Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Dark Side

Lately, your correspondent has felt rather like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, sneaking around in the heart of the Death Star while warning his young Jedi pupil to beware the “dark side” of the Force. The freshman writing course I'm teaching this fall revolves around the theme of “spin” (that being the native language here in DC) and my ostensible goal is using that theme to help the students become better thinkers and writers. But suppose the course actually means handing the next Darth Vader his first light-saber! Is the risk worth taking? (Cue sound of Vader’s respirator.)

Maybe, in that metaphorical Star Wars universe, we might best regard Frank Luntz as Darth Sidious. Disguised as the friendly Senator Palpatine, wise counselor to the royal family, he smugly seeks to corrupt the Republic from within. Your correspondent assigned his book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, to show students what goes into the “sausage” of political message-making. Surprisingly, the students mostly like Luntz, and accept not only his observations about what works, but his sunny, disingenuous justifications and explanations for why it does so.

Consider for example, the ten rules for successful communication with which Luntz begins his book. He boils them down to “simplicity, brevity, credibility, consistency, novelty, sound, aspiration, visualization, questioning, and context.” Viewed one at a time, it’s hard to argue with any of them; each seems like unobjectionable common sense. But when taken together, and in the context of his explanations for why they work, they reveal a darker picture.

Simplicity and brevity—Common sense would dictate, as does Luntz, that message-making means skipping the fancy language. His first two rules recommend using small words for the sake of simplicity, and short sentences for the sake of brevity. Why? “You can argue all you want about the dumbing down of America,” he explains, “but unless you speak the language of your intended audience, you won’t be heard by the people you want to reach.” Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry both fell into the trap of overly intellectual language, he says, which distanced them from middle American voters.

Credibility and consistency—Luntz’s third and fourth rules argue that “credibility is as important as philosophy,” and “consistency matters.” In other words, it’s more important to seem truthful and consistent than to be thoughtful and flexible. Voters have repeatedly punished candidates who seem inauthentic and whose messages vary according to the situation. The “message discipline” of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush exemplify these virtues, Luntz says, even though both were criticized for being inflexible and repeating themselves.

Novelty and sound—Consistency doesn’t rule out trying new ways of saying things, Luntz’s fifth rule suggests. “Americans are easily bored,” he writes. “If something doesn’t shock or surprise us, we move on to something else.” Paying attention to the sound of language can help keep people interested, his sixth rule says. This can mean using either poetic or deliberately broken English. Luntz especially likes phrases that jump out and ring with alliteration (“We need reconciliation, not revenge,” he suggests to one politician), as well as language that seems authentically ungrammatical and colloquial.

Aspiration and visualization—The seventh and eighth rules tell us to help people envision a better future. Fancy language may be a turn-off for voters, he says, but that doesn’t mean political phrase-makers should be afraid to shoot for language that puts a lump in your throat and a gleam in your eye. John F. Kennedy mastered this, as did Ronald Reagan—painting a picture of a better future that all can aspire to. One important way to do this, he says, is to offer concrete images that will allow people to imagine themselves in a picture in which they’re doing better and feeling better.

Questioning and context—By asking questions (Rule nine), and framing the issue in ways of our own choosing (Rule ten), Luntz says, we both engage our audience and influence the way they respond. Reagan, for example, memorably asked Americans, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago,” and delivered his “morning in America” message after framing Jimmy Carter’s presidency as one of gloom and impotence.
It all sounds like good practical advice. And, of course, if you’re trying to sell a message, you could do a lot worse than listen to Frank Luntz. As he says, he’s tested all this in focus groups, polls, and other demographic studies. But despite his many professions of love and respect for the English language and American common sense, his ten rules say something different—that your typical American is uneducated, uninterested, easily distracted, unreflective, self-centered, ill-informed, prone to self-deception and daydreaming, and easily manipulated. His refusal to own up to this is the basic hypocrisy of his book. Even freshmen writers should be able to see that.

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