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Those of us advocating for fundamental social change can't simply think real hard and write a proclamation which will convince vast numbers of people to join the cause.  We can't just announce a general strike and expect lots of people to say, "Gee, I never thought of that before, but that's a great idea!"

There are factors beyond our control which affect our ability to make working people think and do the things which would make this a better world.  However, there are ways we can increase our ability to spread our views.  One way to have more influence is to re-think how we express our ideas and inspire a feeling for doing something about it.

Many people who want to create a society free of the domination of big money tend to use a kind of political jargon which other Americans can feel uncomfortable with or may take connotations of the words which were not intended.  (Some of this language may have been effective many years ago, but no longer is the right choice.)  In part, that is a result of efforts by politicians and the media to stigmatize words they link to our ideas.  Partly, it can be that academic words that are uncommon in regular conversation are used.  And there can be other reasons.  Habits can be hard to break, but if you want to convince someone of something, you have to remember "If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain."  The people we want to reach aren't going to bend over backwards to learn our terminology, connotations and mental associations.  It's our job to "speak their language" so they don't have to make that effort.

There's more than one way one can try to express the same ideas.  Our words are not what we are trying to convey.  Words are merely an intermediary by which we attempt to convey ideas.  What results in the listener's mind is what matters.

It's in the nature of the movement for a working people's society that an important part of our audience will be the poor and disadvantaged.  The conditions which make them that often also limit the extent or quality of their education.  If we speak their language, it will be easier for them to understand us and less likely they'll feel we are speaking down to them.

We know from scientific studies that presenting what you say in a "positive" expression is more effective than using a "negative" expression to convey the same thing.  If a doctor tells a patient there's a 90% chance of surviving surgery, the patient is more likely to agree to having the surgery than if the doctor says there is a 10% chance of not surviving the surgery.  Maybe that doesn't seem to make sense, but that is how the human brain works.  I hope I don't offend anyone, but the name of the group can be an example.  The name of another DK group ("Postcapitalism") could get a better response from many people than the negatively-expressed "Anti-capitalist".  (Nevertheless, based on the diaries I ended up choosing this group. It works that way for those who are already interested, but choosing words can help reach more people.)  Better than to be "anti" or "post" is to be "for" a working people's society, to be "for" a smart economy which intelligently and democratically makes decisions.

We're faced with attacks on working people.  Unfortunately, this makes it easy to express opposition [negative reaction] to these attacks.  Slogans may pop to mind such as "No to...", "Stop the...", "...Must Go" and the like.  People who have already taken sides for working people may respond well enough to statements on what we're against.  However, presenting what we want expressed as what we are for has the potential to be more effective.

You'll also notice I tend not to use the word "capitalist".  I'll refer to market economies, business-oriented economies, societies dominated by big money, etc.  I think that gets the idea across well enough for most people.  Most people don't have a gut reaction of "bad" when they hear "capitalism" - but when they hear "dominated by" and "big money" they often do feel an emotion of "bad".  More precise terms might have advantages when talking among academics or activists, but I feel the immediate task is to learn to talk in a manner regular folks are comfortable with and gives them the meaning we intend.  To get in the habit of doing that, it might be better to talk this way all the time.

I have a "lifting" concept of presenting ideas to wider circles of working people.  Our job isn't simply to keep talking about what our long-term goals are, but it's also not just to talk about what the latest patch to be added to the current system in hopes that enough patches will eventually be good enough.  Rather, we can present ideas that relate to immediate concerns, but aren't merely reforms which the mainstream political and media forums would choose to consider.  Our proposals can be suggestive of what should be the next step advancing working people.  The solution to one problem can shed light on how to look at and approach more fundamental questions.  For many, it will just be one immediate issue, for a few some of our ideas can broaden their horizons and get them to think a bit further into the system that creates the issues.  (An example based on a earlier diary appears later in this article.)

A sense of justice and injustice is normal in politics.  That's how people are.  And it's those feelings of right and wrong that can help motivate people to act on what they think.  Encouraging that association - of just and unjust, right and wrong - can be an important element of conveying the message and building the movement.

We should all share what we learn about what wording gets better results.  There's no reason to assume one person has all the answers, and what works best can vary from place to place and from time to time.  We can help each other understand the details.

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How people respond to the words that come out of our mouths and pens depends on what is referred to as framing.  Humans have tended to assume our intelligence means our brains process what others say strictly on logic and factual analysis.  (That despite glaring evidence of biases and heated emotions in political discussions.)  In reality, our brains are the product of evolution.  They continue to use sections of the brain from earlier animals and function in ways influenced by earlier ages.

