Monday, February 27, 2006

Ain't Redux

I don't have time right now to do the full next-step of Learn to Say Ain't, but seeing as there are a bunch of referrals to it in the last two days, I do want to clear something up.

In the post, I'm not talking about "being all things to all people," or framing in order to trick people into agreeing with you. My point is simply this -- learning effective message control and disseminaton, or what in the olden days we called "rhetoric" wasn't too low for Socrates, wasn't too low for Thomas Jefferson, and we should stop turning up our noses at it and calling it "selling out."

My point is not in how to fool rubes into agreeing with you. My point is that often, when communicating our ideas to other people, we do not stop and think of the best way to make clear that we already share the same ideas. I used to mention in passing about how Canada had single-payer health care. Always got a few "socialism" catcalls from the audience. But as soon as I said "It's wrong for you to lose your house if you kid gets cancer", you could feel the audience swing, sometimes burst into applause. For that group, at least, a little meme-seed had been planted. I could have gone on about bed/patient ratios and per capita expenses to my heart's content. But that wasn't relevant to my audience.

Learn to Say Ain't isn't about being something you're not, or all things to all people. (and if that's how you read it, you were really just looking for something to disagree with in order to reinforce your own beliefs. Sorry.) what Boats taught me back then is that we all have common ground, and if you want to communicate your idea clearly, you need to start with the common ground of your audience and then get them to meet you halfway. It's about boiling your idea down to what really matters. This is not about lying -- this is about telling the truth in a more effective manner.

What's so horrible about that? And once you have done that, and changed the Us/Them dynamic, you've won.

In a bit of time (I am STACKED with screenwriting work) I'll parse out the stand-up/electioneering link a bit more, linking it more explicitly to meme theory. Stand-ups spend years honing their little sentences into language constructs that evoke a distinct involuntary emotional response (laughter) and also stick in people's heads, get repeated(disseminated) because of the inherent simplicity and easy memorizability of their construct, and then help establish loyal fan bases (constituencies). Good comedians don't just create jokes, they create coherent worldviews.

You know, you hate the idea of "framing" fine. Keep repeating the same policies in the exact same way over and over again. But the sad thing is -- as Molly Ivins says:

What kind of courage does it take, for mercy's sake? The majority of the American people (55 percent) think the war in Iraq is a mistake and that we should get out. The majority (65 percent) of the American people want single-payer health care and are willing to pay more taxes to get it. The majority (86 percent) of the American people favor raising the minimum wage. The majority of the American people (60 percent) favor repealing Bush's tax cuts, or at least those that go only to the rich. The majority (66 percent) wants to reduce the deficit not by cutting domestic spending, but by reducing Pentagon spending or raising taxes.

The majority (77 percent) thinks we should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment. The majority (87 percent) thinks big oil companies are gouging consumers and would support a windfall profits tax. That is the center, you fools. WHO ARE YOU AFRAID OF?

-- the sad thing is that despite the fact that the progressive movement's priorities are plainly the priorities of a massive majority of the country, WE ARE NOT RUNNING THE JOINT. (and feel free to insert any whining abot biased media and fixed election machines here) We have somehow got into a position where people who just out and out fucking LIE have come to the positions of power.

Call me crazy for saying that maybe we ought to look at every little nook and cranny of why that isn't so. why somehow well-crafted lies have come to defeat serious truth. My job as a stand-up was communication, and so this is my take on the communication issue. Disagree, fine. But I don't think anyone can disagree that this is a field that needs serious examination and some fresh ideas, even if those ideas lead to naught, they may inspire even better discussion. We need every, EVERY tool at our disposal to change the terrifying direction this nation is sliding in. "Shut up and vote harder" just ain't going to hack it, kids.


econoclast said...

Bravo! Nice piece of rhetoric!

