Democrats need to watch their language


No, that title doesn’t mean Democrats need to stop swearing. Ever been to a DFL meeting? You could broadcast those without a seven second delay; not with much audience except the five Republicans hoping something stupid will be said, but certainly without fear of FCC fines. I’m referring to our actual verbiage. The way we communicate.

Yes, I know, you’ve heard about messaging and framing, and semantics, and your head just swims as the concepts fade from your brain. You don’t need any theoretical understanding as long as you get it empirically; say X and not Y. So my intention here is look at specific word choices. I’ve been delaying posting as I give time for examples to accumulate, not that I’m not bound to miss a bunch. Feel free to disagree of course, but also feel free to add. You might well have better ones than I came up with.

Let’s just dive in. In order basically as they occurred to me, not alphabetical or topical or ranked by importance:

“Photo ID”, not “Voter ID”: They’re not the same. We’re playing into the hands of the voter suppressors every time we say “voter ID”. The problem isn’t getting an ID; the problem is getting an ID with a photo on it. We already have voter ID for registering, when you need something with your address on it; bank statements, rental agreements, or utility bills. If a voter could vote with a utility bill, showing ID to vote would still be a pointless step given the scarcity of impersonation, but at least the requirement wouldn’t be disenfranchising. Getting the photo ID is the hard part for many people, especially when what people have is disallowed, like states that sent confirmation cards to registered voters stopped accepting those cards at the polls because they don’t have photos. Saying “voter ID” grossly understates the difficulty many voters have in getting acceptable ID, and the voter fraud invention industry depends on the majority for whom photo ID is no big deal giving it no thought. At least “photo ID” gets us part way to making the point that people do have ID, but new laws won’t accept it. As we learned in Minnesota when we beat back the photo ID constitutional amendment, public support is broad but shallow, and quite amenable to factual arguments (how rarely that happens unfortunately).

Speaking of voting, be sure to differentiate election fraud and voter fraud. Voter fraud is committed by the individual voter whereas election fraud is committed by Republicans. OK, that’s snark; Democrats theoretically could do it too even though, funny, it’s always Republicans. “Election fraud” means fraud by those running elections. So if you knowingly vote in the wrong precinct, that’s voter fraud (for the benefit of certain lawyers and media outlets, repeat, knowingly). You can imagine how many people have to participate in such a scheme to affect an election, with no one getting loose lips or getting detected, so no wonder it’s so rare. If you’re purging legitimate voters from the registration rolls, that’s election fraud, because it requires control of the registration rolls. Likewise removing voting machines to create long waits is election fraud because you have to have the authority to remove machines from polling places. So shorthand: voter fraud, extremely rare; election fraud, how the Bush administration came to be.

“Global warming” or “climate change”? Global warming. I once argued they were the same thing. I changed my mind after learning of this study which found there is a difference in perception. Apparently, “global warming” gets across the seriousness better than “climate change”. I suppose if someone wants an actual differentiation, think of it as we’re experiencing climate change as a consequence of global warming; or global warming causes climate change. Seems a bit like asking is it “acid rain” or “sulfur dioxide pollution”, except the effect isn’t the same regarding getting people to understand the seriousness. “Global warming” is also the more commonly used term among the general public, so perhaps “climate change” seems like an attempt to rebrand. Might explain why Frank Luntz used to tell conservatives to say “climate change” in order to soft-peddle it.

Note that this isn’t about persuading science deniers. We can argue about how much effort should go into persuading deniers (IMHO, not much), but let’s not start thinking the right phrase will make them accept the evidence. We need to persuade those who accept it’s real, but don’t recognize it as urgent.

