I was chuffed to read this post from Jill Klausen (@jillwklausen) last week about how to start taking back our language from the right wing, instead of simply rolling over. She says we need to start taking a lot more care with our language, and not just use the language that the right wing has been using to set their agenda.
1. Never say Entitlements.
–Instead, say Earned Benefits.
While the word “entitlement” was originally coined by Democrats as a way to illustrate that the receiver of the attached benefits was entitled to them by having worked to earn them, or having been taxed to support them, it has been re-defined by the right as akin to a spoiled child who acts as if they’re “entitled” even though they are not.
“Earned benefits,” on the other hand, cannot be twisted or misconstrued to mean anything other than what what they are: something the recipient has actually earned, as opposed to something they are being given.
A new lexicon is a critical first step in taking control of our language and our communication. For some reason, it seems that progressive politicians have been letting the right wing control the lexicon and communication style of politics, which has not been in anyone’s interest. Jill’s pushing back, and it’s going to make a difference.
Jill has also started to do some great naming of right wing policies, such as calling Paul Ryan’s so-called budget the #PathToPoverty – a name that’s started to get a little traction in Rob Zerban‘s campaign for Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin.
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!)
My goal in this blog is to help progressives do a better job with their positioning, and to think about how their positions are coming across to more than just liberals. This is the first in what will be a set of “cookbook” or how-tos that will help you do this with specific examples.
In the context of the fundamental rule that “bad is stronger than good” I’ve been writing about, I want to articulate more of what our problem is as progressives. We have great policies that will improve our lives and the lives of future Americans. And because they are so great, we tend to sell them using “good” arguments – “this will make your life better.” And we also rely a lot on “this will make life more fair,” and “this will prevent harm to people.” So, those all sound totally like good ways to position things if you’re a liberal – it’s good, it’s fair, it prevents harm. But, if you look at those arguments through the lenses of things we know about real cognition, you see a lot of problems:
Bad is stronger than good makes “this is good” arguments much weaker than “equivalent” arguments that come from a “bad” standpoint
Moral dimensions – liberals are happiest with the fairness and prevention of harm moral dimensions, but less liberal people need more moral dimensions to get a complete picture – they need a purity/sanctity aspect, a membership in a group aspect, and a respect for authority aspect. Adding these dimensions can alienate liberals in some cases – this is slightly tricky – but can make arguments much more compelling to less liberal people.
There’s strong underlying evidence that everyone, literally, wants the goals of progressive policies – a majority of Americans wants public health care, for example. You have to phrase the question right, but if you do, you get the result that people think health care is a public good, and should be treated as such. But, if you simply make the argument that public health care is good for us, it’s more fair, and it will prevent harm to more people, that’s not a very strong argument.
How do you make it stronger? You invoke some group membership. Like “You probably have a friend who’s been bankrupted by a serious illness. And if you don’t, it could still happen to you.” This combines a “bad” argument (bankruptcy due to a serious illness) with a group membership argument (you or a friend of yours). You can invoke an anti-group membership argument, like “The Congress has one of the best health care plans in the world, paid for by you and me. Why should they have something they won’t give us?” That create a “bad group” versus “good group” dichotomy.
What about sanctity and authority in the health care argument? Well, “what would Jesus do?” Does Jesus think our healthcare should be controlled by the money-changers, which is what insurance companies have become? There are many Bible verses that could be used to talk about healthcare. And authority? Eisenhower and Nixon were both in favor of universal healthcare. So were the founders – at least Jefferson and Lincoln. (You might have to do some digging to find the writings or speeches to support concepts like universal health care, but there’s much that’s appropriate to this topic.)
One thing to note is that there are some particular authorities that work in this context, and some that don’t. Not just any president will do, of course. And no current politician is authority enough. You need to go back to Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, or Jesus or Moses. Of course for smaller scale policies, you can also use the police and the military as your authority – and in particular you need to not flout those authorities in your positions and policies.
For purity and sanctity, Jesus is often good. But remember that part of this is just about cleanliness and anti-disgusting-ness. And about not breaking the taboo-related rules of society (public nudity was one I talked about a few posts ago).
