Why is it that liberals seem to have the facts on their side, but don’t have a clear majority of voters on their side? Yesterday I came across two persuasive arguments for a simple answer: It’s the language, stupid! Liberals don’t know how to use words effectively. Conservatives do.
In the July/August issue of the Sierra Club magazine there’s a fascinating article called “Winning Words” (available online). The author, Katy Butler, says: “It’s not for want of solid facts and rational arguments that the environment has lost ground, says cognitive scientist George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, which has become a handbook for embattled progressive strategists.” Basically Lakoff, a linguist, says that language shapes how we think.
We like to believe that facts determine how we think. But actually the language with which purported facts are communicated produces the frame within which thinking takes place. Control the frame, you largely control the thinking. For example, Lakoff points out that when changes in tax policy are described as tax relief, “the word ‘relief’ evokes a conceptual frame of some affliction—an afflicted party, and a reliever who performs the action of relieving.”
So if liberals oppose reducing taxes on high income people, and they say “we’re against tax relief for the wealthy,” the very language used to make the argument undermines the liberal position. Same with “global warming,” because most people consider warming to be a pretty good thing—especially those in the Dakotas. Wouldn’t it be nice if every state was as warm as Hawaii? Lakoff says that environmentalists should be saying “climate crisis” instead.
We heard echoes of this wily but effective conservative use of language last night as we watched an episode of The Daily Show from last week that we had taped. Jon Stewart interviewed one of the authors of “All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth,” which I note is in the top 25 of Amazon book sales, helped out, I’m sure, by The Daily Show publicity.
When Stewart talks to an author, he usually holds up the book rather perfunctorily, and plugs it using the same tone of voice as when he ends an interview with an actor: “And remember, ‘Creepy Horror IV’ is opening in theatres everywhere on Friday. Go see it.” Ho-hum. But Stewart was effusive with his praise of this book, and even re-plugged it after the post-interview commercial break was over.
The central message of the book is that the Bush administration is highly skilled at how the media is used to convey “truths” (with huge quotation marks) packaged and sealed with a bow by the President’s spin machines. The author noted that Bush and Co. know how to go right up to the edge of a lie without crossing the boundary between outright truth and falsehood.
I’ve noted this myself with grudging admiration. I can’t stand how Cheney has been needling Kerry about his use of the word “sensitive” when discussing the war on terror. But if you listen to what Kerry said, and how Cheney is spinning it, you can’t say that Cheney’s interpretation is an out and out lie. Misleading, absolutely. But a lie, no.
In the Stewart interview the author (the book has several authors, and I can’t remember which one was on the show) gave another example of Bush’s skillful use of words. Yes, that is a phrase you usually don’t associate with Bush, “skillful use of words.” He is a good communicator, though. The author said that in the lead-up to the Iraq war Bush would say things like, “Saddam Hussein was happy when the terrorists attacked us on 9/11. Saddam Hussein supports suicide bombers who terrorize innocent people in Israel.”
Thus Bush would associate Saddam with 9/11 by using “Saddam” and “9/11” in the same sentence, and also use “terrorize” and “innocent people” in the same sentence. Even though the facts and logic he is explicitly conveying don’t make a connection between Saddam and the attacks on 9/11, the implicit message of his language creates a different impression.
So liberals would be wise to emulate conservatives in at least one fashion. Speak simply, speak clearly, and use words wisely. Whenever I hear Kerry trying to explain his conflicting votes on authorizing the war with Iraq, or why he still supports Bush going to war even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, I cringe. Kerry finds it difficult to speak in straightforward declarative sentences.
“The war in Iraq was wrong. There was no reason to go to war the way we did. The President misled us. I won’t mislead you when I am President.” Pretty easy for me to write. Now, John, you say it.
I am pleased that Kerry finally came out swinging today against the absurdly named “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Here also he should simply say, “The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are telling lies. I was there. I know what I did. And so does the man I saved. Now, let’s get back to talking about real issues facing America today, not fabricated stories of what happened in Vietnam thirty-five years ago.”
Lastly, here’s another good example of the skillful Bush spin machine. Fortunately, the Iraqi soccer players are calling him on it.