Friday, May 1, 2009

"Uncle Grumpy - 'Watch the Words'"

Uncle Grumpy’s back. I can’t say no to him. He bought me a Bowie knife for my twelfth birthday. I’ve owed him ever since.

Uncle Grump, the floor is yours.

What can I tell ya? The kid wanted a Bowie knife, his mother wouldn’t get him one.

Okay, here it is.

Words. Matter.

You choose one word instead of another word, it means something. What? It means you didn’t want to use the other word. Why? Because the word you chose more accurately suited your purposes.

For good. Or for evil.

Words can reveal. Words can conceal. Words can manipulate. Words can distort. People say, “It’s only words.” They’re wrong. And they’re trying to fool you. With words. While they’re trying to convince you they don’t matter.

There’s this guy named Frank Luntz, a political and corporate consultant, usually identified with conservative causes. Luntz wrote a book called Words That Work. The subtitle for that book could have read, “How To Use ‘Hot Button’ Words To Fool People Into Coming Over To Your Side.” But only if Luntz was trying to be honest, rather than trying to sell books.

In a culture with a diminishing concern for shame, there are a remarkably few unacceptable methods of making a living. Expert liars could promote their “How To Lie” books as “self help” aids, explaining, “If you’re going to lie anyway, why not learn how to be good at it?”

Luntz trains his clients to wrap their arguments in specific, focus-group-tested words and phrases, which, because of their connotations to the listeners, are helpful in gaining their support. Luntz was famous for re-branding the Inheritance Tax the “Death Tax.” People, formerly apathetic on the subject, were suddenly up in arms.

“Man! You can’t even die in this country without getting taxed!”

Luntz taught the opponents of “global warming” to defuse the concern by repackaging the issue as “Climate change.” “Climate change” doesn’t sound so earthshaking. You open a window. You put on a sweater. Good-bye, “Climate change”.

People aren’t crazy about oil drilling? Call it “Energy exploration.” Suddenly, it’s an adventure.

“Energy exploration! I want to do that!”

You’re not plundering the environment. You’re Magellan.

Here’s a popular Luntzism. At least it sounds like one. There’s a lot of talk these days about the previous administration’s behavior concerning the issue of torture. When they’re questioned about it, spokespeople for the previous administration, not one of them, but every one of them – as if they’d been carefully tutored to do so – will first make a sour face, and then they’ll say,

“I don’t think we should re-litigate the past.”

You see the word? “Re-litigate”?

This word was not casually selected. “Re-litigate” is a “lawyer word”. People don’t like lawyers. Especially when they’re litigating.

Using that word sends the message, “What they’re doing here is bad.” And it's not just litigating. It's re-litigating. They litigated already. And now, they’re litigating again! What the heck is going on!

This rampant litigating has got to stop!

Can anyone say “sideshow”? Suddenly, we’re talking about “litigating”, and nobody’s talking about torture.

Secondly, and more importantly,

Whenever someone complains, “I don’t think we should re-litigate the past”, what they’re actually saying, rather transparently, is, “Look, our side messed up in a shameful and embarrassing way in the past, and it would be a lot better for us if we didn’t talk about it anymore.”

Hence, the distracting “re-litigate.” They pooped in their pants. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Am I being unfair? I don’t know. People who won the Nobel Prize, or received an Oscar or the Congressional Medal of Honor, they seem to be to happy to talk about the past. Why is that?

Because they didn’t torture anybody.

Why does this get me so steamed up? Because a self-serving choice of words has replaced a serious discussion with a “smiley face” and a new coat of paint. After all the P.R., symbolic manipulation, the problem is still there.

And you can’t make that go “poof” with words.

Here’s what I don’t get. We know what they’re doing. They know we know.

So why do they keep doing it?


growingupartists said...

Valor. Word of the day.

Chutzpah said...

“I don’t think we should re-litigate the past.”

Unless someone has come up with a way to prosecute crimes *before* they happen, all crimes are "the past" by the time they are litigated.

A. Buck Short said...

These people need to wear Luntzcaps. Down here in Dallas – AKA ground zero HQ for Swiftboat Veterans for Truth – I’m still trying to come to terms with re-fried beans. Why can’t anybody get things right the first time? At least in the current pandemic we’re no longer arbitrarily libeling entire nations and continents for optimal benefit – remember the Spanish Flu, the Asian Flu, the Hong Kong Flu. I was beginning to think Influenza was the name of a NY crime family from The Godfather - like the Tattaglias. Nobody’s gone yet with Mexican Flu. So far, we’re only maligning one porcine species.

