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Political Ignorance and the Power of Labeling:

Economist David Friedman has an excellent post on the power of political labeling to influence opinion:

A well chosen name wins an argument by assuming its conclusion. Label cash subsidies to foreign government as "foreign aid" and who can be so hard hearted as to oppose them. Call subsidies to the public schools "aid to education" and you neatly skip over the question of whether additional spending in the public school system results in more education. Label something "pollution" and is no longer necessary to offer evidence that it is bad, since everyone knows pollution is bad—even thermal pollution, otherwise described as warm water. Occasionally we even get dueling names. Both "right to life" and "pro-choice" are obviously good things; how could anyone be against either?

For a more recent example, consider Obama's economic policy. Everyone—including Obama, back when he was running for President—is against deficit spending. Relabel it "stimulus" and everyone is for it. The label neatly evades the question of whether having the government borrow money and spend it is actually a way of getting out of a recession—a claim for which evidence is distinctly thin. It is stimulus, so obviously it must stimulate.

Friedman's list of rhetorical manipulations can easily be extended. For example, polls show that whether the public supports or opposes race-conscious policies that seek to aid minorities depends crucially on whether they are described as "affirmative action" (which gets strong majority support) or "racial preferences" (a term that triggers overwhelming opposition). Conservative activists use rhetorical ploys to build support for their positions no less than liberal ones do. For example, they label critics of harsh sentencing guidelines as "soft on crime," even though the point at issue is precisely whether these laws really do reduce crime better than alternative policies would.

Why is such rhetorical manipulation effective? If voters were well-informed about the details of public policy, clever labeling would be unlikely to sway them. If you have a well-informed opinion about affirmative action or Obama's stimulus plan, you probably won't change your mind merely because of a change in terminology.

In reality, however, most citizens know very little about politics and public policy, and it is perfectly "rational" behavior for them to remain largely ignorant. As a result, they can be swayed by rhetorical ploys such as the ones described by Friedman. That, in turn, explains why politicians and activists expend so much effort manipulating voter ignorance by cloaking their policies in attractive rhetoric, and making those labels stick in the public mind. Often, the side with the better rhetoric or more easily packaged programs will prevail over the side with the better, but more difficult to label policies.

Daryl Herbert (www):
You should note also how the (liberal) media chooses which labels to use.
2.9.2009 3:02am
David M. Nieporent (www):
I don't disagree with the thrust of your post, or Friedman's point, but I'm not sure it's true wrt the "soft on crime label." You say
even though the point at issue is precisely whether these laws really do reduce crime better than alternative policies would.
But surely at least some liberals oppose "harsh sentencing guidelines" not because they believe those sentences to be ineffective, but because they don't believe such sentences to be just. The obvious example is the death penalty; while certainly there are debates over how effective it is, most people who oppose it do so because they don't like the death penalty, not because they think it doesn't deter. Claims about the lack of deterrent effect are just makeweight.
2.9.2009 3:32am
Vermando (mail) (www):
Is there a hidden insight in this post that I am missing? Idon't mean to be a jerk with that question, it just seems obvious to me that most people - or at least the educated people who think about such things are read blogs such as this one - would already realize this. So, I'm curious if there is something new in there that I've missed.

In any case, it reminds me of one of my favorite books, Frank Luntz's Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Heard. He is a (generally) conservative political strategist - the guy who recommending renaming "global warming" as "climate change" - and his explanation of how you actually accomplish the reframing that Friedman discusses is so interesting and insightful.
2.9.2009 3:35am
Guesty McGuesterson:
What kind of political ignorance is necessary to take David Friedman seriously?
2.9.2009 4:17am
krs:
Is there a hidden insight in this post that I am missing?

No, but many of the good insights out there seem obvious in the abstract.
2.9.2009 6:56am
common sense (www):
I think it is worst in legislative schemes. Many bills are named in honor of someone, or as a way to accomplish some goal no one can disagree with. Who wants to oppose a bill honoring Sonny Bono? Or a bill that provides more choice in the workplace? I wish that bills were named by a non-partisan commission, so we could fight over the actual content of the bill, instead of the name.
2.9.2009 7:26am
Robert C. (mail):
I've seen this at work in the gun control debate, and have even seen activist consciously try to manipulate opinion by coining terms. Usually it's a failure but every once in a while something sticks.

For instance, on the anti side, you've got the term "assault weapon." There isn't really anything as an assault weapon as far as categories of guns go; it's simply a term based on a real category of weapons (assault rifles) that is used to scare people into supporting bans against various types of firearms.

