Words Matter word cloud
Words Matter word cloud

Back dur­ing the Bush error, when the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute was found­ed, lead­ing experts in lin­guis­tics and and cog­ni­tive sci­ence (like Dr. George Lakoff) began an effort to teach pro­gres­sive activists and elect­ed offi­cials how to reframe and reclaim our pub­lic dis­course from right wing demagoguery.

That work con­tin­ues today and has tak­en on a new impor­tance in the wake of Don­ald Trump’s Elec­toral Col­lege vic­to­ry, which has put the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca on a path to becom­ing a full fledged klep­toc­ra­cy and kak­istoc­ra­cy (a state or soci­ety gov­erned by its least suit­able or com­pe­tent citizens).

“Fram­ing is about reclaim­ing our pow­er to decide what’s impor­tant,” George Lakoff explained in a Jan­u­ary 2018 post. “Fram­ing is about mak­ing sure we set the terms of the debate, using our lan­guage and our ideas. Con­ser­v­a­tives have beat­en pro­gres­sives at this for decades. It’s time for a change.”

What the right wing has long under­stood is that words mat­ter. Right wing intel­lec­tu­als and media per­son­al­i­ties know that words mean things.

So the right wing has empha­sized fram­ing and mes­sage dis­ci­pline to a huge degree. The rea­son right wing pun­dits on cable tele­vi­sion so often sound coor­di­nat­ed is because they are. They’re all work­ing to pro­mote right wing ideas and keep them at the fore­front of Amer­i­ca’s pub­lic discourse.

Every time pro­gres­sives use the right wing’s lan­guage to talk about the issues, we’re help­ing them pro­mote their ideas, whether we intend to or not. Even negat­ing a frame rein­forces that frame. That’s the first les­son of Lakof­f’s clas­sic Don’t Think Of An Ele­phant, which every pro­gres­sive activist should read.

In the open­ing pages of Don’t Think Of An Ele­phant, Lakoff explains that when he com­mands his stu­dents not to think of an ele­phant, that’s just what they do. They can’t help it. They pic­ture an ani­mal with a large trunk, tusks, and flop­py ears. And that’s because, again, negat­ing a frame rein­forces that frame.

The right wing knows that if they can get the lan­guage con­nect­ed to their ideas into wide­spread usage by the mass media and even their oppo­si­tion, they’ll be able to dom­i­nate our pub­lic dis­course. So they work very hard at doing just that. It’s why they invest­ed so much ener­gy into com­ing up with an epi­thet for the Patient Pro­tec­tion and Afford­able Care Act. Their goal was to make that epi­thet more ubiq­ui­tous than the offi­cial name giv­en to the law passed by Congress.

Word choice is thus of the utmost impor­tance. Words are like flags: Write or utter the wrong word, and you’ve just hoist­ed a flag for the oth­er side.

Word choice is incred­i­bly impor­tant. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, not every­one gets this, which is why from time to time you’ll hear the ridicu­lous put down That’s just seman­tics.

“Seman­tics are about mean­ing, and mean­ing is with­out ques­tion the sin­gle most impor­tant thing in any com­mu­ni­ca­tion. If mean­ing has no mean­ing, then peo­ple are just mak­ing ran­dom nois­es,” notes author Tom Chris­tiansen. “So seman­tics is not a mat­ter of no import as they would have you believe, but indeed the one sin­gle mat­ter that is of unde­ni­ably para­mount impor­tance.”

Unless we reframe, we will end up talk­ing about the right wing’s ideas by default. We need to be mind­ful of our own word choice and call out the mass media when they use loaded lan­guage in sup­pos­ed­ly objec­tive news coverage.

That’s exact­ly what a coali­tion of orga­ni­za­tions com­mit­ted to wom­en’s rights and repro­duc­tive jus­tice did this week when they demand­ed that the BBC stop using the phrase “heart­beat bill” to describe leg­is­la­tion passed by right wing dom­i­nat­ed state leg­is­la­tures to deny women the free­dom to decide to end a pregnancy.

“As an inter­na­tion­al broad­cast­er with a glob­al week­ly reach in 2018 of 376 mil­lion peo­ple, [the BBC] … has a duty to avoid being com­plic­it, how­ev­er unknow­ing­ly, in the aggres­sive cam­paign by anti-abor­tion extrem­ists world­wide attempt­ing to rob women of their rights and care,” wrote rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Marie Stopes Inter­na­tion­al, the Planned Par­ent­hood Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­ca and the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Gynae­col­o­gy and Obstetrics.

The BBC’s news direc­tor Fran Unsworth dis­mis­sive­ly respond­ed: “We would not aim to adopt it as our own descrip­tion of the leg­is­la­tion… I do not think our report­ing can avoid the fact that the phrase is now in com­mon usage.”

That’s the kind of response that makes a right wing intel­lec­tu­al smile.

Oper­a­tives work­ing at right wing think tanks know they’ve suc­ceed­ed in influ­enc­ing (if not dom­i­nat­ing) pub­lic dis­course when some­one in Unsworth’s posi­tion decides that lan­guage con­nect­ed to their ideas should con­tin­ue to be used in copy sim­ply because it is “now in com­mon usage.”

Unsworth’s ratio­nale for reject­ing this rea­son­able request is nonsensical.

Pro­fan­i­ties and racial slurs are also in “com­mon usage”, but you gen­er­al­ly won’t see such words in the BBC’s copy because the use of such lan­guage by a news orga­ni­za­tion com­mit­ted to neu­tral and objec­tive report­ing is unacceptable.

“This phrase was cho­sen very care­ful­ly by peo­ple who want to end access to legal abor­tion to insert dan­ger­ous­ly emo­tive lan­guage into the com­mon ver­nac­u­lar,” IPPF’s Dr. Alvaro Berme­jo not­ed in response to Unsworth’s com­ments. “The right thing to do is to stop using it. We call on the BBC to think again.”

Berme­jo’s response is spot on. This is exact­ly how a pro­gres­sive activist or elect­ed offi­cial ought to respond when get­ting push­back from an insti­tu­tion like the BBC that is resist­ing aban­don­ing the use of loaded language.

We may not be able to con­trol what the mass media says or uses in their copy, but we can con­trol what we say. We can mod­el the behav­ior we want to see, and we can be per­sis­tent in call­ing on news orga­ni­za­tions that claim to be com­mit­ted to objec­tiv­i­ty to live by that val­ue and avoid loaded language.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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