I was at an event last night with Joe Seidelmaier, the ad guy behind those great fast-talking-guy FedEx, Clara Peller “Where’s the Beef? Alaska Airlines and other classic entertaining commercials. He was lamenting, how constricted he felt in one spot, when the client and agency insisted on his using the phrase “Jello brand gelatin.” I pointed out the really amazing thing about Jello commercials is how they’re still able to completely obfuscate the fact that it’s an animal product. And a disgusting animal product at that. And then when you add the word “mold” to it, as in Jello MOLD, well that really doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to put in your mouth.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was "enhanced interrogation". "Waterboarding" sounds a lot like a sport, not deliberately trying to drown somebody. My favorite is "friendly fire". I could go on....but why? It's enough to make an English teacher weep.
In education, we no longer 'mark' or 'grade'....we 'assess' and 'evaluate'. These, FYI, are totally different. We aim for the weakest kids to achieve 'student success', a euphemism for not really so much if you look closely at the facts. But it sounds better.
I hear they're 'rebranding' swine flu cause it puts people off their bacon and ribs.

Willy B. Good said...

I saw that shyster Luntz doing election focus groups on tv last year and I couldn't believe how he could get such a gullible brain dead audience until I remembered I had it on Shyster News, errr, I mean Fox News. Right on uncle !

Frank Luntz said...

Are you the Earl Pomerantz who helped write amazing citcoms of the 80s and 90s?

MikeThe Blogger said...

How topical your blog post is today. The right wingers are not the only ones using language change to make their point:
"Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus" In the New York Times on-line. Here is a link to it.

A. Buck Short said...

And that’s why I so enjoy the irony of mispronouncing the adjective when referring to these “focus” groups.

Boy, am I glad to sometimes check back in. Thanks for the NYT tip M-the-B. I recommend a glance. Now can you digest the New Yorker and get back to us? We stopped getting that too, and have too much spam to hunt down their e-teasers on line.

I think I’m still going to have to side with the EcoAmerica gang in that article, to make the global-warming language more user-friendly to those on the fence. Co-opt the tools of evil to serve the forces of good.

Actually I think you can have the approach-avoidance cake and eat it too. Simultaneously cuddly and foreboding at the same time. I’m putting my money on that footage of polar bear cubs swimming for their lives. How will it turn out—you decide!

It just occurred to me that the term for somebody who worries about which words to use in saving the environment would literally be “eco-logist.”There is a cute little movie directed by Melanie Mayron, with Piper Perabo, called “Slap her… She’s French” (no French people were harmed in the making of this movie), that mocks teenage pageants. In answering that final all-important question from the judges (see Miss California/gay marriage), one of the finalists apparently thinks “global warming” is a synonym for everybody getting along and “world peace.”

That may be another one of the problems; global warming doesn’t sound threatening at all. At best it sounds like too much of a good thing.

The cynical achievement award for this “re-framing the argument” movement has got to go to the current Chevron Oil “I will” commercials strategically placed during the Sunday talk shows. The company that stonewalled on global warming for a decade now positions itself as leading the charge for energy conservation and asks, “Will you join us?”

As if we were the ones who had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this. We have a word for this down here in Texas -- chutzpah. Another "V"-word of the day, virtue, and pretending to have any.

In case you weren’t aware, this kind of pandering has earned the name “greenwashing” --misleading acts of branding, labeling, PR, etc. trying to portray oneself as environmentally conscious, playing to the zeitgeist. (I think it’s a wonderful example of wordplay.

Apparently coined as far back as the 1980’s by a guy named Jay Westerveld, who pointed out that the hotels urging guests to re-use bath towels were actually engaged in a campaign to save money on laundry – given that none of them could point to any other environmentally-friendly activities.

Oh, did I mention, I may have lied? On second thought, I think the more egregious example of greenwashing has got to be the familiar GE company commercial with the elephant dancing in a rainforest like Gene Kelly to Singin’ in the Rain:

“Water that’s more pure. At GE we’re using what we call “ecoimagination [emphasis theirs] to create technology that’s right in step with nature.”

Oh, puleeeeeeze! All this after the company spent more than two decades in court fighting its complete culpability in turning both the upper and lower Hudson River into a poisonous, and practically un-reclaimable, PCB cesspool by continuously dumping the chemical into the river upstream. (At least they didn’t position the process as an effort to afford the Hudson River striped bass responsible birth control. That would have been hypocritical.)

There is a way to get through this muck with at least a modicum of style and dignity. In contrast to Chevron and its fellow travelers, the Diesel company succeeds fairly well in acknowledging the environmental problem while avoiding the pretense of actually doing something about it-- apart from the acknowledgement itself. Un-pachydermishly exhibiting what semblance of substance can be mustered without embarrassing oneself. I like the closing scenes of the Scandinavian desert, the Caribbeanization of Mt. Rushmore, and particularly Christ of the Andes emerging at sea level.

Bob said...

According to the New York Times, it's environmentalists who seek to redefine "global warming."

Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus By JOHN M. BRODER
Published: May 1, 2009 NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON — The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.