Assault rifles, descended from the WWII German Sturmgewehr 44, or "assault rifle model 1944" are select fire, magazine fed rifles chambered in an intermediate cartridge (i.e. less powerful than full sized rifle cartridges but more powerful than pistol cartridges). These rifles are select fire, capable of firing in semi-auto, burst or full auto modes, and hence are regulated by the National Firearm Act of 1934 and are nearly impossible to own legally due to their rarity and price (entry level assault rifles typically start at $5,000-$10,000 and require an ATF-issued tax stamp -- another $200 -- and a very thorough background check. Complicating this is the fact that the registry for these firearms has been closed to new entries since 1986, meaning for the most part only assault rifles made and registered prior to that year are legal to own, making them increasingly rare).

These are distinctly different from their civilian clones, which can only fire in semi-auto mode. The anti gun lobby often utilizes confusion about the difference between the civilian and military versions to leverage public opinion against the civilian legal clones, which are rarely used in actual crimes (FBI statistics state that all long guns are used in only ~3 percent of all homicides, fewer than blunt weapons and hands/feet, and "assault weapons" are a small subset of long guns, a category which includes shotguns, bolt action deer rifles and lever actions).

They also label guns that aren't even based on actual assault rifles as "assault weapons," such as shotguns with a magazine capacity larger than 6 rounds or various types of semi-automatic pistols.

On the pro gun side, there has been attempts to mitigate this by trying to rename these rifles "homeland security rifles" or, sarcastically/ironically, "evil black riles" in order to mitigate the problems caused by the misleading "assault weapon" term. These have mostly been a failure, as they are either too lame or have only caught on amongst firearm enthusiasts (personally, I prefer the term simple term "rifle," as it is much more accurate and doesn't come with a politically loaded meaning).
2.9.2009 7:32am
Gilbert (mail):
That first example is wrong -- "foreign aid" has always had relatively low public support.
2.9.2009 7:59am
RichardW (mail):
Various blogs generate helpful information especially the commentary which often completes, shapens or effectively challenges the original post. I suppose a necessary transaction cost is the fatuous comment, see Guesty McGuesterson above, which distracts from otherwise thoughtful and illuminating commentary.
2.9.2009 8:03am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Did you ever explain the reality behind a warmfuzzy label to anybody and have them change their mind?
Me neither.
IMO, everybody is on to this, but they hope that somebody, somewhere, isn't. What you think are the unthinking consumers of BS labeling are, in fact, enablers. They know.
2.9.2009 8:05am
Curious Lurker:
How amusing that it took Ilya 8 years to realize this. 8 years of "enhanced interrogation techniques", "preemptive war", and buying columnists to put out propanganda, and now, NOW Ilya and David come to this great realization.

Golf claps all around.
2.9.2009 8:15am
Chris-guest (mail):
As a communications professional, I certainly agree with the thrust of Friedman's article, but I think he does on occasion over reach. For instance:

"The label neatly evades the question of whether having the government borrow money and spend it is actually a way of getting out of a recession"

I've seen an awful lot of disussion, whether online or on more mainstream media outlets, about whether government borrowing and injecting money into the economy is a way of getting out of a recession. I'm certainly not going to get into a discussion of the pros and cons of that argument here, but Friedman's claim that debate has somehow been stifled by a nasty rhetorical trick simply makes an otherwise interesting article on the power of language seem like a partisan (or at least ideological) attack.
2.9.2009 8:24am
Horatio (mail):
So, if those opposed to the Insane War on Some Drugs refer to the supporters as "junkies", do you think this is a rhetorical trick, or is it an accurate reflection of reality?

These legal junkies include prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement personnel, prison officials, prison construction contractors, assorted politicians, etc...whose livelihood would be impacted by legalization or decriminalization.
2.9.2009 8:40am
A.C.:
A related issue is what people think the status quo actually is, and what would represent a departure from that status quo. I read a story once about a poll concerning foreign aid. Most people polled thought the US gave too much in foreign aid. However, they also thought the US gave a lot more as a percentage of GDP than it actually does. And when asked what percentage they considered about right, they gave a number significantly above the actual amount.

People don't even know what policies are in place now, much less what they want to change them to.
2.9.2009 8:40am
bellisaurius (mail):
Since the country seems largely settled with the two party system (mathematical discussions of its inevitability in a yes/no voting system aside), and that efforts by advocates on one side will be attacked by advocates of another side, wouldn't this make the system at least as fair as a courtroom (operating on an adversarial system)?
2.9.2009 11:34am
Joseph Slater (mail):
You should note also how the (liberal) media chooses which labels to use.

Oh, the irony.
2.9.2009 11:36am
Ben Franklin (mail):
You can often tell the sympathies of the media by which terms they choose to use. For instance, they will call welfare payments tax credits even when the person in question does not pay income taxes and would not even if the credit did not exist. They play along even though it defies logic because they are pleased with what they perceive to be the likely outcome of their adopting that particular bit of language.

Another example of this would be "budget cuts" where you end up with a budget that is larger than what you started with. There is a logical disconnect between what is being described and the label that is being used. A budget can't go up while going down.

