Language absolutely matters, because what we think becomes what we do.
Good article, thanks, although I nearly didn't read past the title - speaking of how we frame things!
Yes, I agree that framing is important, and so does having solutions - or the appearance of being able to create solutions - rather than what seems like constant grizzling about problems.
Although with this govt, I do feel like that friend who's always whinging about her useless and borderline-abusive partner, and who doesn't see any constructive way out. It'd be nice if the electorate were at the DTMFA stage, but then they'd need to perceive things would improve.
What happened was easy to predict: the government threw a small amount of money at one part of the problem (without doing much to fix any of the drivers that are making people poorer in the first place). They walked away looking compassionate and pragmatic with the voting public, and the progressive movement didn’t do much to change the story from one of personal responsibility to systemic causality. It was a tactical failure – but also a failure in strategic messaging.
The real reason National was able to pull this off was Labour's legacy of having done nothing when they had the opportunity to reverse the savage welfare cuts that happened under Bolger and Shipley. The same applies to strategically drip-feeding apparent largesse to iwi. Clark sent armed police onto a Tuhoe schoolbus, Key sends a peacemaking police commissioner. While I'm not disputing the importance of how language may be used to frame issues, leaving these kinds of gaping holes in your legacy lends an undeserved eloquence to even the meanest practical gestures.
I put a spell on you…
Language is magic…
and therefore must be precise.
Framing and reframing sounds good to me – along the continuum of NLP, De Bono and also Chomsky’s transformational grammar.
Anything that directs people towards understanding and dealing with the causes and not symptoms of our nation’s ills has got to be a good thing.
Bring it on!
PS: and what Joe says too, words are all well and good, but actions have to match them.
I really enjoyed George Lakoff's book Don't think of an elephant which is all about how the political right in the USA has nailed the
framing of the debate on issues such as income tax - e.g. they speak of 'tax relief', thereby implying that tax is a burden. I then assumed that the problem of the right dominating the framing was a US problem and never really thought about how it might be the case here. So thank you so much for this thoughtful and excellent piece.
You're absolutely right. Language matters but you can still lose being bad at strategy. The examples you gave actually fit into both. Labour during the Clark years was terrified about appearing to be too nice the poor and to Maori. They didn't stick up for their own values partly because the right were better at framing that debate... and let's face it manipulating the undercurrent of racism to their advantage.
bad at strategy
One example of unfortunate framing: using the word "strategy" for "acting in accordance with your stated principles". "Strategy" isn't entirely positive in politics: it tends to connote a plan not just cunning but downright deceptive. (Though that may simply be a function of placing the word in proximity to politicians.)
I'm 100% on board with the importance of words. The right (or wrong) metaphor can transform a whole debate.
The progressive left lost its mojo in the 80s - not just in NZ, worldwide. The terms of debate shifted completely and the framing was all neoliberal, all the time. Obvious and growing inequality and the GFC have tilted things back, but there's a long long way to go.
Gutted to miss this conference in Auckland - unless a small miracle occurs :) I hope we all get to hear about - and work on - any good ideas and initiatives.
I find the idea of changing a narrative a bit difficult, since my own aim in reading is always to unpack the narrative, to look right past it to any actual facts or discussion points that are being made. The task of then taking that discussion and then rebundling it into emotive/suggestive language that supports whatever my own take is, always takes second priority. It's an afterthought, an insincere spin.
Which is not to say that it's a bad idea at all. I'm just saying that I find it difficult. Essentially it's dedicating a lot of effort to rhetoric, to subject matter that is not argumentation and facts at all. I bloody hate it when reading it, so it causes cognitive dissonance to deliberately put that kind of thing into my own writing.
Of course it's going to happen anyway - I interpret the world in my own way and use my own words to describe it. My spin will be there even if I'm unaware of it myself. The bit that's hard is conducting discussion in which the importance of that spin takes a very high position. Weighing up what effect each word will have at a subconscious level on the audience - that's just not my bag. Usually, I presume that deliberate attempts of that kind will be seen right through because my audience is primarily people like myself, who are themselves masters of unpacking.
I'm not saying that Kirk is suggesting I personally have to do any of the things he's saying here - I don't think the message of this post is that we should start adding lots of noise to our signals to each other. But it is about adding a lot of "noise" - which I scare-quote only because it's noise to me - to official communications made as concerted efforts by people on the Left trying to consciously exert some kind of pressure to make changes.
Which is hardly news to them. It's not like rhetoric just got discovered for the first time recently. What's interesting here is taking it to a new level using scientific methods. How to maximize the subliminal noise in one's own favour. Also, how to neutralize the subliminal noise of your enemies.
