Cameron Wigmore, Green Party Member: Seeing Through Spin and Making Messages Stick

April 3, 2008

Seeing Through Spin and Making Messages Stick


Framing, messaging, communicating, debating and spinning. Like a trip to the dentist, this is stuff that most of us average everyday cats would rather avoid, but once it's dealt with we become better able to chew up those who would try to use these tools against us.

This blog post has been created in an effort to help you to see through the spin; to understand how to communicate purposefully through frames that will help your messages stick.

When I first became involved in electoral politics I discovered that one of the things I loathed most about politics and politicians is their use of frames to message. They can do it so effectively that it's difficult to argue against their message, even when you disagree completely. As I learned how they do this, I became better able to spot the spin in daily news. I became more at ease in discussions about subjects and issues with people who disagreed with me. I may not be able to win every debate or convince every person to agree with me, but I now know how to counter spin and avoid frame traps.

Framing is the practice of influencing how people think and feel about issues by encouraging them to think about them in a particular way. This is done with language that conjures up and appeals to images and values that people know and understand deeply. By that definition it is different from 'spin', which can be defined as a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor, of an event or situation, made through selectively presenting supporting facts or quotes. To be clear, this definition of framing has nothing to do with the murder mystery novel character who is always accusing the other guy of 'framing' him. "I was framed!"

The website HarperIndex.ca has a great summary of the idea of frames and how the political Right-wing uses them at this link here.

Good ol' Wikipedia also has an entry about political framing, of course.

Rather than bore you with my own rambling about frames, I would like to offer up an interview with George Lakoff exploring the ways that conservatives use language to dominate politics.

In this excerpt he gives us an example of framing:

GL: The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.

"Tax relief" has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

BP: So what should they be calling it?

GL: It's not just about what you call it, if it's the same "it." There's actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the public education system, the power grid, the system for training scientists — vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people don't. The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we're all paying for it.

BP: So taxes could be framed as an issue of patriotism.

GL: It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way. There would have to be a manual. Republicans have one. They have a guy named Frank Luntz, who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican side, what the other guys' logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use.

Take notice! That's the same Frank Luntz who advised Harper and the CPC on how to message. It was big news about two years ago, and Harper has been working with this tool ever since. Messaging through framing, that is.

See more from HarperIndex on how they frame issues related to war. (There is a list at the end of the article linked to above that offers ways to reframe the subjects. Check it out and use them liberally.)

Click here for the full story about Harper and Luntz.

Harper and the CPC have been learning how to frame the issues so that their political opponents have to play by their rules in their logical sandbox, and they've also been using a guidebook helping them to strategically paralyze Parliament to their own advantage.

Harper takes this stuff very seriously, as does the 'right-wing' of the political spectrum. They are way better at framing their message than the 'Left'. They spend more money on their efforts to win our minds than the other political parties, and if we don't pay close attention we'll fall for their spin.

One think for those in the business of messaging that is very important: if the Right tries to use a frame and the Left picks it up, the Left will lose every time. Quoting sundog, one of the people who commented on Luntz and his strategy report (available for download and study):

Luntz's tools ARE words and frames, but do not be deceived: most of the tools he talks about are crafted with a very specific purpose and will only hurt us if we try to pick them up.

Luntz's mission is to hijack the english language. This as a way of robbing his opponents (us) of their most important weapons: ideas. Words, after all, have meaning. And Luntz wants to make sure the important words are moored to right-wing ideas.

Look at his advice on "fairness" for example. "Fairness" is a word with strong progressive identifications, it is an idea that consistently and reliably evokes liberal values. If you're a neo-fascist, this is troubling; "fairness" is a weapon liberals have been able to rely upon.

What's Luntz's solution? Redefine fairness. "Remove that [weapon]," he says, "and you will have the majority for a generation." Disconnect "fairness" from the more progressive ideals of justice and morality. Connect it instead with the more 'rightie' ideals of ownership, personal responsibility, etc.

Fairness is an issue we can win on, but sunscribing to Luntz's definition will only hurt our cause. It's a feint. Beware of adopting his prescriptions. Some of the stuff is about beating the other to the punch, some of it's plain poison.


Here's more on Frank Luntz and the language tricks he uses.

Back to Lakoff. Here are a few links to more usefull information.

Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases

Book excerpts: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think by G. Lakoff


I imagine you either knew about this stuff already and are excited to have access to all of this information, or maybe you just discovered it and are a bit overwhelmed with the whole situation. It could be that you support the CPC, describe yourself as conservative, liberal, eco-socialist, libertarian or some other spot on the political spectrum. No matter what your political leanings are, you can benefit from this information. We're all people, and we all need to recognize and understand when someone else is trying to manipulate us.

More useful links:

Rockridge Institute

Golden Lake Institute


How to respond to conservatives


Making Environmental Messages Sticky

Two posts here and here by a fellow who says Lakoff is 'a brilliant guy' but argues that there's more the subject of frames and framing than Lakoff can offer.

Straw Man - know your enemy!

Political Spin - know their weapons!

4 comments:

Dr. Tux said...

Cameron,

Well done. Seems like you've been doing your homework.

I recommend the book "Cracking the Code" by Thom Hartmann. http://www.thomhartmann.com/CrackingTheCode/

This is the first full length book Í've read on the subject and Thom Hartmann is a brilliant man.

Cheers dude,
Jeremy

Cameron W said...

Thanks Jeremy!

Cameron W said...

A great article. Biased against Harpers party, but with good reason. This journalist isn't being non-partisan here. They are explaining messaging and framing, and how Harper is doing, and how the opposition shouldn't engage on Harpers terms, but instead reframe the issues. Biased or not, this is an informative article.

Susan Riley . Beating Harper

If Liberals (or the liberal-left generally) want to disable the Tory machine, they will have to reframe the national debate - starting, perhaps, by substituting optimism, scrupulous fairness and tolerance of other views for the strident, fear-based, divisive dialogue Harper has used so effectively. This means, in part, not reacting to unrelenting, often unfair, attacks from Harper's caucus picadors. Instead, "progressives" need to dismiss the yapping dogs and vigorously promote a green, prosperous, generous vision of our collective future.

But this transformation involves more than a change in strategy on the part of New Democrats (who have recently shelved their green agenda in favour of lower gas prices), or a fresh batch of talking points for Stéphane Dion, or a place at the next leaders' debate for Elizabeth May. It means non-Conservatives have to reclaim the language of political discourse. California academic George Lakoff, in his pithy primer for demoralized progressives, don't think of an elephant!, writes: "Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame -- and it won't be the frame you want."

Cameron W said...

How Harper controls the spin

Starting today, the Star launches a series titled "Secret Capital" looking at the communications style of the Harper government that sees cabinet ministers routinely muzzled, the Prime Minister remain aloof from the media during trips abroad and details about government initiatives hard to come by.