Leaving the realm of “Occupy” stories for a while, let’s see if we can apply the five moral dimensions of political decision making to another topic. I’m thinking of the controversy about the TLC show “All-American Muslims” and the fact that Lowes pulled out as an advertiser due to a “boycott” from an organization called The Florida Family Foundation. There are several ways to approach this, and I’m going to cover several of them.
First, let’s just think about the situation and how impressive it is – there’s a TV show on a mainstream (cable) channel about Muslims in America that basically treats them as a normal part of American life and just another set of stories to tell about America. That’s impressive in itself – think about whether this would have been possible ten or 15 years ago.
And the response to the “boycott” has been impressive as well. The Florida Family Foundation organization is fairly fringe-y, and although it’s unfortunate that Lowes has pulled out due to the pressure of their boycott, the chances are that Lowes is the loser, much more so than TLC. The mainstream is aghast at Lowes’ response, and it’s clearly violated most Americans’ sense of right and wrong. And so we can recognize that we have made progress in tolerance as a culture, despite some fringe-y people amongst us (and not just in Florida).
I think the “fairness” dimension is obvious, and I won’t spend much time on it
The “harm” dimension is also fairly obvious, except I want to point out that positions like FFF’s have led to things like the KKK – which in turn have caused lots of harm to Americans
The more interesting dimension is “group/other” – because of the extremity of the boycott, it has served to make American Muslims seem more “us”, and the Florida Family Foundation group seem more “them.” And that definitely puts Florida Family Foundation at a moral disadvantage in this case.
On the “purity/sanctity” dimension I think it’s really a wash – the Muslims on this show are clearly devout, but you have to give the Florida Family Foundation people credit for behaving in a way they think is pure.
But on the “authority” dimension, Florida Family Foundation loses out – if only because their opposition to having Muslims on TV is so clearly in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution. The Constitution is pretty clear – no discrimination on the basis of religion.
The other really great thing that All-American Muslims has going for it is that it’s all about stories. Stories are the other key dimension of political communication. The All-American Muslim stories, since they tie so strongly into the well-known tropes of earlier “all-American” stories, intrinsically bring you into a sense of group membership with both the teller of the story and the subject of the story.
A fundamental concept in liberalism is that your position should be judged on its merits. Unfortunately, that’s not the way that we, in America at least, judge positions. At least, that’s not the only way, and there is a big group for whom it’s only a part, if anything, of how their moral decisions are made. So it’s why we need to position our moral arguments in the right form. So if you wanted to do a “takedown” of the Florida Family Foundation, for example, in a letter to Lowes protesting their pulling their ads from American Muslim, you might structure it something like this:
Open with a typical story about an all-American family having an all-American experience – the dad’s a policeman, the mom takes care of their four children.
This family happens to be featured on “All-American Muslims.” You note that this all-American family is under attack (harm) simply because they are Muslim by some members of a fringe fundamentalist sect-based group in Florida (“them”).
Our (“us”) American ways of respect for diversity and individualism (group, fairness) and even our Constitution (authority) are being mocked by these attackers.
Luckily, most Americans recognize that the Jaafars and the rest of the families on the show are just like us, and have responded with overwhelming support.
Lowes will be the loser in this fight if you continue to align with the fringe group rather than with mainstream America. I hope you see the error of this decision and come back into the mainstream and support this show.
That’s a good template for such a letter, although it’s rough, and quickly dashed out as an illustration for a blog post. The key point is that I am tying all of the key moral dimensions into the argument, instead of just relying on fairness and harm, which often happens in these cases.
Note that I’m not being “objective” about this story – I believe the Florida Family Foundation have just as much right to their opinions as I do to mine, but I don’t think that automatically makes their position equally valid. A typical trope in modern journalism is to treat both sides of a controversy as equally legitimate, even if they really aren’t. I don’t deny Florida Family Foundation the right to talk, but I don’t think that makes what they say valid.
(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.
This weekend the Internet has been bubbling with an amazing and inspiring Steve Jobs quote, which I saw thanks to the amazing and inspiring Maria Popova of BrainPickings, that’s apropos of what I’m trying to do on this blog. Politics has been run the way it’s been run for its entire history. There have been changes over time, but for example, right now the pundits and political followers assume there are certain ways that candidates need to talk, certain notes they need to hit, in order to win. This is just the “conventional wisdom.” But as Steve points out, this is just the way things are now – not the way they have to be.