Let’s stay with a theme since we brought up science: “science denier”. On one level it’s just a handy catch-all. It lets us discuss denialism across multiple topics without having to list them all again to start every paragraph. However, it’s also framing. It lets us move past a specific topic and into a behavior, and it does so without necessarily being a partisan or ideological attack since people of any party or political belief could potentially engage in science denialism. It moves the discussion on to a meta level without having to hope the listener understands “meta level”. It’s intuitively understood, which is what we want from a term. It’s a fair term since people who engage in one form of denialism generally engage in others, like global warming deniers generally seem not to have accepted ozone depletion either. It puts deniers on the defensive, having to explain that they do accept science except this one bit, or else declaim against science and thereby be generally undermined. Given how they’re generally on the attack, if you believe that adage about “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”, this is a welcome turnabout. Broaden the discussion to behavior, and we can undercut their credibility.

“Obamacare” or “ACA”? I understand why many Democrats don’t like “Obamacare”, because the Republicans coined it with the intention it be a slur. “Obamacare” is still politically problematic. It has been rightly pointed out that “Obamacare” sounds like “Obama cares”, which is certainly a positive, and if that works as a response, go for it. We won’t, of course, convince a conservative that way — or any way — but there are still some moderates out there. The problem with saying “ACA” is no one knows what that or the “Affordable Care Act” is (though I use “ACA” when communicating with people who know what it is when I’m conserving keystrokes or bumping into character limits). This also suggests a solution. Ask someone who dislikes Obamacare for their opinion of the Affordable Care Act. The odds are they won’t have one. Mention that it prohibits insurance companies from canceling your insurance because you get sick, prohibits discrimination against pre-existing conditions (that bit of jargon has entered the general lexicon enough to not need explainable), and lets young adults stay on their parents’ insurance. Maybe, if they don’t hate poor people, more of the country’s poorest people will be covered by Medicaid. If you get a yes to those, then would be the time to spring the news that “Obamacare” is just the nickname for the ACA.

“Tip penalty” not “tip credit”: This refers to the hole in minimum wage laws that allows employers to pay much less than the minimum wage to employees who receive tips. The hospitality industries like the term “tip credit” because it sounds positive. It’s a “credit”! What could be wrong with that? What’s wrong is people in tipping professions can be consigned to poverty. I assume advocates of tip credits have never experienced getting paid literally nothing because there was too little business to make tips, and deductions wiped out the puny wages. Defeating this requires calling it what it is, a “penalty” on workers in jobs where tipping is common, with the penalty going to the benefit of low wage employers. It would be ideal to change federal law to no longer allow it, but right now, it’s up to states, and most states gave the lobbyists from the hospitality industries what they wanted, a wage set low in the 1990′s and left there. It will be a tougher fight even than raising he overall minimum wage, and it would help if we would use the right term to clue in the general public as to how little the bellhop and the waiter are getting paid.

“Damage deposit” not “financial assurance”. Rebecca Otto uses the term “damage deposit” for the same reasons I advocated doing so in my post on why to require one. Since there’s a whole post on the topic, I won’t repeat the whole thing about why to require this form of up-front payment, and instead focus on the choice of term. Essentially, “financial assurance” is jargon. Fine if you’re a mining policy wonk, but bad if you’re explaining it to a non-wonk. “Damage deposit” is readily understood. Being able to explain your concepts quickly is a big advantage. Make the mining companies explain why they won’t pay a damage deposit like anyone else renting a property from you, which is essentially what they’re doing as far as the state is concerned. Or maybe they’ll pay enough to clean up their mess. Unfortunately, when discussing sulfide mining, guess which term Democrats use more?

Right: Don’t be linguistically hoist by your own petard.

