Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On "Spin" vs. "Framing"

In the comments portion of my last post on "economic refugees," Kim and I are having an interesting argument on the nature of "spin" and "framing." I'm going to continue the discussion here because I think it is worth a wider look.

First off, I don't know what the problem with the term "undocumented worker" would be, at least from the liberal side. I've seen conservatives bitch about, say, men without medical degrees who defraud and sexually assult women by posing as gynecologists and how we should be politically correct and call them "undocumented doctors." I haven't heard what a liberal beef with that term would be, though I'm interested. There's possible confusion with Americans who are working under the table, but that doesn't seem like a big issue.

As for the rest of the "framing" vs. "spin" discussion, Kim points out that "People who work with the subtle meanings of words" tend to like "Economic Refugees" and other heavily euphemnistic terms. Those people and I have a fundamental disagreement on whether language creates thought or thought creates language.

I shall use my favorite example again. That the "Department of War" reframed its name to the "Department of Defense" did not change anyone's mind about what they do. People are so in love with the idea that coming up with a flowery name for something changes the way people think about it that they tend to deny this, but it seems obvious to me.

This is why I think both "spinning" (what your political enemies do) and "reframing" (when you do the same thing) isn't that great. I think it is most helpful when you are trying to help people accept something non-palatable that their own party is up to. As far as I can tell, people who are inclined to agree with you in the first place will cheerfully adopt your framing for anything. Everyone else will make fun of it. e.g. Bush's "Youthful Indescretions," which conservatives basically accept and liberals basically mock.

I think spinning and reframing only seriously changes peoples minds when you use terminology so far from what you're talking about that you're lying. I don't know exactly where to draw this line, but the term "refugee" for someone who is not being persued gets closer than I want to be.

As far as I can tell, the thought process was "Most people don't feel particularly sorry for comparitively large numbers of people who leave their homes and come here illegally to work. They do feel sorry for the comparitively small numbers of people whose homes have been destroyed by war and who come here legally because their government is hunting down and killing them because of their religion. So maybe if we call the first group by the second group's name, people will feel sorrier for them. And if that creates a bunch of confusion that ultimately hurts the second group, oh well. They aren't the fashionable issue these days..."

That said, I am a big fan of political correctness and believe it is only polite to call people what they want to be called. It strikes me as good manners. So when a minority group starts advocating a new term for themselves, I try to use it. I really don't actually see that there's any difference, but I will use it to go along. (I don't know how I would feel about a group wanting to use a term that was obviously misleading. The issue has never come up.)



Sarahliz said...

I wonder if you're right about the department of defense moniker not changing how people think about it? Certainly a name change does not immediately change how people think about an institution, but over time I think maybe it does. It's hard to say for sure, but I feel like people might be a little less happy to stand by and let the department of war do some of the things the current department of defense does. After all the department of defense is doing these things to defend.

I think words really do effect how we think about things in the long run. It's never an immediate effect, but it makes a certain amount of sense given that we use words to think and those words carry shades of meaning that are inter-related.

All that said, I don't think the term economic refugee is necessarily a dishonest way of thinking about the immigrant streams. Yes there's a difference between being starving and being tortured. But both are pretty miserable, and both are largely the result of problematic government and, in some cases, U.S. intervention in other countries. Given how fickle "refugee" status is in the U.S. I'm not sure how much you gain by trying to think about it in those terms. However, I do think recognizing that people are coming here because of bad situations elsewhere is relevant. Discussion of "illegal immigrants" and how they come here to "take our resources" does not get at that.

Chalicechick said...

The Department of War changed its name in 1948.

Americans have been FAR less supportive of America's wars SINCE the name was changed.

That has nothing to do with the change in name, but the change in name sure didn't stop it.

I really don't think euphemnism is as psychologically powerful as people say. I think it works best when you're straight-up tricking people.


Bill Baar said...

Good post.

I sort of prefer War Department.

Remember the 1948 reorganization combined the War Department and Navy Department, created a new branch: the Air Force within it, and the Joint Chiefs... it was a huge reorganization.

Calling it Defense was a signal to Stalin we weren't going to launch a war on him. (Remember we had nukes and he didn't.)

1948 was also the year Truman issued an Exec Order to desgregate the services.

So a lot happened and the resulting institution new and very different however one choses to spin it.