Enhanced interrogation techniques is a poor example though because there is actually a need for a term that describes making a prisoner uncomfortable as opposed to actually hurting or torturing them. We can argue about where the line is but we can't argue that such distinctions don't exist. Where would you put activating the gag reflex vs. cutting out a tongue for instance? There is a spectrum between a person's pillow not being fluffy enough and being fed to the alligators. To use one term for the entire spectrum makes the term meaningless.

"Rape" is another word like "torture" that gets abused in a similar manner by being constantly defined downwards until it really has no meaning.
2.9.2009 11:41am
Happyshooter:
"Rape" is another word like "torture" that gets abused in a similar manner by being constantly defined downwards until it really has no meaning.

Climbing back into my way back machine, I was in undergrad during the worst of this wave. I wrote a paper on six (?) types of rape then defined by the womyn's groups on campus--from stranger rape to date rape down to my personal favorite.

The University of Michigan Womens Studies, the Campus Rape Group, and the Swords into Plowshares group co-funded a study which uncovered a serious type of rape that went unreporated. "Psychic rape".

A man sees a woman and thinks about having sex with her. He doesn't say anything, doesn't make a gesture, doesn't even stare. However, his thoughts are a form of rape, both of the victim and of society.
2.9.2009 11:47am
commontheme (mail):

Conservative activists use rhetorical ploys to build support for their positions no less than liberal ones do.

Ya think?
2.9.2009 12:36pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

"Rape" is another word like "torture" that gets abused in a similar manner by being constantly defined downwards until it really has no meaning.


You have that backwards. Rape originally meant to seize or defile in a general sense. The Rape of the Sabine Women, for example, refers specifically the seizure of the women by the Romans -- according to the legend, there was no forced sexual intercourse involved. The phrase "rape the land" likewise has a long history, and has nothing to do with having sex with dirt.
2.9.2009 1:39pm
Fidelity (mail) (www):
I don't want to burst anyone's bubble here, but a guy named Noam Chomsky wrote about this in a book called Manufacturing Consent or you can get the DVD. If you think this idea is remarkable, you might want to check out one of the two, or even just Youtube it.

This isn't exactly a new idea, nor is one side doing all the lying.
2.9.2009 2:40pm
Real American (mail):
I look forward to the day when "climate Change" is called by its rightful name: The Weather.
2.9.2009 3:47pm
Real American (mail):
That isn't to say there isn't a fight over the labels. Both sides try to get their version out sooner. Obviously, with a huge media advantage, the liberal side more often wins the label contest.
2.9.2009 3:54pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Of course the idea of using words to manipulate is well-known and oft-discussed. As intelligent, educated people are at least as susceptible to it as the less-educated, however, Ilya does well to point it out in this forum.

There is some difference in honesty between a person who chooses a particular word because he sees the issue a particular way (even if he is wrong), and someone who is choosing language specifically for its effect. We often accuse opponents of knowing something isn't quite true, but using words for enhanced effect. That is not always the case.

For the individual, the best we can do is be alert for such manipulations and strive to burrow down to the barest facts.

With all the assurances we have in the comments that conservatives do this manipulating as much as liberals, I would like to see actual evidence of that. Ben Franklin has already disposed of the enhanced interrogation complaint pretty briskly. As a postliberal, it was precisely this inability of progressives to consider that conservative opinions were honestly offered that moved me rightward. (Now moving libertarian, BTW).
2.9.2009 4:07pm
Sarcastro (www):
Labeling is Neuro Linguistic Programming, and is a form of hypnosis. Obama uses it all the time.
2.9.2009 4:17pm
Real American (mail):
a great example is the term "Social Justice" Who could be against a just society? No one, I know. Of course, those that employ the term use it to mean a redistribution of wealth, resources and power from the "haves" (wealthy, white, Christian heterosexual males) to "have-nots" (everyone else).
2.9.2009 4:53pm
Steve H:

You should note also how the (liberal) media chooses which labels to use.


Yes. Like during the recent years when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, the common practice was to handle tax cuts and spending cuts separately.

The (liberal?) media called the tax cut bills "tax relief."

The (liberal?) media called the spending cut bills "deficit reduction."
2.9.2009 5:04pm
Steve H:

With all the assurances we have in the comments that conservatives do this manipulating as much as liberals, I would like to see actual evidence of that.


Terrorist Surveillance Program?
2.9.2009 5:14pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
Mugger: Gimme your wallet!

Victim: Why should I?

Mugger: I'll immediately spend the cash and max-out your credit cards to stimulate the economy.

Victim [whiney tone]: That sounds good, but couldn't you take someone else's wallet?

Mugger: What do you think your money's buying? I'm starting a mugging franchise called "Economy Plus" with workers called "Wealth Transfer Agents."

