Responsible communicators use language carefully to make meaning transparent and present facts and ideas with as little bias as possible. They avoid ambivalent and emotionally loaded terms in favor of clarity and directness. Sometimes though, people choose words to present biased selections of facts in ways that skew interpretation to support their goals. They oversimplify, overgeneralize, conceal unflattering details, and strive to generate an emotional charge which prevents the receiver from thinking critically and evaluating the content for accuracy and relevance. We’ve all done it. I spin facts on vegetables to get my children to eat them without resistance – but that’s for benign purposes on a minute scale. By contrast, large scale spin practiced on governance by marketing consultants, lobbyists, politicians, and PR teams is of real concern.
Spin is one of many manipulative communication approaches used since humans have existed. Mass media has magnified its impact since radio was invented, and even more so since the internet came to be. If we could quantify spin prevalence and reach, we would no doubt see an icepick spike at the dawn of the world wide web reminiscent of the atmospheric carbon charts we’ve studied with such concern; cliff face lines shooting up at the start of the digital age. The influence of spin on our collective decision making processes globally may present a challenge to human thriving as great as climate change itself.
Consider that my use of the phrase “climate change” as shorthand for “cataclysmic global warming caused by human activity” is due in part to the work of spin doctor Frank Luntz. In a 2013 Yale University study, we learned “people are more likely to fear “global warming” and take part in a campaign to stop it than they are “climate change” (Enten). Shortly afterwards, Luntz ran focus groups and recommended the less scary phrase to Bush’s White House.
A critical thinker has to ask who benefited from that response and how. Luntz Global likely got paid for conducting focus groups to replicate the results released in the Yale study. His company is making millions each year (Glassdoor), and Frank Luntz is worth $15 million (Celebrity Net Worth); it’s rare in everyday life to see such safe bets pay out so well. Certain politicians improved their standing with certain corporate donors, doing their bit to deaden the responsiveness of government and in turn dispirit voters. More importantly, the Yale science tells us it’s likely that Luntz Global’s campaign dampened energy in the US for meaningful action against global warming. Shifting this significant a decision set for this influential a nation literally changes the future for everyone on the planet, and this is just one subject area. When we picture these factors operating on every decision, picturing the staggering multiplied effects should motivate us to fight spin in every possible way.
Unfortunately spin operates on what marketing consultant Clotaire Rapaille calls the “reptilian hot button”, an unconscious part of our mind reached through subliminal associations and primitive signals we don’t notice. How do we fight these subtle effects when a livable future is on the line? Every day, word by word, one conversation at a time, we evaluate, we listen, we verify, we research, and we relentlessly expose and interrogate the facts. To that end, let’s examine the use of the term liberal as an insult in our public discourse.
If a spin doctor can’t change the words people use according to preference, they may opt to shift the meaning people attach to the words. Though it takes longer, redefining terms is one of the most malignant and effective techniques in the art of spin: for example, the use of the word liberal as a pejorative term. A review of the dictionary definition shows us that liberal as an adjective means “favorable to progress or reform” and describes“ advocating […] freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties”. A liberal policy is one that is “favorable to [..] individual freedom, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties”. A liberal mind is “open-minded or tolerant” and “free from prejudice or bigotry.” (Dictionary.com). As a noun it describes a person or group with these traits; “an advocate or adherent of liberalism especially in individual rights” (Merriam-Webster).
These all sound like admirable, idealistic, and thoroughly mainstream American values, yet the predominant use of the word liberal in the American conversation for at least thirty years is in an unspoken, unwritten sense utterly distinct from any of its fifteen real definitions, as implied by then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in this 1999 quote (italics added by me):
“I want to say to the elite of this country—the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite: I accuse you […] of being afraid to talk about the mess you have made, and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done, and instead foisting upon the rest of us pathetic banalities because you don’t have the courage to look at the world you have created.”
My grandfather listened to talk radio, and I heard a lot of scathing criticism of liberals along these lines from Rush Limbaugh:
“Liberals have created, and the minority leadership has exploited, a community of dependent people, unaware of the true route to prosperity and happiness: self-reliance and self-investment. Instead, people are told that America is unjust, unfair, and full of disadvantages. They are told that their only hope is for government to fix their problems.”
From context and by relentless repetition we are expected to infer that liberal means weak, frightened, impractical, overly compassionate, dependent, driven by emotions, and wasteful with money, as in the common phrase “bleeding heart liberal”. I understand that in some places, liberalism as it is truly defined is held in low regard by some people. Different strokes for different folks; ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism are everywhere and I don’t want to step in that pile. However, in this country we operate on a democratic foundation – the Constitution together with the Bill of Rights – which presumes every person is entitled to equal rights, equal protection under the law, and equal opportunity. Though we have not yet quite risen in our actions to the lofty ideals those documents prescribe, still – by definition – our nation has taken a liberal stance on governance from the start. By that light, I don’t see how anyone who values democracy or considers themselves to be a patriotic American could reject true liberalism. My grandfather was a conservative who valued thrift, hard work, tradition, and independence, and thought well of the ideal of a small, efficient government. He also, like every other one of my male ancestors I know of, served the country in wartime to protect our shared ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. A liberal is not the opposite of a conservative, and in fact the two are not remotely mutually exclusive. Every American who cherishes the values our country was founded on should be a proud liberal. I certainly am. I am also a progressive, or a Democratic Socialist, as you prefer.
If asked to propose a better antonym for conservative in today’s political scene, I would suggest progressive as the purest ideological opposite. But that’s a digression for another day. We need to budget our energy wisely for the long term effort to preserve democracy.
My, aren’t we conservative?
DEFINITION OF liberal –Dictionary.com
- favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
- (often initial capital letter) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
- of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties.
- favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
- favoring or permitting freedom of action, especially with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
- of or relating to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
- free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
- open-minded or tolerant, especially free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.
- characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor.
- given freely or abundantly; generous: a liberal donation.
- not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
- of, relating to, or based on the liberal arts.
- of, relating to, or befitting a freeman.
- a person of liberal principles or views, especially in politics or religion.
- (often initial capital letter) a member of a liberal party in politics, especially of the Liberal party in Great Britain.
Synonyms for liberal
1. progressive. 7. broad-minded, unprejudiced. 9. beneficent, charitable, openhanded, munificent, unstinting, lavish.
Antonyms for liberal
1. reactionary. 8. intolerant. 9, 10. niggardly.
Celebrity Net Worth. Frank Luntz Net Worth. Accessed 12 December 2018. celebritynetworth.com/richest-politicians/republicans/frank-luntz-net-worth
Dictionary.com Accessed 12 December 2018.
Enten, Harry “The Political Rhetoric Around Climate Change … Er, Global Warming”.
FiveThirtyEight. 4 June 2014.
Glassdoor. Luntz Global Overview. Accessed 12 December 2018.
Global Warming vs Climate Change: What Scares You More?” Nature World News. 28 May 2014.
Merriam-Webster. Accessed 12 December 2018.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps CO2 Program. Graphic: The relentless rise of carbon dioxide. December 13, 2018
Rapaille, Clotaire “Marketing to the Reptilian Brain”. Forbes 16 June 2006.
Wikiquote. Accessed 12 December 2018.