When you walk, you don't think about what your legs have to do.  When you learned to walk your brain created subconscious routines it carries out when needed.  Your brain builds subconscious routines for many things so you don't have to stop and think every time you want to do something you've done a hundred times before.  When you encounter a concept or social situation, you don't want to have to start from scratch trying to figure out what it means to you, what makes sense and what doesn't, or what response would be most beneficial for you.  So, based on experience and what had been your best understanding of your experiences, your brain establishes words, images and other sensory inputs that act as triggers which activate predefined reactions.  Those reactions can include emotions.  Certainly, when it comes to politics, things can seem right or wrong to us, just or unjust.  There are feelings associated with those views of issues.

Not everyone has had the same experiences and doesn't draw the same conclusions from their varied experiences.  As a result, not everyone has the same triggers and reactions.  Some people can have developed progressive reactions related to some issues and regressive reactions related to other issues.  It's even possible for a person's experiences to have created two trigger / reactions which seem contradictory to others.  If you say "taxes" to John, he may rant about how the government spends too much money - but if you say "poverty programs", John may passionately say we're not doing enough for the poor.  The question isn't whether you or I would design brains this way, it's just the way our brains are.

There's not one single way of saying something that will trigger the reactions we want in everyone.  But we can learn which words will stimulate progressive reactions more often than other words.  The point isn't to say something we think is false.  It's just there's more than one set of words which a dictionary will tell us has the same definition - but human brains may respond to differently.  There should be no principle or moral that demands which of these options we choose - with the possible exception of which wording will win more people to the side of justice.  Choosing words in this framework is framing.

Let me suggest an example in which framing is having some success today.  The phrase "marriage equality" is being used more often to refer to the issue of government-recognized marriage between two men or between two women.  Previously, it was more widely referred to as "gay marriage" or "same sex marriage".  Attitudes towards LGBT are changing.  Still, some Americans may not object to these marriages, but not be ready to identify with something presented as a "gay" issue.  On the other hand, the word "equality" triggers positive reactions in most Americans.  The newer name is a more effective way to spread a feeling of acceptance.

There have been a number of full books written on the subject, so I will refrain from a book-length description.  Some of these books by authors such as George Lakoff can give the scientific foundations of framing in more scientific detail than some activists absolutely need.  (Absorbing as much as you can will help in using the science to express ideas.)  These books can also present the trigger-reaction alternatives as giving "liberal" or "conservative" aspects, and treat those in a strictly "Democratic" and "Republican" context.  This represents the author trying to arrange data into his political belief system, and should not be confused with the discussion of scientific evidence and directly related concepts.

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I'd like to give some idea of presenting "lifting" solutions to current issues.  I'll use one of my previous DK diaries - it was written for people who are already involved in progressive politics.  A version intended for others might be a bit different.

In response to the threats to Social Security, I posted an item "Cutting Social Security: The Baby Boomer Excuse".

The diary begins noting the contrast between high percentages of Americans in opinion polls who want Social Security protected and a less than inspiring prospect of elected officials protecting it.  I noted that one of the excuses used by those trying to cut Social Security is the coming retirement of baby boomers.  I then go through a number of alternative policies that could help support Social Security.  As I go through these other possibilities, they raise more fundamental questions.

An early point discusses the "flat tax" aspect of the Social Security tax and the fact it isn't levied against the incomes of the idle rich.  And I argue that working people contribute decades of labor to earn a retirement which the idle rich do not.  Meanwhile, the rich don't pay their fair share in other taxes.   In a sense, this is still just a matter of modifying revenue collection to fund Social Security.  But the under-taxing of the rich is an issue that begs working people to ask more questions.

Then, I note we've known for decades the baby boomer generation was large and would retire - we could prepare.  Politicians often argue government should act more like business.  I say a business making money now but expecting more expenses later would vertically expand their business so they would have fewer expenses buying from other companies later.  Then, I mention a mainstream media report about fraudulent businesses taking billions from Medicare.  Using that as a stepping stone, I suggest Medicare could start doing some of the work it currently pays businesses to do for it - that would help save money on the business fraud and also reduce other expenses paid to businesses.  From there, I discuss other ways Social Security and Medicare could provide goods and services itself rather than paying for-profit businesses to do it.  In a sense, these are suggestions on how to save money to respond to what politicians tell us is an approaching financial problem.  But it's not solutions you'll hear from corporate-approved sources, and it could open the door to thinking outside the corporate-think box.

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We do need to think about this.  Those who already see a need for a new society very often are used to a kind of political jargon and other aspects of presenting perspectives which are familiar and comfortable among believers, but not as familiar or comfortable to others.  Not only can it take effort to change these habits, but once one stops using that jargon, one may not be so obviously "one of us" to jargon-speaking believers.  There are good reasons to want other activists to still know we are working toward similar goals.  That may have advantages today while there's a relatively limited community of activists.  Yet, there's only so much that can be accomplished without doing what is needed to be as familiar and comfortable to wider circles of working people.

It's essential to learn effective communication with more working people.  Doing that while still being listened to by social change activists who haven't learned effective communication may take some effort.

Originally posted to Anti-Capitalist Chat on Fri Apr 19, 2013 at 11:22 AM PDT.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Community Spotlight.

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