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Choose Whose Words You Use
Published on Friday, January 21, 2005 by
Choose Whose Words You Use
Get a hold of yourself and frame your own debate
by Mira Ptacin

I share an apartment with three men in their mid-twenties, which I imagine is similar to squatting in a cubicle with cavemen. This is not always a pleasant operation, especially since I am the only female in the apartment; even our pets are a male iguana and a tailless male cat. After a couple of weeks when it became clear this was strictly a platonic living situation, their tact went on vacation and common decency jumped out the window. I often get very frustrated with the boys as they are undergoing some kind of mid-twenties puberty. They ride the thin line between class and crass, at times treating women like objects, and at others, treating objects like women.

With the changes in this young adult adolescence came some kind of conscious dabbling in diplomacy. They'd often hold apartment meetings to discuss topics I am totally uninterested in and attempt to manage my own affairs. For awhile I felt like they were shooting a gun at my feet and telling me to dance, but then it hit me: what the boys had brilliantly done was mastered the art form of framing the debate.

Lines of Reasoning

If you hope to dominate an argument, (or manipulate an audience), learning how to use this tool can skyrocket you to the moon. Allow me to blow your mind: The technique of 'framing' is a kind of communication tool that creates the structure for a message that will be the topic of the debate. To frame a debate, you pick the subject matter and you pick the words you use to communicate. Then, you manipulate the words you're using for your own benefit. George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science and a master of the framing domain, gives the example of the republican's argument for 'tax relief'. For there to be 'relief', Lakoff states, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, and a reliever who takes the affliction away and is therefore a hero. 'If anybody tries to stop the 'reliever' he's a villain wanting the suffering to go on. Add 'tax' to the mix and you have a metaphorical frame: Taxation as an affliction, the taxpayer as the afflicted party, the president as the hero, and the Democrats as the villains.' The tax relief frame is an instance of a rescue scenario in which there is a hero (the reliever), a victim (the afflicted), a crime (the affliction), a villain (the cause of affliction) and a rescue (the relief).


This kind of propaganda has been around for quite some time and it's part of the reason republicans are dominating the political platform. In 1971, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published the book 'Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.' In this slim pamphlet, Noam Chomsky took a critical look at American propaganda efforts and the effects of their empty slogans. 'Propaganda is to democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,' Chomsky said, 'and the mass media is the primary vehicle for delivering propaganda in the United States.'

For instance, look at the vacuous phrases that have been thrown into common vernacular in the past several years: War on Terror, America Under Attack, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Axis of Evil, liberating the Iraqis, spreading freedom, WMDs, collateral damage, liberty, patriotism, insurgents, etc. The republicans have worked very effectively by mobilizing American opinion in favor of vapid, empty concepts like Americanism. That's the whole point of framing the debate. Who doesn't want freedom? Or, as Chomsky sites, 'Support our troops.' Who can be against that? Or yellow ribbons. Who can be against yellow ribbons?! The debate framers have created a slogan that nobody's going to be against and everybody's going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything. 'It's a crucial value that diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. So if you have people arguing about support for the troops, you've won.' These bland slogans make sure the republicans don't have wacky liberals around to disrupt promotion of things like freedom and relief with their talk about recounts and the environment. But this is important to us---as consumers, as parents, as teachers, as neighbors, as citizens---because our government and the corporations that run it are manipulating and dominating us with these popular empty slogans.

Put Down Your Ping Pong Paddle

Rather than sticking around the goat show in my apartment and waste my energy fending off the boys, I'm moving out. For me, I didn't see this as giving up; I saw it as choosing my own battles. My solution was not using the other side's terms, answering their questions or constantly defending myself. My solution was putting down my weapon and moving on. As Lakoff says, 'As soon as they set the topic . . . you're dead.' Like the Democrats proved this year, by accepting the words and frames of your opponent you're only complementing their argument. Lakoff is right---we need to put down our ping pong paddles and start developing our own vocabulary. It's a collective action and it's going to take people working together to stand up, but reframing is essential. Next time you turn on your television, pay attention to the buzz words that Fox or MSNBC are spouting at you. They're scary, they're sexy, they're exciting, but they're empty. Don't use them ever again. Social Security? How about 'Unsocial Security'? Spreading freedom? Try changing it to 'Spreading capitalism.' Unless the frame of the debate is changed, progressives have little chance of turning over the political fortunes of the United States of America.

Mira Ptacin is assistant editor at She can be reached at


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