Unknown said...

wow, is this going to get meta- at light speed or what?

moleboy said...

well, like Lakoff says, its about relating to the audiance.
The Democrats simply haven't put forth anyone with any real personality.
So, no matter what they say, no one cares because they can't relate to the people giving the message.
Because there's no real person there.
If Charlie Brown keeps saying he wants to help the environment, I'm still not giving a damn because its charlie brown.
Worse still, if Mr. Brown can't come up with a good catch phrase for why I should follow his policies, I'm still not inspired because I don't have that core understanding of why we should do the things he says.
It sucks, yes.
But most people don't have the time or energy or inclination to really learn about, well, anything complicated (such as economics). That, really, is why we have Senators and Presidents and such.
But we feel the need to understand who they are, not just what they want to do.
People want a sentence that describes the whole plan.

hate 'framing', love 'framing', it doesn't matter.
framing works.
creating a cohesive worldview works.
Creating an image people relate to works.
Facts aren't enough.
(sorry if this is scattered...I'm on 3 hours of sleep)

Neil Sinhababu said...

Since I may be the lone philosophy grad student posting in this comment thread, I just wanted to respond to this:

"rhetoric" wasn't too low for Socrates

Actually, it may have been, if this selection from the Gorgias is any guide.

"Soc. In my opinion then, Gorgias, the whole of which rhetoric is a part is not an art at all, but the habit of a bold and ready wit, which knows how to manage mankind: this habit I sum up under the word "flattery"..."

"A flattery I deem this to be and of an ignoble sort, Polus, for to you I am now addressing myself, because it aims at pleasure without any thought of the best. An art I do not call it, but only an experience, because it is unable to explain or to give a reason of the nature of its own applications. And I do not call any irrational thing an art..."

But your larger point stands -- Socrates, after all, lost a vote and got executed by an unsympathetic public.

I also wanted to mention that the key insight of "Learn to Say Ain't", in my view, was that regionalism is a hugely powerful force in our country, and that it's essential to pick presidential candidates who can disarm regionalist prejudices. There's some nice stuff in there about how much depends on being able to credibly engage in the simplest matters of cultural identification (drinking that longneck, saying "ain't"). I'm suprised that people objected to the idea of trying to persuade with rhetoric at all -- that really should've been uncontroversial.

Unknown said...

You know, Neil, I would have thought the same thing. But the people who don't dig "Ain't" always seem to skirt right over the regionalism issues and jump into a knee-jerk rage that I'm pimping some sort of cure-all snake oil, or pandering. But Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was famous for his ability to swear like a rancher when he was talking to ranchers, and turn on the sophistication when dealing with the New Yorkers. But there has somehow evolved within chunks of the Democratic party the idea that any attempt to engage people on their own terms is "populism," and somehow dishonest. You know what -- it's only dishonest if you actually harbor some prejudice against the region/group you're discussing.

Regionalism is a fact. The Us/Them dichotomy in crowd psychology is a fact. I love when I'm lectured about how I'm selling a tired old line about communication by people who I'm damn sure have never travelled the country talking to thousands of strangers. Even national candidates rarely communicate with people who aren't there to cheer them on.

The communication tool involved in even an average stand-up's act are incredibly complex, often much more so than the stand-up using them understands. Those tools can be useful in other arenas -- both in the strictly linguistic sense, and in the interpersonal skills utilized in interfacing with wildly differing audiences. Take what you can use.

Anonymous said...

i don't disagree with anything you say john (i rarely do), but:

Teddy Roosevelt, for example, was famous for his ability to swear like a rancher when he was talking to ranchers, and turn on the sophistication when dealing with the New Yorkers.

seems to neglect the modern reality that just about every word a candidate utters is likely to be repeated on the news, in blogs, or in mockery by an opposing candidate. if anyone swore like a rancher today, that would be the end of their campaign.

the right's advantage in this sense, it seems to me, is that outside their narrow worldview, the rest of the world sees things in more shades of grey, and need to be spoken to in a variety of ways in order to be convinced to vote for someone. the candidates pandering to the right just have to speak one single way, and that covers all of 'em. and there's enough of 'em to throw an election to any candidate they deem worthy.

in other words, the very fact that democrats need to "learn to say ain't" highlights the inherent difficulty of defeating the one-note message of the bush/rove/cheney cabal.

does that make sense?

