Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

Negative Models

Trump is an easy and often deserving target.  A President who flouts traditions, protocols and courtesies cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.

Designers of public health campaigns work to produce ads or billboards urging Americans to quit or reduce behaviors that have serious effects. They will usually use one of two persuasion strategies: a message built around positive images of people doing the right thing, or an approach using negative images that are supposed to motivate their targets to change. This second “fear drive” strategy means that the message will display examples of the problem the campaign is designed to remedy.  The “dissonance” created between the problematic and the preferred behavior is meant to create a kind of mental stress that is relieved if a person complies. If smoking around children is the issue, the central image may portray a child in a fog of smoke. If texting and driving is the problem, show what it looks like in a way that emphasizes the risks.  In all cases the final “tag” of the campaign is some form of “Don’t!”

This fear drive approach entails some form of what is called “negative modeling.”  An image of a person reading his phone while driving is used on the hope that the image is self-evidently risky. By contrast, a positive modeling approach would most likely show something like an alert driver with two hands on the steering wheel and a load of kids in the backseat. The image models the solution, and the kids are a reminder of what’s at stake.

My students love to develop fear-drive messages. Their campaigns typically give us images of students sprawled on a bathroom floor in their own vomit (“Give up binge-drinking”), children in the thrall of a video screen (“Limit screen-time for children”), or abused farm animals (“Eat less meat”). But here’s the problem.  Even these images are not as obvious as we might assume.  People don’t “read” messages in uniform ways.  And this can lead to a condition that is the black death of health campaigns. It’s called “norming the problem.” This happens when a member of the target audience tacitly accepts even negative visual representations as routine or ordinary. If that interpretation applies, the target won’t be persuaded. The problematic behavior no longer carries a stigma.

Trump Models the Wrong Values.

All of this brings me to the President.  We ought to be concerned about how his insurgent and norm-busting behavior is “read” by Americans.  To many of us, the man in the White House surely is the problem.  After all, the president is traditionally the first symbol of government that is acquired by young children. The slights, personal attacks and the violation of simple courtesies model the wrong values.

But for some Americans fed up with politics and politicians, the trashing of these norms is part of Donald Trump’s appeal. Insurgencies feed off of feelings of alienation. Conventional wisdom has it that many of the economically or politically disenfranchised share his “drain the swamp” impulses clearly signaled in his calculated disrespect. Think of something as apparently fulfilling as as a demolition derby on a warm August night. The mayhem has a certain appeal.

To be sure, the impulse to rhetorically trash core American institutions is hardly new.  Think of the Watts riots, the Detroit rebellion, and anti-war skirmishes throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. We often understood and even celebrated the messages they sent. Or think of the biting satire in media left and right that mocks banks, universities, the White House, Congress and industries like “big oil.”  Right now many Americans are not in the mood to acknowledge  the virtues of institutional effectiveness. It’s no longer as easy to honor institutions that prior generations rightly cherished.

Trump is both the beneficiary and victim of this national state of mind.  He brings out the Howard Beale in a lot of people (Network, 1976). For many, his disruptions are just fine.

At the same time, he is also an easy and deserving target.  A President who routinely ignores traditions and conventional protocols cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.  Aside from many in the GOP, few corporations or public institutions would tolerate his lies and digital rants.  And so a troubling question remains:  Have we entered a new phase in our civic space that elevates incivility?  Has Trump “normed” the Presidency downward? Will we ever be able to reclaim and celebrate the kind of generous persona that was evident in presidents like Gerald Ford or Barack Obama: leaders who respected diversity, honored supporters and critics alike, and embodied the values of reflection and tempered judgment?

You Can Say That Again

               Wikimedia Commons

The idea of forbidden language is offensive in an open society.  Fortunately, the resources of language can usually outflank any administration’s clumsy attempts at thought control.


Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” --Washington Post, December 15, 2017.

“A Fool’s Errand” is a phrase perfectly suited to the attempts of any bureaucracy to censor the words of their employees.  But it’s doubly hard to get one’s head around a diktat coming from this enfeebled executive branch that would try to control language used by one of the nation’s premier federal agencies.

We are lucky to have the Centers for Disease Control and the 15,000 dedicated science and public health professionals it employs.  Wikipedia notes that about half of these folks have advanced degrees.  Many are the world’s leading authorities on illness and the control of infectious diseases.  Whose bright idea was it to try to make certain public health terms forbidden?  Perhaps the same kind of neanderthal who  might ask a singer to only produce notes on the major scale.

The organizational impulse to ban certain unwelcome ideas is hardly novel. Employees “fronting” for industrial or institutional interests will frequently learn what to say, as well as the lexicon of terms to avoid.  But it’s especially insidious when lists of unacceptable terms show up in our civil life, where there should be unfettered public discussion.  This is why there is an emerging sense of satisfaction in the release of the new film, The Post.  It celebrates the 1971 decision by Katherine Graham and others at the Washington Post to publish a secret government history of the ill-fated Vietnam War.  A gag order has already been issued to the New York Times.

Widespread revulsion to the CDC gag order has apparently led to some backtracking on what the policy analysts can say. But these kinds of missives keep coming from all over, including state and federal leaders averting their eyes from subjects like “climate change” or “reproductive rights.”  Every instance is a reminder of how hostile the dead hand of censorship can be.

To be sure, in everyday life it makes perfect sense to consider terms appropriate or inappropriate for the settings in which they are used.  Editors are still scratching their heads over whether to print or broadcast some of the vulgarities uttered in the 2016 Presidential campaign. But monitoring language for appropriateness is very different than forbidding it in all contexts.

Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.

Luckily, the resources of language are far greater than a pathetic list of banned terms proposed by management at the CDC.  If “vulnerable” doesn’t work for the administration, how about “exposed,” “insecure,” “defenseless,”  or “at risk”?  If “entitlement” seems dangerous, how about “privileged,” “given special prerogatives,” “deserving,” “one’s birthright” or “owed to a citizen”?  If “evidence-based” or “science-based” seem inexplicably risky to inflict on the public, how about “reasonable,” “rational,” “empirical,” “based on observation and study” or “what has been proven through systematic observation”?  Like a star broken field runner, the resources of rhetoric can easily outrun clumsy attempts at thought control. Effective synonyms can save the day. One can only hope cowed agency employees will have the will to use them.