Victim: What's your cut?

Mugger: 25%.

New Wealth Transfer Agent: I'm in.
2.9.2009 6:47pm
Bama 1L:
The University of Michigan Womens Studies, the Campus Rape Group, and the Swords into Plowshares group co-funded a study which uncovered a serious type of rape that went [unreported]. "Psychic rape".

A man sees a woman and thinks about having sex with her. He doesn't say anything, doesn't make a gesture, doesn't even stare. However, his thoughts are a form of rape, both of the victim and of society.

That's not so revolutionary:

"But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Mt. 5.28.
2.10.2009 12:17am
ralph:
The reason this spin succeeds is because people are not taught to think critically about what they are told. Critical thinking in the sense that they should listen to each word and phrase and evaluate why that particular construction was used. This is not easy to do, especially in a culture that emphasizes familiar informality and where the language itself is fluid.

I would offer up French as an example of a well-controlled language that is less susceptable to manipulation, but the French seem to have their own cultural vulnurabilities to non-rigorous thought processes.

I don't ever think that critical thinking will ever catch on, however, because a non-critical populace is much easier to control, and politicians like control...
2.10.2009 4:20am
Prof. S. (mail):
I wrote a paper on six (?) types of rape then defined by the womyn's groups on campus--from stranger rape to date rape down to my personal favorite.


I'm glad you continued on. The idea that you would have a "personal favorite" type of rape was quite disturbing.
2.10.2009 8:30am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
ralph, I don't think it is a question of training, but of willingness. I see people avoid falling for spin in one area but leaping in with all four feet in others.

Steve H. - Terrorist Surveillance Program seems aptly named. From Wiki, a generally Bush-suspicious source.

"While no specific information has been offered, the administration has indicated that the wiretapping program targets communications where at least one party is outside the United States, and where it asserts that there are reasonable grounds to believe that one or more parties involved in the communication have ties to al Qaeda. However, anonymous sources have come forward stating a small number of instances where purely domestic calls were intercepted. These sources said the NSA accidentally intercepted these calls, apparently caused by technical glitches in determining whether a communication was in fact "international," probably due to the use of international cell phones."
A tuna net that catches the occasional dolphin is still a tuna net. That does not answer whether there should be any penalties for catching dolphins, but it does answer whether it is named correctly.
2.10.2009 8:32am
mooglar (mail) (www):
Ben Franklin:


Enhanced interrogation techniques is a poor example though because there is actually a need for a term that describes making a prisoner uncomfortable as opposed to actually hurting or torturing them.


This is a disingenuous argument for the term because that's not what it was invented for, nor what it was used for. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" is a perfect example because the whole point of the creation of the term was to take well-established torture techniques and re-brand them as something other than torture. And it worked spectacularly: waterboarding has been considered torture, even by the US, for decades. Re-branding techniques already established as falling under the definition of torture as "enhanced interrogation techniques" is simply an attempt to change the status of those techniques by fiat. It was not an attempt to describe a gray area between interrogation and torture that hadn't been named, it was a deliberate attempt to redefine, by fiat, torture as not-torture. Otherwise, all the techniques suddenly branded "enhanced interrogation techniques" would not have been techniques already defined as torture.

And the re-branding worked. Where there had never been a debate over whether waterboarding was torture or not -- it was torture -- the re-branding suddenly created one, allowing those arguing against waterboarding-as-torture to argue as if waterboarding had never been so defined, as if those calling it torture were the ones trying to re-define it, rather than those who had re-branded it.

If the point truly had been to define techniques somewhere between asking questions and torture, then that would have been what the term "enhanced interrogation techniques" was used for. And then it would have been possible, I suppose, to argue that waterboarding belongs in that group rather than in the torture group, with the understanding that re-labeling it as not-torture would be a change. But instead those calling waterboarding not-torture pretended that it had never been torture and that they were not, in fact, seeking to change the definition. Because they didn't want to be seen as arguing that something that was torture now isn't; they wanted to be seen as arguing that waterboarding was always okay even though it wasn't. Thus manipulating thoughts, manipulating the debate, and doing exactly what the original post is talking about.

There has never been a better example than "enhanced interrogation techniques" and Ben Franklin's argument is, itself, an example of this sort of thing at work.
2.10.2009 2:18pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
> A man sees a woman and thinks about having sex with her. He doesn't say anything, doesn't make a gesture, doesn't even stare. However, his thoughts are a form of rape, both of the victim and of society.

> That's not so revolutionary:

> "But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." Mt. 5.28.

Matthew doesn't say that the woman has committed adultery, it says that the man has had "impure" thoughts.

The "thought rape" says that the woman and society have been harmed. Have they? How?

That's very different. Unless the "form of rape" at issue is "not rape".
2.10.2009 5:45pm

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