Buying your love, one word at a time
When words get in the way of your agenda, what do you do? You change the
words, of course. Even if you have to make up new ones.
It’s part of what communications strategists call “framing” – the way they
present messages to the public to make them more palatable. And it’s become
a big part of how the new Conservative government plans to win you over.
Vol. 7 No. 36
May 24, 2006
by David Suzuki
Think tax relief, not tax cuts. Think climate change, not global warming.
Think responsible development, not sustainable development. These words and
phases are not casual alterations. They are deliberate, tested and designed
to sway public opinion. And they work.
Recently, Prime Minister Harper invited American pollster and political
strategist Frank Luntz for a visit. It was a telling move, given Mr.
Luntz’s impact on discourse in the United States. In fact, Mr. Luntz’s
efforts have been credited in part for President Bush’s re-election. While
Democratic candidate John Kerry should have had a field day with Mr. Bush’s
poor economic, environmental and military leadership records, Kerry
blathered on in the language of specialists, leaving the public cold.
Meanwhile, George W. talked the plain language of the people, using Mr.
Luntz’s carefully crafted words and phrases, and repeating them over and
over until they became accepted as the norm.
Like Canada’s Conservatives, the Republicans were perceived as
uninterested, even hostile, to environmental conservation. Mr. Luntz helped
reverse that perception by changing the language and the way Republicans
talked about the environment. These changes made it seem as though
Republicans were indeed concerned about the environment and were presenting
solutions that protected nature, even though their policies often did the
exact opposite. Programs to increase logging became “healthy forests”
projects. Relaxed air pollution rules became “clear skies” initiatives.
Under Mr. Luntz’s tutelage, it comes as no surprise now in Canada to be
hearing talk by the Conservatives of a “clean air act” and a “made in
Canada” plan instead of the Kyoto Protocol. This last phrase, used to
describe the Conservative’s upcoming and yet unseen climate change plan, is
a classic piece of spin. The name implies that whatever came before it was
made outside of Canada and is therefore foreign and scary.
In fact, the previous government’s plan – which Mr. Harper has
systematically eliminated, including such things as scrapping the Energuide
program, which provided rebates for homeowners to make their homes more
energy efficient (thereby saving money and reducing emissions) – was also
made in Canada. And Kyoto itself contains a wide variety of measures
demanded by Canada to make it easier for us to meet our targets and reduce
Then again, you won’t hear Mr. Harper talking about global warming in any
case. When he mentions the issue, which is rarely, he sticks to “climate
change” – the specialist’s term. Why? Simple, because it isn’t scary. It
takes the disturbing idea of an entire planet heating up and turns it into
something that sounds more like a change of seasons.
Is Mr. Harper lying by using these terms? No, but he’s playing on the fact
that Canadians don’t have the time to figure out what they mean. The words
sound good. They sound like something positive. After all, who doesn’t want
to be responsible and clean? Who doesn’t want something that’s been made in
Mr. Harper is banking on the public not figuring out what these things
really mean until after the next election – where the possibility of a
majority government looms tantalizingly within reach. So close, in fact,
that the prime minister must be feeling like – well, I don’t know the word,
but I’m sure Mr. Luntz will help him make one up.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
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