Unknown said...

Well, don't take the "swearing" at my literal meaning. Rather, that he understood that he needed to appreciate the local vernacular and proiorities when presenting his ideas. Not twist the ideas themselves, but tune them, as if in different keys.

The nonstop dissemination -- but in bite-sized chunks -- of messages in today's media actually accentuates the value of proper memetic construct of ones ideas. We know that, in this shitty media climate, the best we can hope for is just a neutral video clip of a sound bite 30 seconds long. Those bites, then have to be engineered both to self-propogate more effectively and also always remind the audience of the candidate's consistent wordlview.

Joe Crow said...

Couple of thoughts:

But there has somehow evolved within chunks of the Democratic party the idea that any attempt to engage people on their own terms is "populism," and somehow dishonest. You know what -- it's only dishonest if you actually harbor some prejudice against the region/group you're discussing.

Well, an awful lot of those chunks actually do harbor some prejudice against the regions you're talking about. Or did you think "flyover country" was a term of endearment?

Another point: The whole single-payer insurance thing. I woulda thought that the last 6 years of seeing what George and Co. have done with the stuff they actually control might have diminished y'all's enthusiasm for direct gov't control of the health system. Or do you look forward to Orrin Hatch and Big Pharma making all the decisions about what sort of health care you get? Abortion and contraception don't make Big Pharma enough money to have them yank the ideologues' leash if they get ambitious. And with direct control over the health system, you can guarundamntee they'll get ambitious. Or wasn't anybody paying attention to South Dakota this week? Are you that sure that the "good guys" will win the next dozen elections? Coz I'm not.

Unknown said...

Again, Patrick, you're missing the point of the "ain't" as a metaphor. I'm not saying a candidate is literally presenting themselves as "one of us." I'm saying that very few candidates use the rhetorical tools (although as one e-mailer points out, I'm properly talking about ethos rather than rhteoic) to help an audience understand that they share that common ground. Not one of Us, possibly, but definitely not on of Them. JFK had a stateliness of speech, certainly, but he also talked about issues in passionate ways -- and let's not forget, at the time, Roman Catholicism was a working class religion. In the race of JFK vs, Nixon, as insane as this now seems, JFK was the outsider.

Where's the guy or gal that goes up there and speaks about her platform in words that show her own conviction, her belief, and additionally give us facts and explanations so that we can not only feel for her, but also follow her reasoning and finally adapt her reasoning as our own?

Well, we can agree to disagree here, but one of my points, based on years of hard experience, is that people never, never, never, never adapt someone else's "reasoning" as their own. Cynical But True Human Interaction 101: You cannot convince anyone of anything. What you can do is effectively convey that your reasoning intersects, and so you are the best representative of that reasoning. What saying ain't is about -- and I'm beginning to think that I may have chosen the wrong metaphor, as people are fixated on the literalism of the example -- is about speaking your beliefs and platforms in your own words, but making sure that you're doing it in a way that will be clear and meaningful to an audience on a gut level.

I think that idea, of a politician comvincing -- and the less kind word is "lecturing" -- the electorate into following them is precisely a blind spot of modern progressives. Like it or not, you are the exception -- voting is not a totally rational act. It should be, but it isn't. So should we pander to irrationality? Of course not. But we need to take it into account, the same way a general would take muddy ground into account.

Konrad West said...

I wish the Australian Labour Party would read your posts. Then we might actually have an alternative to John "George Bush's beeyatch" Howard.

PS: When are you running for President?

Whaledawg said...

Two words for you, Merlot Democrats.

As long as your trying to frame issues like that I forsee many years of Republican control(not that I blame you personaly).

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Damn, this is exactly why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are so popular - every single thing you've said.

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