It's definitely needed. I'm not the person to do it, though. I can hardly think of more soul destroying writing than what is essentially advertising copy. I can hardly think of anything I'd relish less than doing any of this with my own writing.
It's needed because the other side is doing it, and doing it well. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.
Not a political nerd, and not flattered by being included in the 'well informed 5%', I found my cynical hackles being raised at the term "strategy".
Even used in the context of changing the narrative to try to get those who thoughtlessly vote to think differently...or even think at all...(and a laudable campaign that may be), I draw back a little, my defenses rise, when I feel that I am being 'worked'. Again.
We may have to invent a whole lot of new words to effect change...because many of the existing words have been irretrievably corrupted.
P.S. The Living Wage meeting in Pt. Chev last night....what a winner. Live streamed, with REAL people, using plain language, with real conviction.
Agreed, to all that. Although to your post, and my own, I know that the obvious comeback is also a fair one - that we would say that. It's one of the most popular rhetorical techniques of all to lay claim to avoiding rhetoric. Key uses it himself all the time, presenting himself as the unpolitical politician.
We have to be aware that rhetoric is unavoidable, that our own choice of language exerts both logical and illogical effects. What I baulk at is deliberately increasing that, when my own efforts in discussion are usually directed towards the exact opposite. I conduct discussion to inform myself at least as much as to inform other poeple, and spinning to myself is rather pointless. If a spin is ever put there on purpose, it's only with the purpose of seeing how others unpack it, and thus to sometimes lay bare my own unconscious assumptions. Which can seem disingenuous to others - guilty as charged! What can I say - I don't accept that there is an idea of context free language in the first place, so wrapping something up in a context I think provides an insight is sometimes the only way to elicit an equal and opposite response from an interlocutor. It can lay bare what context they are forced to wrap the contrary position up in.
Taking a more statistical approach to this is something I have to say is less horrid to think of than just doing it by mastering the art of self deception, as a part of mastering deception generally. So long as I'm reasonably clear about what I am actually trying to say, then if I choose language statistically that is likely to give it greater strength and thus greater clarity, then that doesn't leave a horrible foul taste of bullshit artistry.
Key uses it himself all the time,
Damn that man.
Or, dam his mouth?
It beggars belief that he is so effective.
In my dreams, I have a committed National/Key voter pinned down, explaining exactly why they voted the way they did.
What did they think they were going to achieve?
Oh, that's right....
I get where you're coming from. I really wish everything didn't turn into a binary argument because the world tbh is far more nuanced. But making things a choice between two distinct moral positions is the best way to win a campaign. It forces people to pick sides until one side wins. And it's a bloody terrible way to solve problems. There maybe a few issues where this is a "right" answer in purely objective terms (if such a thing exists). But the whole idea behind framing is that there is no such thing as a rational choice. Either choice could be right given the moral lens by which you view the world. In an ultra-right wing frame, punishing the poor with higher taxes and cutting off social services is the morally correct thing to do. And they have a whole lot of metaphors and language that in absence of an alternate emotional story, get the middle on their side. It's the whole "spoiling your kids metaphor". Works like a charm. These stories will win over evidence not every time but enough of the time to win elections and change policy. Working on my next post that goes into more detail on these deeper framing issues.
Hmm I have a question. What metaphor or frame do you use when you think of political discourse? Do you see it as a “war of ideas” or as “dinner table discussion”? Or something else. I see political discourse (or debate) as mostly adversarial. As a war of ideas between two competing world views over people in the “middle”. Which is why Strategy as a term doesn’t at all bother me at all. In saying that I don’t think it always is, nor that it should be adversarial all the time. It’d be great to work with the other side an negotiate what works best based on evident. Unfortunately for both sides, on a lot of issues what works is subjective. This is actually a good example of the point of the whole post. The frame (or metaphor) which you and I use to view the concept “political discourse” actually determines what we see as acceptable actions. Expand that out to everything else in society, from Healthcare, to taxes, to the economy. The extremes on either side have quite different frames to use to understand the concepts, so they arrive at quite different actions they think are appropriate.
It beggars belief that he is so effective.
If I think Kirk has a strong point, it’s that we need to get over ourselves about this. Key has – he’s not too proud to spin in ways that make people of intellect think he must be mentally deficient, talking to others who are likewise. In reality, he’s bloody clever, and makes conscious effort to dial that down, for a Kiwi audience. Especially for a Kiwi audience, which is committedly anti-intellectual, in the main.*
My mum told me a funny story last night – that some varsity professor she knew was drinking in a club and chatting to a guy. They were hitting it off. The other guy was some kind of tradie, and eventually the subject of what the professor did came up. He shamefacedly admitted that he was the head of the politics department at a University. The other guy didn’t even bat an eyelid, he patted him on the arm and just said “Well, you’d never have known”, and they carried on without pause into other subjects. The funny part of the story is that the professor felt it was one of the greatest compliments he’d ever received in his life.
