Language can be used as a method of influencing or controlling thought. I have my disagreements with the cognitive linguist Lakoff, but he does present a useful analysis on why it’s important to use different language to defeat the extreme right-wing in political messaging. One example is that he tells progressives to avoid the phrase “death tax” when referring to the estate tax, instead recommending the counter be the “billionaire’s tax” since less than 0.002% of people will have to pay it. According to Lakoff, this is how the negative connotation to taxing extreme wealth can be countered.
Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.
Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.
When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.
Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again.
Quick: don’t think of an elephant. Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture — the frame — from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor of brain science, this is the first lesson I give my students. It’s also the title of my book on the science of framing political debates.
The key lesson: when we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. When President Richard Nixon addressed the country during Watergate and used the phrase “I am not a crook,” he coupled his image with that of a crook. He established what he was denying by repeating his opponents’ message.
This illustrates one of the most important principles of framing a debate: When arguing against the other side, don’t use their language because it evokes their frame and not the frame you seek to establish. Never repeat their charges! Instead, use your own words and values to reframe the conversation.