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Saying what we actually mean on inequality, the economy, and everything else

by Kirk Serpes

In my last post I talked a lot about the problem with problem-focused messaging and the power of metaphors and frames in changing how people think about complex issues. But to change how others think about inequality we have to unpack how we think about it and what we actually want.

‘Inequality’ on its own doesn’t actually mean anything. What bothers us is not a single metric getting worse – it’s the steady transformation in our idea of what society should be.  Inequality is one part of a wider ecosystem of concepts about society and our place in it, including the role of government and the function of the economy. And our language around it isn’t great.

The political right have a fairly consistent ecosystem of language to articulate their worldview on these concepts. They know what they want and can communicate it, and this is not by accident. It comes from the robust American research, where think tanks have been using focus groups, surveys and endless testing to perfect it since the 60’s. And since the 80’s that language has found its way into New Zealand’s political discourse.  

One key concept which currently gives the right its linguistic strength is how they frame the economy. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a leading communications researcher, analysed data from multiple sources on all sides of the political spectrum in the USA, to understand the underlying metaphors they use to talk about the economy.  She found there were around eight distinct metaphors, and what’s more, there was a noticeable difference between the ones used by progressives and conservative economists.

An argument you probably hear a lot from the right goes something like “You can’t do that, it will hurt the economy”. It may not sound like they’re using a metaphor but they are. You can only hurt living things.  The underlying metaphor is that of the body. Living beings have agency, and are better off free; so any interference by us to “restrain the economy” is seen as something that’s inherently unnatural and should be avoided.

By contrast, you might have heard how “Wall St bankers crashed the economy”. In that phrase is a metaphor of the economy as a vehicle in motion: an object created by humans to perform a certain function; to get people to where they want to go. Suddenly having government “in the driving seat” seems natural and obvious, as does “making sure nobody gets left behind.”

The most interesting part is that all this happens subconsciously.  If you want to read up on some of the other metaphors Shenker-Osorio mapped, have a read of the original document here.

There is pretty much no way to use neutral language when talking about the economy. It’s a very abstract concept, so we have to use more familiar physical concepts to both understand and communicate what’s going on. There’s almost always some kind of subtle underlying metaphor in every mention of the economy or markets. So the economy is “thriving” or “sick”, or “picking up speed” or “slowing down”, or – as you might have heard in the last week “Dairy is the backbone of our economy”, or we’re running into “head winds in the market.”  

The right wing frame of the economy is so common that it’s hard not to use it even when you disagree with the premise. Say, for example, you’re a progressive and you go on TV and say something like “This [climate/tax] policy won’t hurt the economy” – by even using the language of “hurt”, you’ve reinforced the right-wing framing of the economy as a free, independent, living thing that needs a hands-off approach.  Their frames contribute a long way to why their ideas have become the near unquestioned norms.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you say “This [climate/tax] policy will steer our economy in the right direction”, the audience starts to see the economy as something that has been created by humans for a particular purpose - to improve general well-being. The economy is guided by real people in positions of power who make real decisions that are moral choices, and our language needs to reflect that.

Only once we have a consistent frame for the economy can we bring in the frames for inequality itself, where we once again go to the work of Shenker-Osorio.  I’m not sure how she found enough conservatives who thought inequality existed in the USA, but the results are just an interesting as with the economy.   A very common metaphor is that of the horizontal gap. E.g: the gap is widening, and so on.

Talking about a ‘gap’ ignores causation – what or who created it? And what’s wrong with it?  And there’s nothing there that indicates to the fact that we live in a society that is interconnected and interdependent.

Also quite common is ‘the vertical gap’. E.g: “too many are at the bottom, and need a hand up”. Unfortunately all language naturally attributes moral superiority to being on top (upright vs lowdown), so it’s not a big leap to think that those on the bottom deserve their situation.  

A better metaphor - and one the NZ Greens have started using – is that of imbalance.   You don’t have to explain why it’s bad: being off balance is just not a great feeling. It also gets across the idea that we’re all part of the same interconnected system, and that inequality is bad for everyone, not just the poor.  With a little bit of effort we can connect ‘bad policy choices’ to ‘putting our society out of balance’, and put some agency back into the picture: we have the power to rebalance things.

There’s also inequality as a barrier, something that prevents you from getting where you want to go. This can be used well with the metaphor of the economy as a vehicle. “Inequality is holding back our economic power by keeping tens of thousands of kiwis from getting ahead.”

I personally found this metaphor quite a challenge to use elegantly.  But someone a LOT smarter than me made several historic speeches on inequality using this metaphor before anyone even imagined these studies.

“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” - Rev. Martin Luther King

If you want more detail on this and other metaphors I highly recommend you read Shenker-Osorio’s paper on inequality here.

As for metaphors for the government itself: again we don’t have too much local research, but framing pioneer George Lakoff found that in the USA both sides of the political spectrum use the same metaphor – that of the family. Our family is the first form of governance we encounter, so we naturally attribute that metaphor to the government.  That’s why we hear terms like “Motherland” and “Father of our Nation” or, more locally “nanny state” and “Aunty Helen”.  If you don’t have the time to read any of Lakoff’s books, this hour-long YouTube video is pretty much what introduced me to the field of framing back in 2012 – essentially ideological differences boil down to differences in views on parenting.  

Of course the task of reframing our language doesn’t end there. We also have to re-examine public (and our own) perceptions of the poor and the rich. There’s very interesting research from the UK that indicates that even some of those in poverty don’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘poor.’ Which might be one explanation why the Labour Party has so much trouble reaching the ‘missing million’ last election.

The systemic drivers of poverty and inequality are everywhere, from education to housing, to health, to crime and policing, to regulation of pokies and sugar. Each of these issues can be framed in different ways using competing metaphors. It’s complicated, but it’s also powerful, and empowering. Because being able to communicate what you actually believe can even the playing field in public debate.  

There’s some pretty fresh local research to back this up by Peter Skilling at AUT. He ran several focus groups on inequality, to see what effect (if any) “open discussion between people with competing views” might have on people’s opinions. Or, more generally, to see what arguments were most powerful in the context of debate and discussion. What he found was that there was very little evidence of people changing their views on inequality through deliberation for a very interesting reason.

During the course of the focus groups, many people who said they supported greater equality found it difficult to argue in support of their egalitarian commitments when faced with opposing views.  More specifically, they found it hard to defend their original opinions once someone else argued that greater equality wasn’t possible, given “the realities of the marketplace.” Appeals to the norms of market competitiveness and of individual responsibility tended to be pretty effective in ending further debate.

Developing our own ecosystem of frames and metaphors across issues will mean that progressives will have the tools they need to challenge those norms, and actually have a fair debate about where we as a society should be going.  

Ultimately framing is a way for us to say what we mean and be true to our values, and not get caught up in saying things we don’t believe to try and “meet people halfway”.  And you know what, people appreciate and respect honesty.

If you do want to know more about framing on your particular issue or passion I have come across quite a few other studies from my wanderings but it would be quite impractical to list it all out here. So feel free to get in touch with me, or (shameless plug ahead), come along to Step it Up 2015 and chat to Anat Shenker-Osorio, one of the smartest researchers in the world in this space.  You’ll also get to meet and collaborate with some brilliant kiwis who are leading the progressive movement in New Zealand across pretty much every major issue.

 t: @kirkserpes

w: www.nzprogress.org.nz

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