Jargon: Let’s expand beyond “financial assurance” into the way we use jargon. Not the word, but the concept. It seems worth expanding upon because we keep doing it, and the consequences can be losing a public policy debate, not just having some vocabulary to explain. For example, there’s an independent ad being run against Al Franken which attacks him for supporting the “failed stimulus”. Our problem with countering that argument is that the word “stimulus” has been successfully demonized, so we have to argue it didn’t fail with the listener starting from an assumption “stimulus” is a bad thing. Since you’re doing something that’s a bad thing to do, it must have failed, right? “Stimulus” is just economic jargon for something that stimulates the economy, but by using this word few outside economics understood, the way was open for Republicans to attack the word just by using it in their preferred sentences. “Obama wants to destroy the economy! Look, he wants a stimulus, eew! So what else can be his goal?” So now a piece of what should be inoffensive jargon has been used to create a frame against the whole concept, and that it stopped the Great Recession doesn’t matter.

The same thing happened, though it appears less intentionally, with “entitlement”. The general meaning has become ironic, in that if you say you’re entitled to something, you’re demanding something you aren’t entitled to. I don’t know how the language evolved that way, but I do know that beyond its general meaning, “entitlement” is another piece of government jargon that was used without explanation. All it means is that anyone who qualifies for benefits gets them, without those benefits depending on the appropriations process. You get Social Security if you qualify, but heating assistance only if there’s money left in this year’s appropriation. That’s why Social Security and Medicare are entitlements, but heating assistance and disaster relief aren’t. Unfortunately, when we hear public officials claiming entitlements are driving our debt, besides being factually wrong, they’re saying it in such a way that the message being heard is, “the debt is being caused by people who get money from the government that they don’t deserve.” Voila, we now have the public buying in emotionally to cutting the deficit in a time when that’s the opposite of what should be done, and panicking about government debt when that’s the least of our problems.

Nazi comparisons. Not specifically relevant to a current issue, just an oldie and a baddie. We’ve all presumably felt a bit of embarrassment by a Nazi comparison used by someone on our side in a debate, and we’ve all been on the receiving end. Yes, you too, if you self-identify as liberal or progressive, since some of our conservative friends state with frustrating frequency that those terms are interchangeable with “fascist” or even “Nazi”. Some of us use words like “Nazi”, “Fascist” or “Hitler” freely too, sad to say.

So here are a couple guidelines to when to use Nazi comparisons:
Guideline one, use them when discussing literal Nazis, like neo-Nazis who still think Hitler was right, or you’re in a historical discussion on Word War II or the Nazi era.
Guideline two, if guideline one doesn’t apply, STFU. The Nazis were unique in their awfulness. Yes, there have been some other mass-murderers who get close to Nazi levels, but given how few Nazi comparisons turn out to be in context of discussions of other genocides, STFU. If you find yourself wondering if you’re going too far in using a Nazi comparison — you are. Just get more creative in your comparisons and save your credibility at the same time. Yes, your credibility, not your target’s. Your target is more or less guaranteed to come out looking better than you.

Destroy: Sometimes something gets destroyed, and sometimes we engage in silly hyperbole. The latter is our concern here; headlines like “Nation editor destroys Bill Kristol”, not to pick on that particular writer. That’s just the last example I saw (and maybe someone else wrote the headline, which was the only place the word was used). Bill Kristol looks remarkably in one piece for someone who was destroyed. The word is used when someone stated a point of view, maybe well or maybe not, which the writer/speaker agrees with and thinks was triumphant over the other side. It may not be ridiculous on a Nazi comparison level, but it still makes us look dumb when we do it.

So if anyone disagrees with what I just wrote, did I “destroy” them? Did they melt into the floor? Or at least curl up in a corner whimpering? Hopefully I made cogent points to support my arguments, but anyone unconvinced I’m right is less likely to literally explode, and more likely to literally go back to checking e-mail or refilling their coffee mug. Maybe they’ll be frustrated they can’t refute a point, maybe concede they were wrong and move on, or maybe they’ll come back once they come up with a rebuttal. None of those constitute “destroyed”. You haven’t destroyed someone because you stated disagreement. That’s as ridiculous as the internet trolls who repeat some false talking points and then declare themselves the winner of the debate.

There, I schooled you! I won! (Seriously, can we get rid of “schooled” too?)