Street Is Working

Leo and John - good and badCreative Commons License photo credit: occ4m
Leo and John - good and bad

(Note: This post was drafted before the UC Davis pepper spray incident, which I’ll write about later, but I couldn’t resist using the picture to the right.)

There’s a by now well-proven fact that “bad is stronger than good” – it’s been proven in all kinds of ways, like the fact that you need five good interactions for every bad interaction in order to prevent a divorce, and stuff like that. It’s been very well demonstrated in politics in at least two major ways:

  • Negative campaigning – much much more effective than positive campaigning (we’ll get to some examples why in a bit)
  • The right wing political positioning. Note that it’s all in terms of negatives, at least the main positions – “taxes are bad”, “government is bad.” The main message is a bad message, even if it’s backed up, rhetorically, with good messages – “lower taxes create jobs” or whatever it might be.
  • The left wing political position – almost always in terms of good – “we need higher taxes in order to pay for things that are good for you,” “the Jobs Bill is good for jobs.”
  • And of course the news industry. There is no good news in the news industry – it doesn’t sell, no one reads or watches it! If there’s no bad news today, we’re not going to talk about the good news of the day, we’re going to talk about the anniversary of the last bad news. (I would love to credit the person who gave me that line, but I don’t remember who it was!)

So, what can we learn from this? Especially if we actually want to have a positive political position in general? Well, take a look at some examples. First, our favorite example of a great positioning statement – “Taxes are bad.” Let’s try simply turning that around – “Taxes are good.” Not very compelling is it? Sounds kind of stupid, actually. And that illustrates the problem perfectly. What can we do instead? Well, how can we turn this good into a bad? That is, how can we say something good in a way that makes it sound like we’re against something?

Well, the opposite of taxes is what? Not easy to say, so it’s not going to work to say “<opposite of taxes> are bad.” (Again, the right wing wins!) But we can do something. What do lower taxes cause? Worse services, for one. Who cares about that? Everyone. So we can say something like “Lower taxes cause crime.” That’s not exactly true, but it’s as true as the “taxes are bad” statement for sure. So let’s run with it. Remember, truth is not our highest cause, “directionally true” is more what we’re going for.

So, “Lower taxes cause crime.” What if someone asks you to defend that statement? It’s pretty easy – “Who pays for your police force, the FBI, border patrol? It’s your taxes that pay for that. You cut taxes, you have to cut those guys. Is that what you want?”

Or, “Lower taxes cause lost jobs.” What’s that one about? “When we lower taxes, the first to suffer is not the rich, but the kids, the ones in school whose teachers are laid off, who don’t get textbooks, and who will end up losing their jobs to kids in China or India.”

The point is that, while these positions are a little extreme, they have the great benefit of being a) about bad news, and b) being directionally true. And this kind of thing can be applied to all kinds of political arguments.

Bad is stronger than good at OWS

There are two competing examples of Bad is stronger than Good showing up at OWS. The first is the overall focus of the movement on the 99% and the 1%. The 1% is “bad” – that’s a central tenet. In fact, it’s not so much that they are bad, but that the system is corrupt that allows the 1% to amass so much wealth, while the 99% suffer. So there are two bads here – the system that led to the 1%, and the plight of the 99% – that’s “news” in the sense that it’s bad news. At any time the media can run a story on “This person is a recent college graduate and cannot get a job though he/she has been looking non-stop for six months, eight months, a year, and has had to finally go to work flipping burgers.” (Or whatever the story is – the point is that stories like that, in America, are news – that’s not supposed to happen here.)

And the story of the multi-millionaire who foolishly put gold-plated bathroom fixtures in the six bathrooms of his/her Manhattan penthouse is also always a story.

The images of old ladies being pepper-sprayed, the police hauling off peaceful protesters from Zucchotti Park, and Iraq veterans being sent to the hospital by the police – also all Bad, and all serving to legitimize OWS.

But there’s another side of Bad being stronger than Good at OWS. For example, I head today that there was an Occupy-related march in San Francisco, and one of the marchers was a completely naked man. I have no intrinsic problems with a naked man, but some people do, and they consider it bad. For those people, the bad-ness of a naked man at an OWS event can completely overwhelm the 1%-99% *bad-ness.” And that means that being naked at OWS is a tactical mistake, if you support OWS. BTW, nakedness is a bigger bad than 1%-99%, and it might be bigger than pepper-spraying an old lady, if the old lady was, for example, cursing at police.

I’ll talk more about how Bad Is Stronger Than Good is working at OWS, and how we can tactically take advantage of it, in my next post.