This is what the intellectual left struggles with. On the one hand, it’s desperately important to all of us that we signal our brilliance to each other. Some of that’s ego, but also a lot of it is just to save wasting time – people don’t have to explain everything to you if you let on that you already have the background to get what they’re on about. On the other hand, we have to be very careful not to let clever intellectualism alienate us from the general public, if what that public thinks and does is important to us, and we want to be an important part of it.
The message I’m giving here is probably that the intellectual left probably shouldn’t look to it’s own feelings and habits about how best to convince people. If it wants to approach that systematically and intelligently, then probably looking to statistics is a way of doing it that suits what intellectuals are good for.
I get where you’re coming from
I expected that, and I look forward to your further posts. This is, from a purely intellectual POV, very bloody interesting :-).
There maybe a few issues where this is a “right” answer in purely objective terms (if such a thing exists). But the whole idea behind framing is that there is no such thing as a rational choice
Well, at least not a purely rational choice. I don’t even think we have to abandon the idea of an objectively right answer. We just have to accept that we are moving towards truth step by step, and sometimes it’s enough just to be more right, without ever needing to be totally right. We don’t have to solve an ancient philosophical dilemma before we can progress (well, OK, we do have to solve one – it’s known as Buridan’s Ass. So long as we choose not to die of hunger).
*Also important to remember that there is no shortage of right wing intellectuals. Do they suffer from these scruples? Some may, but enough don’t. In fact I expect they tell exactly the same story I’m telling right here the other way around, anywhere that the left has the ascendancy. In 5 years, it might be what they’re doing here, after the left has got better at spin-doctoring and regained some power. I can distinctly remember it being a common complaint during the Clark years that Labour’s spin machine was just too effective for the poor old intellectual Don Brash.
The framing effect sounds too much like a psychological just-so story, especially as it is one small study purporting to demonstrate a large effect. A follow-up suggests alternative explanations:
In this article, we offer a critical view of Thibodeau and Boroditsky.... We argue that the design of the study has left room for alternative explanations. We report four experiments comprising a follow-up study, remedying several shortcomings in the original design .... We do not find a metaphorical framing effect but instead show that there is another process at play across the board which presumably has to do with simple exposure to textual information. Reading about crime increases people's preference for enforcement irrespective of metaphorical frame or metaphorical support of the frame. These findings suggest the existence of boundary conditions under which metaphors can have differential effects on reasoning. Thus, our four experiments provide converging evidence raising questions about when metaphors do and do not influence reasoning.
Do you see it as a “war of ideas” or as “dinner table discussion”? Or something else. I see political discourse (or debate) as mostly adversarial.
I see it as both, and other things besides. For example, this debate right here in this thread is a political discourse. But I'd hope it could be more constructive than adversarial. It will certainly be adversarial at times - Rosemary threw down a gauntlet of challenge to you, so you come back with your rebuttal. But Rosemary is a person who can be convinced - as am I. You might be too. Just because the ideas are warring doesn't mean the people need to be. We are just vessels for that war, and we could change sides. I often change sides - usually to the weaker side. Just to feel it, to get an idea of the challenges, to expand my own mind and skills, to develop the ideas themselves more. Only when actually forced to take action would I generally show my hand, committing fully to one side. But until then, I can't, for instance, throw my lot in with Labour. I'm not convinced myself that that would be a good thing to do. I'm not going to go to war for them, if it's actually the Green army that's closer to my personal views. I'm not even going to war against National if they get something right, as occasionally happens.
It can also be a dinner table discussion. We're friends, talking some shit over drinks, and bonding. In the case of PAS this is literally true a lot of the time. A whole lot of outcomes completely aside from political action come from it. We make friends (and some enemies). There's probably been sex. I'm pretty sure that career opportunities and other organizational changes besides what is directly discussed come up. Birds of a feather, and all that. It's both good and bad for robust debate. Good because the discussion can become deep. Bad because it can be highly exclusionary, and we can talk ourselves into groupthink.
A better quote from the follow-up paper is:
In this paper, we have reported four studies that comprise a follow-up study to Thibodeau and Boroditsky. In contrast to the original studies, we consistently found no effects of metaphorical frames on policy preference. Additionally, there was no difference between the two metaphorical frames on the one hand and the non-metaphorical, neutral frame on the other hand, either. All three frames worked in the same way, consistently guiding all participants to a preference for enforcement-oriented policies. Our prediction that there might be an effect of metaphorical support for the metaphorical framing effects reported by Thibodeau and Boroditsky  was not supported either.
