Monday, October 1, 2012

Phrasing matters

Would you vote for someone that had the gall to suggest we tax 'job creators'?

How about someone that says we tax "wealthy people that pay less tax than the middle class does?"

Phrasing matters.  Exact words carry implications.  There is huge difference between "barely a million dollars" and "more than a million dollars".  Not to mention the difference between "Illegal" vs."Undocumented" immigrants (particularly when many of those involved did not commit a crime - if your parents illegally bring you across the border, you never broke the law, they did.)

In addition, you can use phrasing to get people to believe a lie is true, without actually saying the lie.   People support "Energy Exploration" more than they support "Oil Drilling".   In part because "Energy Exploration" implies it includes other things besides oil drilling - but the laws and bills for Energy Exploration don't actually include those other things.

There's always the half hardhearted denial "I take him at his word" instead of saying you believe he is correct.  Or "I have no evidence to contradict".  Of course, this can backfire if used to the extreme, as in "It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is."

People don't like to be manipulated.

So, how do you do it right?

Well, it helps if you go with the prejudice.  It's a lot harder to create a new one.   That's one of the major problems with 'job creators'.   People aren't stupid enough to believe that all wealth people create jobs.  We live in the real world and we know about outsourcing, downsizing.

But it's not the truth that rules, it's the current opinion.   Otherwise "liberal" would never have been used as an insult.

The trick is to walk the fine line close to what what people already believe, but on the side you want to emphasize.  You make small movements and over time, it moves the people.  Too big a move and you go backwards.

Let's say you wanted to support Puerto Rico as the 51th state (they will be voting come November).   You can talk about how all American citizens should have the right to vote for who is President of the United States.

If you are against it, you call them "Puerto Ricans".   Both terms are technically correct, but when you talk about "all American Citizens" you get more support for the idea, as opposed to "Puerto Ricans".

This can clearly be seen in polls.  Different phrasing gets different results. People try to use these polls to shift the discussion among the media, or to try and solidify weak support.  Do you vote against "socialized healthcare" or in favor of "guaranteed healthcare for all"?

So here are some basic rules for detecting/designing phrases that push your opinion.

1) Over-inclusive words bring thoughts and opinions unrelated to the real topic to bear on the issue.  "Energy Exploration" and "Job Creators" are good examples.  So are "pro-choice" and 'pro-life".

2)  Emotional impact words (as opposed to intellectual impact) can shift opinions as well. Probably my favorite is the use of the word "Death Tax" as opposed to "inheritance tax".  We don't tax the dead, we tax the heirs not the dead, yet somehow the GOP made popular the emotionally charged word "Death Tax".

3) Look for 'replacement' of old words.  If someone is trying to change the word used, more than often that means they want to push your attitude.   Discrimination terminology is famous for this "handicapable vs handicapped". 

4) Look for words that imply the opposite of what they mean.  There is a huge difference between "Pro-Life" and "Anti-Abortion".   The movement is not "pro" anything, it is against abortion.  They want the "pro" to imply they are in favor of something when in fact they are against something. 

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