I’ve written previously about how language shapes the way we think because it frames the way ideas are expressed. This goes a lot further than “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – what I’m talking about is social marketing – marketing campaigns to change public awareness and therefore behaviour on particular issues. These are typically used by governments to, for example, reduce drunk driving. What I’ve noticed recently is the use of language in campaigns like these (by advocates of causes) to reframe the public debate in their favour.
Remember “global warming“? It was all the rage ten or twenty years ago. The polar caps were melting, sea levels were rising, and we’re all gonna die if we didn’t do something about it, like now! But the term has faded from common use, and seems to have been replaced by the more generic “climate change“. Why has this happened? Perhaps the advocates of global warming realized that the public did not accept the notion that the world is getting warmer? After all, with huge blizzards in Europe and the US in recent winters, and the Australian drought finally breaking, maybe there isn’t such a thing as global warming after all? OK, said the marketing people – we can fix that. Introduce climate change. The weather is changing. Who on earth can argue against that? The weather changes ten times a day here in Melbourne. There are lots more cataclysmic weather events, and there must be an explanation. It must be as a result of something bad we humans have done to Mother Earth. And if we don’t do something about it, like now, we’re all gonna die!
How about the “gay marriage” debate going on here in Australia. It has certainly polarised the country, and continues to rear its head at every opportunity. There are plenty of people who maintain very traditional values about the institution of marriage, less contemporary views about gays, and therefore are against it. How are the marketing people going to deal with this? Simple. Just reframe it as “marriage equality“. Everyone believes in equal rights for all people – it’s one of the cornerstones of western society. If everyone has equal rights, then everyone should have equal rights to get married. How can anyone argue with that? Just a simple language shift and the entire debate is shifted so that opposition is far more difficult.
Remember the “Arab-Israeli conflict“? That was the term we used to use to describe what’s going on in the Middle East. Remember how all those Arab countries went to war with Israel with the declared intent of driving the Jews into the sea? Remember how they expelled (ethnically cleansed) Jews from all Arab countries after the formation of Israel? A term like “Arab-Israeli” puts the Arabs first, and therefore connotes them as the more powerful and more aggressive party in the conflict. But this term too has faded from common use, and been replaced by the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict“. Two things have happened here: firstly, Israel has moved to the front, and therefore been positioned as the more powerful party in the conflict. We all love an underdog and a victim, and the Palestinians are an absolutely lock for “outstanding performance as a victim”. The other thing that has happened is that the Arabs have been removed from the conflict. Huh? Have all the Arab states (except the Palestinians) made peace with Israel? Have the Arab states ceased committing human rights violations against the Palestinians living in their lands? Are the Arab states no longer using the Palestinians as pawns or proxies in their fight to eliminate Israel? Of course not. But this simple change in language has been used successfully to shift the public perception of the conflict against Israel.
These are just a few examples of the power of language in framing a debate, and therefore influencing our thinking about it. Clever marketing people have a huge role in this, and the changes are so subtle that the vast majority of people don’t even notice until public perception has shifted on a large scale. Maybe it’s time to look more closely at what our minds are being fed.