Compassion is a great kiwi value, and it’s a strong trait across the political spectrum.
Yeah and being a self-centred, self aggrandizing arsehole is a common human trait, not just K1W1's But we dont have the stomach to look ourselves squarely in the eye. We'd rather fluff ourselves.
And in politics talks cheap. So kind words mean nothing.
But good luck changing the way politicians routinely lie.(sorry use words that put a positive spin on their BS policies). Cause they dont care.
Most interesting. I do wonder if there might be an effect of "a pre-exposure measure of political preference" causing the subjects to lock in on their choice prior to reading the texts and thus changing the results. The findings are quite different. I need to read it closer though. Thanks for that.
We just have to accept that we are moving towards truth
When Kirk says "adversarial"...my reaction (gut) is a courtroom, where although the point of the exercise is supposed to be arriving at the truth...it so often ends up that he who has the most wriggly-arsed lawyer wins. The actual, irrefutable truth falls victim to the war of words. The truth lies bleeding out while the winners slap each other on the back.
Which is probably why so many MPs began their lives as lawyers.
Politics should be about fact, the truth, the actual reality of peoples' lives, how 'the system' affects them. It should be about finding what works for individuals and specific groups...who so often know what would work for them...but it hardly ever happens.
And as we cry foul...they pump out yet MORE spin (from a never ending supply of the stuff) to reassure us that they are on to it...getting it sorted...like this, da dum!
Yet another govt press release. More bullshit. And we continue to cry foul.
So, to survive, you either stop thinking and vote because you're supposed to and they tell you are irresponsible if you don't, or your default position becomes "everything any politician or bureaucrat says is a lie.", and completely disconnect from "politics" and voting altogether. That's me.
I want to vote. I want change...oh god do I want change.
But...I'm not going to be swayed by more of the same.
Give me facts. Give me the truth. Be perfectly transparent and honest.
Let me see people that I can relate to presenting ideas in a manner that makes me feel like a participant...not merely an observer, or a potential voter.
To use the Living Wage do as an example....carers get crap pay, those being being cared for by the underpaid carers think not only that the carers are being devalued by their hourly rate but the care recipients are also being insulted.
Care recipients and their families speak to management and management responds with threats.
WTF? ( Seriously bad move)
Now, we have two theoretically disparate groups brought together by corporate greed and exploitative practices. No fancy language needed...just the real facts.
Throw in some information from a plain speaking statistician type, get some hard talk from 'establishment' types talking about rights...to fair pay and freedom of speech...
We got ourselves a revolution folks.
The organisers said they invited the Selwyn Foundation to the do...to have a reasoned and non adversarial discussion...and I tend to believe that invite was genuine. I wonder what would have eventuated had they turned up?
PS. Key...mentally deficient or bloody clever?
Or simply cunning?
He shamefacedly admitted that he was the head of the politics department at a University. The other guy didn’t even bat an eyelid, he patted him on the arm and just said “Well, you’d never have known”, and they carried on without pause into other subjects. The funny part of the story is that the professor felt it was one of the greatest compliments he’d ever received in his life.
This is what the intellectual left struggles with.
Sounds like the good professor assuaged his struggle by cruising for a little intellectual rough trade. Chris Trotter's built a career out of it.
In my dreams, I have a committed National/Key voter pinned down, explaining exactly why they voted the way they did.
What did they think they were going to achieve?
Because they looked at the people who would be in government if National/Key DIDN'T get elected, and they voted accordingly.
They thought they would achieve "keeping those people out of government".
In an ultra-right wing frame, punishing the poor with higher taxes and cutting off social services is the morally correct thing to do. And they have a whole lot of metaphors and language that in absence of an alternate emotional story, get the middle on their side. It’s the whole “spoiling your kids metaphor”. Works like a charm. These stories will win over evidence not every time but enough of the time to win elections and change policy. Working on my next post that goes into more detail on these deeper framing issues.
I’ve come to the realisation that if only 2 words could sum up the likes of John Key, Paula Bennett and Steven Joyce, it's the "survivor’s bias" fallacy – and they’ve successfully spun it as an excuse to steal the ladder they climbed up and blame the victim.
There hasn’t been much of a matching counter-narrative. Is it really that expensive to carry out, or is it just quickly shot down as whingeing or ‘reds under the bed’?
Yep...rather sad that.
Some of us were begging for a worthwhile recipient for our vote.
I had hopes for 'cut the crap' Little, but I fear he is being groomed and finessed.
The centre right left will prevail.