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Let’s Get Beyond Left “Groupspeak” Now! 6.29.12

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As I write, the 2012 home stretch is still a few months away. There’s still time to get beyond our own disastrous Democratic/liberal/progressive “groupthink/groupspeak.” What is “groupspeak?” It’s the verbal equivalent of what Professor Haidt has described as “motivated reasoning,” preconceived ideas that get draped in rationalizations and then expressed in tired old words or phrases, because our biggest unconscious fear is actually group ostracism—by our own group.

While “motivated reasoning” has deep roots in human history and may have led to our survival in the past, today Left groupthink and “groupspeak” are actually threatening our survival--our ability to fight back against the plutocratic coup now nearly complete in our country. The plutocrats don’t talk like plutocrats, of course. They hire very savvy spinmeisters, who figure out how to speak American to the American public, so they can sell them a fatal bill of goods. Unless we can quickly get to the point where we can outframe the Right, we’re in for a very long bad spell from which our country may never recover. Understanding that we ourselves are actually sick with a bad case of groupthink and “groupspeak” might help us get on the road to recovery now.

Having just spent several weeks on the East Coast going to progressive and liberal conferences, I’ve noticed plenty of Left “groupspeak.” But I’ve also heard and read a few really good suggestions about how to get over the problem. First though, let’s look at some of the most important “groupspeak” examples I heard, and how they could be fixed. In one of the saddest moments I witnessed, at one conference I heard Professor Paul Krugman describing the way his new book, End This Depression Now!, revolves around the central metaphor of what to do about a dead car battery. So far so good.

But then he went on to say that the Right uses very simple language, ideas, and morality tales (“debt is immoral”) to push their agenda, but we can’t do that, because our policy ideas are too complex and nuanced. I felt like jumping up to the mike right then to say, “Professor Krugman, you just wrote a book organized around a powerful metaphor! We can and must try harder to find the other metaphors that can carry our message to the American public! Don’t give up, man! Especially, don’t give up in front of an important gathering of progressives.” That’s already what too many on the Left believe. It may tickle our egos to think we are too complex and nuanced to do the job, but it’s going to end really badly for us if we don’t get beyond that idea.

The next frustrating example of “groupthink/groupspeak” I’ll quote was a remark made by someone commenting on the cut to food stamps embedded in the Farm Bill. It pointed up one of our most problematic issues: framing the positive nature and role of government. The speaker remarked that it was terrible to have this cut in food stamps, because it was the government’s job to “deliver goods and services to people who needed them.” Again, I was twitching in my chair: defining government as “delivering goods and services” makes it sound like a market; this is exactly the wrong framing.

What the government does is “buy goods and services with public money,” making purchases that protect our democracy and help create the jobs that jumpstart economic upturns.(1) A specific reframe for the idea of keeping current food stamp levels would be that it would protect Americans, especially children, who are threatened with starvation by undemocratic and unfair economic conditions. It also would keep our American ideal of economic opportunity alive. You can’t learn, work or even look for work if you are too hungry to do it!

Coming in third after that in terms of tragically “off” framing was the suggestion by a pollster that all Democrats should be talking about helping/and protecting the middle class. True, right now too many are falling out of the middle class. But there are a lot of others in our country who also need to hear that they are on our leaders’ minds—so the framing should be something like, “help get the middle class back on its feet and everyone else too.”

These are just a few examples of typical Left “groupspeak” I happened to notice; but I also heard some really good ideas for getting out of our own “groupspeak” trap. On the positive side, Nation columnist Illyse Hogue said that we need to make much more explicit links between the policy ideas we promote and what the concrete outcomes for voters would be, as in “we need to tax the rich so we can use the money to create jobs,” (or, I’d reframe as, “. . .so we can use that public money to jumpstart new job creation, because ‘private money’ refuses to do it.”).

Political consultant Drew Westen also had a good suggestion; the formula he recommended was this: start your sentences with a clause that contains a premise shared with your audience, then introduce the conclusion you want to make: “If CEO’s can bargain for higher compensation packages, then workers should be able to do it too.” That is another very useful way of connecting the dots. Both Hogue and Westen urged us to call immorality on the Right by name, saying things like “inequality is immoral and inefficient,” or calling the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United “corrupt; here again I’d add: “this decision was downright un-American and immoral. It’s the most serious threat to our democracy yet.”

But hands down, the most important thing for outframing the Right on a daily basis is learning how to translate our own ideas into “American truthbites” If we won’t learn to “speak American” now, when so much is at stake, and when the resources, tools, and methods are so readily available, what, I ask you, is the matter with us? Is it an intellectual form of stupidity, lazy arrogance, or an all too easy cave-in to despair? Fragmented, siloed thinking, about what we believe as a political group? Illyse Hogue spoke of our “blind spots.” Are they willful blind spots? A refusal to learn? Better dead than speak to be heard?

Maybe George Lakoff’s and Elizabeth Wehling’s new Little Blue Book can help us out on the macro groupthink level, because we need a lot of help there too. Once again, they urge us not to use the Right’s language or ideas ourselves, not to repeat and then negate their arguments, and they show how to set up our own liberal moral premises first, a step that must always precede the creation of specific “American truthbites.”

Moreover, in the book’s center there is excellent analysis of the crucial struggle of our time: for a public democracy that protects and empowers everybody equally against a metastacizing corporate dictatorship that acts only for the profit of the few and harms the American public. Embedded in the Little Blue Book’s list of generic talking points about this fight are even a few interesting “American truthbite” suggestions: pro-family (to replace pro-choice), family freedom, pregnancy prevention (to replace birth control), the Food Bill (to replace the Farm Bill), sun food vs. oil food, eternal energy (from sun, wind, water, waves etc.), undertaxing.

But no framing expert can be at everyone’s elbow all the time or come up with the best everyday language for every issue. There is no expert, top-down substitute for everyone, the Left and the Democrats, buckling down and doing their own American Framing homework, to make our ideas comprehensible to the mainstream public. As Van Jones has repeatedly said this summer, “it’s time we put on our thinking caps ourselves.” In fact, it’s very long overdue. Let’s “crowdframe” our messages right, now before it’s too late.


Susan C. Strong is the founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project, , and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How To Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997.
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(1) I use the phrase “public money” and “private money” to apply Lakoff and Wehling’s abstract concepts of “The Public” and “The Private” to real life situations. Unfortunately, if one goes around talking about “The Public” in everyday language, it will come across as “the American Public,” or “the public—as in “public opinion” or “the people” in general. But, for example, “public money” can be described as the lifeblood of our democracy; it keeps the living body of our democracy whole. So let’s try using “public” and “private” as contrasting adjectives for all the things we want to say now. Another example: “Public democracy (or public funding) protects freedom and opportunity for all. Our growing corporate dictatorship secretly destroys both.”