When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
The way language is used in politics today, especially the tropes of the right wing, are just some walls that have been constructed to form a very very small room with no windows. But they’re just walls – they can be torn down, and there’s a whole world out there. It’s up to us progressives to break down those walls. The Occupy movement is doing that in one way, with their meme of “The 99%”. I’m attempting to do that another way by giving progressives a way to talk about politics in a new, fresh, effective, and most importantly, non-reactionary way.
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.
Well, this is old news now, but remember when Rick Perry was saying that he wants to simplify the 3,500 page tax code because it’s too complicated?
The reality is – facts here, so we’re going to state them, then see how to make an actual useful argument – most of the tax code is about corporate taxes, and in particular about exemptions, deductions, and exceptions for the benefit of various business and types of businesses. If you wonder why Exxon doesn’t pay any income tax on profits of $60 billion, or whatever the number is, it’s because the tax code specifically gives big oil companies breaks on their taxes for innumerable special cases and exemptions. With the result that the most profitable company in the history of the world paid no income taxes in 2010. I think we can all get behind the idea that the tax code needs some work.
What Perry is trying to imply when he says he wants to simplify the tax code is that it will make it simpler and cheaper for individuals – not only will their taxes be lower, but the burden of doing their taxes will be smaller. This of course is a canard – for most ordinary Americans the tax code is pretty simple, especially if they don’t own a house or own their own business. If they own a house or a business, then it gets a bit more complicated, but it’s not that bad. So, the argument against this ridiculous claim has two prongs:
Compare the amount of tax code that applies to individuals to the amount that applies to corporations. “Mr Perry, are you going to simplify the 100 pages of tax code that apply to Exxon and that enables the most profitable corporation in the history of the world to pay no taxes in 2010? I think that would be fantastic!”
Or, “Mr Perry, I applaud your effort to get to the bottom of how Exxon, the most profitable company in the history of the world, managed to pay no income taxes in 2010.”
Or, “Mr. Perry, I think your idea of a flat tax is excellent! I agree we need to address the situation we had in 2010 where Exxon, the most profitable company in the history of the world, paid no income taxes.”
I seem to be stuck on the Exxon example, but it’s pretty hard to beat the “most profitable company in the history of the world” trope!
Then, for the second prong: The reality is that corporate America bought and paid for that complicated tax code, and they are not going to let some upstart just go and simplify their deductions away. So that’s totally not going to happen. So if you’re a progressive or liberal pundit you really have to hammer on the fact that the winners in the complicated tax code game are the corporations themselves. You should have specific examples for different situations, but the Exxon example is perfect as the catchall example – there’s clearly quid pro quo going on for the oil companies, there’s a good link to Bush, and it’s just unfathomable that the most profitable company in the history of the world would end up paying no income taxes. So you just have to imply that all this other malfeasance is going on, and it’s right there in the tax code, in 3,450 pages out of the 3,500 pages. I’m not sure whether it’s better to say “99% of the tax code is loopholes for corporations” or “only 1% is about what individuals have to pay, the rest is corporate loopholes.”
There are some people who can get away with talking about these “loopholes” – I’m not sure Obama can himself. But anyone who comes on to, say, Christiane Amanpour’s show as a “liberal” should have all these tropes to hand. And you just hammer on these tropes, just like the Republican shills hammer on their tropes.
Let’s make a list of all the true things you can say when a right-winger claims tax cuts are good for the country, for the economy, or for jobs:
You bet we need some tax reform – Exxon, the most profitable company in the history of the world, paid no income taxes in 2010.
Tax cuts always result in lower growth or recession or other economic problems. Reagan’s cuts resulted in the biggest peacetime deficit in history (until Bush) and we’re still paying for it
America has its highest growth during periods when taxes are relatively high
Republican intransigence, personally targeted against Obama, has resulted in a double-dip recession, no jobs, and no relief for the rules-following homeowners whose homes are under water due to Bush’s 2008 crash.
The problems we have still are do to Bush’s 2008 crash.
The 2008 crash was caused by Republican-driven deregulation of the financial markets, after 50 years of safety following FDRs Depression-era regulations.
If we’d had these regulations in place in 2007 (transparency rules and leverage limits) the 2008 crash could not have happened
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.
(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.