by Rod Kessler
Before retiring six years ago, when I was a professor of creative writing, I taught students in Comp. I the distinction between a word’s denotation and its connotation. If denotation was what a word meant, connotation got to its emotional tone. Words that mean the same thing—synonyms—typically have different “flavors.” Would you rather have a disagreement with your love or a spat? Would you prefer a job performance rating of steady or of plodding? Would you rather be considered authoritative or bossy? Would you prefer to be cremated or simply burnt to a crisp?
For creative writers, finding the word with the right “flavor” might electrify a poem. For would-be policy makers, manipulating word-choice can influence an audience—even mislead.
Consider, for example, that tax-supported institution in your neighborhood where—before the pandemic!—children were sent weekday mornings—you know, the building with classrooms, chalkboards, teachers, a gym, a lunch room, maybe an auditorium? What’s it called?
If you are Betty DeVos, it’s a “government school.” It was a “government school” as well to such influential right-wing economists as Milton Friedman and James Buchanan (a figure at the center of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains). It was also a “government school” to Southern segregationists in the late 1950s, the ones who established private schools expressly to sidestep having to send their white children to integrated schools.
They disliked “public school” because of its connotation. The word “public” has the flavor of, well, of you and me and the neighbors here and everywhere. Call it a public school and people might think that the building was “the entire community’s” or “ours.” For those on the far-right, the preferred pronoun here was not “ours” but rather “theirs”—and by theirs they meant that overreaching, intrusive force—”the government” or even “Big Government.” Them.
Conservatives have not dissuaded the public from sending little Johnnie and Jenny to “public school,” at least not yet, but they have had far more success with other expressions. According to Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, it’s the conservatives who have perfected the art of coining or repurposing terminology to intentionally manipulate audiences. Lakoff calls what they do framing and it can be powerful. Back in 2003 in a piece in U.C. Berkeley News [link: https://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff.shtml] Lakoff used the then-ongoing fight over the legalization of same-sex couples to illustrate his point. The phrase the conservatives used, “gay marriage,” still prejudicial in those days, turned off many voters. But voters were much more likely to support the issue once the progressive side recast it as “the freedom to marry” or “the right to marry.” Language-choice alone can frame how we think and feel about an issue.
In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich of Contract-with-America fame was quick to adopt “death tax” instead of “estate tax,” a verbal sleight-of-hand that boosted public opposition to a policy intended to reduce social inequality by taxing multimillionaires.[link: https://www.businessinsider.com/death-tax-or-estate-tax-2017-10 ] Language-choice here saved multi-millionaires and billionaires a lot of money.
What’s to be done? Lakoff has been urging progressives to fight back, to stop conservatives from winning the connotation wars and coloring public discourse. Which brings me to the issue of deregulation.
While the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic and police violence against African-Americans, the administration is quietly pursuing its rightwing libertarian agenda of weakening or removing environmental and other regulations. In early June, President Trump issued executive orders to temporarily waive the environmental reviews that might delay or prevent infrastructure projects and to permanently weaken federal authority to enforce anti-pollution and other rules to protect the environment. [link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/climate/trump-environment-coronavirus.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200605&instance_id=19111&nl=the-morning®i_id=28409922&segment_id=30155&te=1&user_id=319f7e68be1e646da7b3589d92e857a1 ]
Then, in a move that dismayed environmentalists but that thrilled the commercial fishing industry, Trump revoked a ban on commercial fishing in 5000 square miles of protected waters off Cape Cod—in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument that President Obama had established in 2017. This area the size of Connecticut shelters some 54 species of deep-sea coral and hundreds of marine species, according to the Boston Globe [ link: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/05/metro/trump-allows-commercial-fishing-off-cape-cod-scrapping-obama-era-protection/ ]
Almost at the same time, a federal appeals court issued a ruling prohibiting farmers from spraying crops with the Bayer corporation’s controversial herbicide dicamba. The dangerous pesticide had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but a three-judge panel decided that the agency had not only “failed entirely” to acknowledge the dangers of the product but had also violated federal regulations on the books [link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bayer-dicamba-lawsuit/us-court-blocks-sales-of-bayer-weed-killer-in-united-states-idUSKBN23B0JA ] To put the matter plainly, lately even the EPA has been trying to circumvent the regulations on the books but the courts for the moment blocked them.
What’s the best way to frame these moves by Trump administration and its far-right advisors and lobbyists (i.e. influencers)? Republicans prefer deregulation, a term that suggests throwing off strictures, “freeing” us of something, “uncluttering” and “simplifying.” Who wouldn’t want all that? “Deregulation” is another instance of political framing—of subtly trying to persuade us to accept the tacet and insiduous assumptions of the right-wing playbook.
Here is a good time to remember why Republicans are so keen on relaxing hard-fought standards, standards for air and water quality, endangered species survival, workplace safety, planetary survival, and so on. These regulations, however welcomed by the public, interfere with maximizing profits. Consider how much cheaper it must have been in the old days for G.E. to dump its PCBs and other chemical waste into the nearby Housatonic River rather than to safely transport and dispose of it all somewhere far offsite? It’s not only costs at home. If we have regulations and other nations don’t, foreign-owned businesses gain a competitive edge, just as they do when U.S. minimum-wage laws enable overseas companies to underbid ours by paying workers less.
It’s not a stretch to think of the proponents of “deregulation” as greedy and immoral and to wonder how they can live with themselves. But they would argue back that their hands are clean and that they are only fighting to protect the unhampered functioning of the free market. Regulations—these obstacles imposed by that overreaching, intrusive force—”the government”—interfere with that market, and that’s where our troubles begin. To them, enabling free markets to function without interference will lead us to utopia.
I’m not making this up.
Happily, General Electric has had to spend a lot of money cleaning up the Housatonic River, and the fight for clean air and water and the rest of it isn’t over. To that end, I’d like to propose a new terminology to reframe the conversation. Instead of “regulations,” why not protections? Instead of “deregulations,” let us speak of “the removal of protections” or, better yet, of “the dismantling of federal protections of the public.”
Here’s how future discussions might sound. The Republican administration is working to undo protections of the environment and threatened species to stimulate the economy and promote big business.
Worker-safety protections were threatened by Republican moves to reopen meat-packing plants.
You get the idea. But to succeed in reframing the issue, we all need to add our voices. Let’s not speak anymore of the D-word. What Trump and his backers are trying to do is to strip away our protections, the rules that protect our health, our safety, our workplace, and our environment. Let’s put protections into the conversation and call it like it is.