The Word Killers

November 16, 2010

We’ve all heard about Frank Luntz, the man who taught the GOP to speak so that the sheep would listen. He now runs a company called The Word Doctors, which describes itself as “a powerhouse in the profession of message creation and image management.” The company describes Luntz as “one of the most honored communication professionals in America today.”

So Frank Luntz is an honored message creator and image manager. Honored by whom? Well, the web site lists among its corporate clients Disney and McDonalds and Pepsi. And a Psychology Today article claims that Luntz “gives us valuable insights on how subtle shifts in word usage can mean the difference between success and failure.”

Whether we like it or not, American politics function as a battle, and battles are all about success and failure. Frank Luntz and The Word Doctors know that—and take ample advantage of it for personal gain. According to Time magazine, via The Word Doctors, “If words are a weapon, Frank Luntz is a Samurai.”

So, let me get this straight: The Word Doctors is a powerhouse and Frank Luntz is a Samurai. It sounds like an action movie coming soon to a theater near you. Actually, the work of Frank Luntz and his disciples is near you, all the time. I got a swift, subtle reminder of that just the other day.

George W. Bush was on television promoting his book. Compared to the major lies Matt Lauer let slide by, this was a small moment, but it struck me—maybe because I had recently re-watched Fahrenheit 9/11 and been moved by the footage of protesters on GWB’s inauguration day. When Matt Lauer asked Mr. Bush about those protesters, he replied, “This crowd of activists were, you know, trying to disrupt and ruin the inaugural parade for others.”

“This crowd of activists.” Activists. What hit me like a slap across the face the minute he said the word was how ugly he made it sound. We all know what the GOP has done to the word “activist.” “Activist judges.” I knew it, but still it floored me, because it was so casual, so off-the-cuff.

The definition of the word activist (noun) is as follows:

an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause.

“Activist” has no intrinsic character, good or bad. One may find the cause for which the activist advocates good or bad, but Mr. Bush used the word “activist” in a way that made the word “activist” bad. And I personally resent that.

Activists make up Margaret Mead’s “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” who can change the world. The activists Mr. Bush spoke of were American citizens vigorously asserting their right to free speech, at a time when they felt that their right to vote had been maimed and debased by a group of thieves. Were they trying to disrupt and ruin the parade? I wouldn’t say that. I’d say they were trying to get out the message that the parade was a sham.

If the Bush inauguration protesters were activists, so are the Tea Partiers, and so are the Operation Rescue folks. They advocate for causes, don’t they? But would Mr. Bush call them activists, in the same faintly disgusted tone I sensed when he was speaking of the people who held up signs expressing their feelings about his rather strange road to the White House?

Doctors heal. I don’t find the Frank Luntz kind of message creation healing. I don’t think perfectly healthy words should be turned into sickening weapons for personal gain. If you disagree with my opinion, perhaps you can get a Word Doctor to rewrite my post. Maybe some “subtle shifts in word usage” can transform my message into one in which Mr. Bush is not a word killer.

Obama Behind the Desk

June 16, 2010

Barack Obama behind his desk

Last night, on June 15, 2010, President Obama gave his first speech to the nation from the Oval Office—a setting associated with somber situations and the need for national unity. The situation this time was the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, which is the result of our country’s complicity in corporate contracts as well as BP’s ineptitude and shameless lack of concern for the environment from which they take their immense profits. President Obama sat behind his desk, and he spoke about the seriousness of this catastrophe. He spoke about a national mission. He spoke about our addiction to oil. But it wasn’t enough.

I wanted him to sound tougher. Not John Wayne tough. Barack Obama-the-candidate tough would have been just fine. I wanted to get a sense that he’s as angry and sad and frustrated and distraught about this as I am. But I don’t think he sees that as his role; his role is to project the calm sense of forward motion that is required to solve problems. I want the problem solved, true, and I still have some faith that he might be able to get some things done that will solve some parts of it. (How’s that for a realistic assessment of the qualified power of government?)

Each of us, I hope, has someone we can vent to. We all need a person in our lives who can stand there and take our heat, hear us cry, stay steady while we scream, and still love us when we’re all done emoting. I have never expected my president to be that person. I have always proclaimed that the president is a person we hire to do a job. Do I expect my boss to be my confidant, my “Miss Lonelyhearts”? No. Nor do I expect him to be a churchgoer, a nonsmoker, or faithful to his wife. I simply expect him to do his job. And, when President Obama was behind that desk, I expected nothing more than for him to do his job, but . . .

Truth be told, I realize that I also did want him to mirror what I was feeling. That’s part of effective leadership—to let the people you’re leading know you’re acting, calmly and responsibly, but with acknowledgment of the crazed, irresponsible undercurrents that surround the situation. You have to somehow step in front of the desk while sitting behind it, step out in front of the country the way candidate Bill Clinton stepped out toward the audience at the infamous town hall meeting when I suddenly knew he would win the 1992 presidential election.

