The more I read Lakoff, the more I realize that language really does matter. Take for example Fran Townsend, outgoing Homeland Security Adviser, reiterating a previous statement of hers on MSNBC regarding the failure of the Administration to capture Bin Laden. “It’s a success that hasn’t happened yet”. Right! Townsend then goes on to comment on the Bush torture program as being relatively small with limited “eligibility for the program”. How cool is that, linguistically speaking of course. The word eligibility casts a desirable hue on the ugly image of torture. Compare that with a local congressman’s comment regarding single payer health care that went something like this; “I support Single Payer but I don’t think it is feasible to do at this time”. Lakoff would identify that statement as a “surrendering in advance” statement. In all fairness to the solidly progressive congressman, I was gently reminded by ricklm that he had signed onto the Conyers bill, 636 Medicare for All. “So, while his heart is certainly in the right place, it seems that his lingo has just not caught up.. It is not easy, especially when you have to ad lib at a moment’s notice.
But the other side is very hard at work. After 35 years and $4 billion, they have assembled a system of dozens of think tanks and training institutes staffed by right wing intellectuals. They have dominated the world of issues framing and have changed American politics. A new post showing at the Mother Jones site reports on a focus group recently held in Virginia to test-market language to get tougher on Iran. According to a focus group regular this is how it went:
On November 1, she went to the offices of Martin Focus Groups in Alexandria, Virginia, knowing she would be paid $150 for two hours of her time. After joining a half dozen other women in a conference room, she discovered that she had been called in for what seemed an unusual assignment: to help test-market language that could be used to sell military action against Iran to the American public. “The whole basis of the whole thing was, ‘we’re going to go into Iran and what do we have to do to get you guys to along with it?”
We live in a fast moving world of sound bites. Lost in the cacophony is time for reason and reflection. Images from sound bites guide us. And the republican machine delivers up the sound bites that influence those images. Consider the following; terror, terrorist, war, evil, evildoer, good guys, bad guys, mushroom cloud, bitch, (now tacitly approved by the McCain crowd to use against Hilary) bitchslap. The images created by these bites arouse deeply embedded cultural attitudes, basic frames in each of us that represent our particular moral worldview. More recently added to the repertoire are images evoked by the terms 9/11, jihad, and Islamic. It is easy for the Republican machine to carry the day in framing the issues by building on the negative attitudes precipitated by the sound bite. Democrats are left holding their hats and integrity in their hands.
Democrats would be wise to develop their own set of sound bites and avoid trying to operate off the Republican standard. They only come off sounding defensive or inauthentic. Consider “cut and run” which is built on the images of war and evildoers. It sold. In a war it is cowardly to cut and run. In attempts to counter this, John Murtha offered a slogan, “stay and pay” and Kerry came up with “lie and die”. According to Lakoff, the “pay” and “die” responses accept the war frame, but take the save-our-skins position, which in the war frame is considered cowardly and immoral. Needless to say, neither slogan flew. The progressive congressman’s “surrender in advance” comment exemplifies defensiveness.
Progressives missed the boat early on in allowing the occupation of Iraq to be termed a war. Had it been appropriately termed an occupation, it would have greatly enhanced the progressive position for framing, just as it would have hampered the republican machine for mischief. I have noticed a few stalwarts that have doggedly (and correctly) continued to refer to the Iraq mess as an occupation. We have also fallen into the “illegal immigrant” trap. Images created by this frame are felons, job usurpers, and social services stealers. Lakoff recommends using the term “illegal employers” thus enabling us to reframe the debate based on demands for equitable wage and worker safety laws rather than pitting undocumented workers against American workers while overlooking a system that drives down all of their wages and endangers their health and welfare. Lesson number one is that we need to stop using the Republican playbook.
Progressives are well versed on historical facts and are able political analysts. We have a rich history of championing social and economic justice, and equality causes. We are not strangers to the struggle, witness the nurses on the line in Kentucky and West Virginia right now. But we do need to get a handle on our lexis and turn the tables on the Republican machine. Otherwise they will keep us twisting in the wind as they pillage and plunder in the name of patriotism.