Appealing to where (we think) people are has become the norm among progressives, especially as we’ve become ever-more wedded to the proclamations of pollsters. This is what gives rise and lends credence to unhelpful slogans like “Work hard and play by the rules.” Since people are afraid of terrorists, let’s call our climate change efforts an antiterrorism program. Since people don’t want to shell out for art programs in schools, let’s tout how knowing music correlates to good math performance.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and again, evoking our opponents’ worldview in service of our policies only serves to push people further away from our beliefs. And, in turn, makes our policies seem less and less logical.
Strategic communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio has a message for progressives, simple but apparently almost impossible to execute, given the movement's history: Get personal. Get real. And for heaven's sake, quit fighting your opponent on your opponent's terms.
Seems like common sense, but as Shenker-Osorio discusses in her new book, Don't Buy It, she sees progressives make these same mistakes over and over and over again. In particular, the progressive messaging on the economy—especially the metaphors we adopt in discussing it—have contributed to a massive communication failure.
In a nutshell, when we insist on talking about the financial meltdown and its effects in terms of an unstoppable force of nature–like I just did with meltdown, in fact, or as many, many other well-intentioned liberals discuss it in terms of a crash, an earthquake, a "flood of bad mortgages," "the perfect storm" of circumstances—all these terms cry out that we must hunker down and pray instead of actively work for change.
Body metaphors are little better—an "unhealthy economy," a "sluggish recovery"—these too imply outside agency swooping in and destroying us, usually from within, like germs or cancer. But these scenarios are flatly wrong.
The economic crisis was neither an act of God nor a natural disaster, not an attack by microbes or internal organ breakdown. It was the result of choices—bad ones—made by specific human beings who benefitted from human-created policies at the expense of a majority of the population. And if our language does not reflect that this crisis is human-made, it follows that it cannot be human unmade either, which plays into the shrugging, no-fault stance of conservatives:
It's a wild and crazy free market. Whatcha gonna do? It's untameable, man. It's gotta do what it's gotta do. It's cyclical, like the seasons. Has ebbs and flows, like the tides. Has peaks and valleys, ups and downs.
No. Just … no.
As Shenker-Osorio points out, this is prime-grade bullshit. The free market (which as most progressives realize isn't running very freely at all, but for the benefit of the few at the top) is human-created, and it's up to human beings to change the rules by which it runs to make it serve more human beings better. Conservatives will do everything in their power to hide that simple fact.
So how best to talk about the economy? Vehicles. Journeys. Navigation. Maps. Human-created and human-run metaphors for motion. We can change our maps, rules of the road, get new vehicles to take us where we want to go, change direction. We are, in short in charge of the economy when it breaks down. And we, through our choices, can fix it.
Another part of the solution beyond changing metaphors is in calling out who is responsible—and being passionate enough to even risk being called impolite for going all specific and ballistic on the criminals' asses:
Progressive advocates’ love affair with the passive voice—not naming a person in the subject position of our sentences—has hindered our ability to portray why things are the way they are. And, with it, how things could be different and better....
The polite passive voice we’ve adopted may make us sound reasoned and neutral—like coolheaded experts or academics. But it obscures the truth and lets guilty parties off the hook.
And you. You, over there. Yeah, you. Shenker-Osorio has a message for you on line 1, flashing red.
I’m not entirely sure why we’ve cut “you” and permutations of it from our public vocabulary. Perhaps progressives have done too many workshops in nonviolent communication and become schooled in making “I” statements. Perhaps the omission is gendered—where masculine-dominated cultures like the Republican Party go to issuing orders, balanced or feminine ones favor airing grievances, opening up possibilities, and not imposing their views.
Whatever the impetus, we need to cut it out. Progressives’ public statements often make us sound too much like academics and too seldom like regular people. Further, as we’re generally fighting about and for issues of fairness, security, livelihood, and well-being for all, we’re long overdue in conveying to audiences that we’re talking to you.
Don't Buy It fits in neatly with the messaging genre of George Lakoff and Drew Westen, but goes more deeply into income inequality issues. Additionally, Shenker-Osorio has a voice that's fun to hang out with: smart, savvy, wry, funny—a shooter from the hip who urges simple, practical, passionate language. "The main topic I've taken up," she writes, "is communicating with deep clarity and effective audacity."
Example: "We would do well to exert less effort saying what we do not believe."
Can we get a hallelujah on that last one? She explains it further, and more clearly, than I've seen anyone explain it yet. We are strategic dopes when we buy the right-wing framing:
We often seem more comfortable crafting language from the underlying beliefs of our opponents than from our own.
In sum, it’s not useful to “meet people where they are” if that place is destructive. We must instead borrow some gumption from our opponents, since as conservatives have proven time and again, it is possible to see where people are capable of going and leading them there.
If we can learn anything from Republican messaging master Frank Luntz, it is to sing our fight songs and never mind about pissing off those who disagree with us. While progressives tread lightly and seek not to offend, conservatives turn the volume full blast on even the most outlandish of their opinions. They do not meet people where they are. They plant a flag where they’d like people to go and start a march there, without food or water, no matter the distance.
Singing our fight songs sounds like a refreshing exercise after decades of trying to meet conservatives on a shrinking middle ground and cowering at their rhetoric. Shenker-Osorio, who's been fighting in the trenches of the word wars for years as a communications consultant to the ACLU, the MS. Foundation, America's Voice and dozens of other progressive groups, knows her stuff. Don't Buy It is a great handbook to start thinking about how to change the conversation, particularly on the economy.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.