I want President Obama to solve our problems, first and foremost but—just as important, I now see—I need to know he feels our pain.

Bill Clinton's connection with the audience, 1996

What do you get when you put a bunch of social psychologists together? You get a fascinating web site called YourMorals.Org. Developed by a group of psychologists interested in how individual morality affects people’s political identity, YourMorals.Org is both insightful and fun.

It’s fun because you get to take online quizzes about yourself. And it’s insightful because your answers are compared to those of self-identified liberals and conservatives who have also taken the quizzes. Colorful bar charts show you exactly where you rank politically as related to how you react morally.

The cornerstone of the site is the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. This asks questions that rank you on five different areas associated with morality. The areas are: Fairness, Harm, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. The site explains what each of these means, but, to be brief, liberals tend to rank high only on Fairness and Harm (i.e., they find actions that hurt people or treat people unfairly to be immoral actions), while conservatives tend to also rank high on Authority, Loyalty, and Purity (i.e., they also find actions that go against the leader, the group, or engender feelings of disgust to be immoral actions).

Of course, we all have our own unique gut-level tipping points for each of the five areas, but the site’s creators have found their generalizations about liberals and conservatives to be true. Their purpose in maintaining the site is to make those of us who take the quizzes more aware of our own “home morality,” as Jonathan Haidt, one of the site’s developers, calls it. By knowing where you stand, the creators hope that you can then step out of your home morality and try to imagine where the other guy stands. The hoped-for result of that is greater civility in politics.

For example, if I do not consider morality, or if I assume that everyone else’s moral foundations are the same as mine, I may view someone who opposes homosexuality as a narrow-minded bigot. If I realize that the other person opposes homosexuality because it goes against his morality — that his morality is defined as adherence to a code that does not allow homosexuality — I can better understand that person and think of him in more civil terms.

Site co-creator Ravi Iyer confirms that liberals are more inclined to take the quizzes on the site than are conservatives, but he says that the analysis of the quizzes adjust for that. The number of quizzes available on the site is quite impressive, and Mr. Iyer states that he and his colleagues are always looking for new ways to use the data they collect, with the ultimate goal of increased understanding.

Mr. Iyer also notes that President Obama is unique among recent presidents and presidential candidates in that he regularly touches on all five moral foundations in his speeches. I call that a testament to Obama’s desire to promote increased understanding among Americans.

So, please visit YourMorals.Org and find out where you stand. Then, take a look around and see if it’s easier to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

We Need a New Myth

November 12, 2009

The Philip Morris Company knew what it was doing when it created the Marlboro Man; Americans like cowboys. They like to think of the real American as a cowpoke riding the range, going it alone, and spitting in the eye of any man who tries to make him dress up and settle down.

We romanticize the frontiersman, breaking the sod and planting his crops. We glamorize the ranchers and forty-niners of the Westward Expansion, who gave up the comforts of civilization to seek out prosperity. We adore John Wayne.

The cowboy image has had many representations in modern society, and Americans have responded positively to all of them: the astronauts who tamed the frontier of space; Ronald Reagan on his horse; and George W. Bush, who talked about going after Al Qaeda as if he were a cowboy getting ready to fight the “Injuns”: “Bring ’em back dead or alive.”

There are adherents to the cowboy myth among us today who oppose changing our health care system. When President Obama stood before the nation on September 9, 2009 and outlined a reform plan that any reasonable person could come to accept, all they saw was an “Injun” who had no right to be on their land, much less tell them what to do. One of them even shouted “You lie!” as if he and the president were a couple of ranch hands getting ready for a barroom brawl.

I met a “cowboy” recently who said to me, “You want to know how to get heath care reform? Everybody should stop paying their insurance. Just stop paying it. Then those companies will go down the tubes, and we can go back to the way it was in the ’50s, when you paid out of pocket. You just paid out of pocket.”

He went on to express his anger at President Obama, saying Obama wants everybody to get insurance or he’ll put them in jail. “A man,” he said, “should be able to go in the woods and die, if he wants to.”

And then the “cowboy” walked away from me. Here is what I would have said if he had stayed: “That sounds very romantic and heroic. But what if a truck hits you tomorrow and leaves you with a shattered leg, a punctured stomach, and a head wound? Do you have enough in your pocket to pay for the operations you’ll need in order to survive? And if you don’t, should the ambulance crew just leave you on a stretcher and let you die of your wounds?”

That’s what would have happened to a frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, or a pioneer woman who had a difficult birth on a straw bed in her sod house; they would have just stayed put and died of their wounds. People during the Great Depression paid for their doctor visits with chickens or firewood, but that wouldn’t be feasible today.

The cowboy myth, with its “bring it on” swagger, is outdated. Even the pioneers didn’t stay pioneers. They formed towns and cities and states and a country that must keep advancing in the way it treats people. Therefore, little boys must grow up and stop playing “cowboys and Indians.”

We need a new myth. The cowboy is a man of the past, and the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer.