Monday, September 08, 2008

Please stop using "maverick" - even "not a maverick"

I know this will probably receive more than a few jeers around here, but I firmly believe that it isn’t just a matter of how forcefully you say something, or even how hard you hit (or hit back), but it is also a matter of what you say that is just as, if not more important.

And while I am thrilled that Obama has an ad that directly hits McCain at the core issue of his judgment, behavior and “persona”, it fails on a very large point - and that is it plays right into the theme of “maverick”, which is what will be reinforced - even moreso than the fact that Obama is saying McCain is NOT a maverick.

I know that many progressives frown upon the concept of framing, and feel that since “we have the issues, why can’t we just win by telling people that they really really do agree with us”. But I also know that a McCain presidency is unacceptable on so many levels, and I am willing to use any tools that are available to get whatever little advantage we can get - because every advantage, no matter how minor, means changing perceptions and votes. And in a perfect world, just talking about issues alone would be enough. But this isn’t nearly a perfect world, and by being aware of the impact that words and ads and attacks have - not just that they are words or ads or attacks - we have a better chance of doing a number of things:

  • Convincing people of what we want to convince them of;

  • Talking about it on OUR terms, not the other side’s terms; and

  • Remaining true to our ideals and core values.

The new ad is great in that it calls McCain out for what he really is, as opposed to what people used to think he once was. But in all actuality, the idea of McCain = maverick is already so ingrained in people’s heads that even adding the word “not” in between the two will not do much more than fire up the choir that he is (or we are) already preaching to.

Now, I don’t expect the Obama campaign to be reading this, but I would hope that any of you who are reading this will take note and try to talk on our terms for the remainder of the campaign. That means not having to answer a question that you feel is unfairly posed - turn the question around or answer one that is more in line with the accurate interpretation of whatever misleading or false choice question is being posed. That means using words that we want to use, not denying words that the other side is using.

Saying “Obama is not a Muslim” is very true, but all it does is reinforce Obama = Muslim, even though there is a definitive denial in there. I happen to be a fan of George Lakoff, whose book Don’t Think of an Elephant is a must read for those who want to understand how the right has injected things such as “pro-life” and “death tax” into what is now pretty much acceptable frames by many. And the basic gist is that when you talk about things in the other side’s words or terms, even if you are fighting it, even if you are right and the other side is wrong, it is the frame and term itself that lives on, not the argument.

As Lakoff recently said:

“Facts don’t matter. The framing is what’s important,” Lakoff reminded, adding that the left recoils at this concept, considering it manipulation. But it’s not; everything is framed. “Every single word we use invokes a frame in our brains, and the only question involved is if you’re using those frames honestly and if you’re protecting yourself against fraudulent framing.”

Lakoff’s convinced that the reason progressive ideas haven’t done as well at the ballot box in recent years is because the language used to describe those ideas is stuck in the Age of Enlightenment. For instance, when progressives talk about universal health care, the discussion often gets caught up in facts and figures—how many people are uninsured, how much of the money goes to administrative costs. This causes people to drift off; their eyes glaze over. The message is lost. Meanwhile, conservatives, who use emotionally laden narratives—remember “Harry and Louise”?—end up dominating political debate.

And this is something that is so easy to follow, without even losing one shred of our core values. Instead of saying that “McCain is no maverick - he is more of the same”, why not leave the first part off, or better yet, just McSame. Same point, no reinforcement of McCain = maverick.

This theory holds true in a number of ways - not even political. There was at least one study dealing with perceptions between reality and “negative labels”. In this study, adults wouldn’t drink from a bottle that was clearly labeled “not poison” (emphasis mine):

In accord with both the sympathetic magical law of similarity and the principle of nominal realism, previous research has shown that American adults have difficulty in ignoring a label indicating toxicity on a food, even though they know the label is false. This study confirms the finding, and shows that there is some reluctance to choose or consume a food entity if it is labelled explicitly as being nontoxic (a label of not sodium cyanide or not poison). Hence this type of magical thinking seems to ignore negatives.

While I hope that Obama continues to hit hard at McCain for all of the things that he is (and even all of the things that he claims to be but is not), I sincerely hope that the use of “not” with whatever McCain’s (or the republicans’) term or frame is will be avoided. On a similar note, when fighting the smears that keep coming out, we should all try very hard not to deny the smear or allegation using the same frame and term, just in the negative. That will more likely just reinforce it.

Change the frame. Use the words that you (or we) want to use. Claim the debate on our terms as well as our positions (since many people agree with our positions on a number of things as is). We have a tough enough battle as is - and just by being careful about how we talk to our neighbors, our friends, potential (Obama) voters and even likely McCain voters, we can make it a bit easier or a lot tougher to make the case for Obama and the case against McCain.

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