Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Basic Taxonomy of Spin

Not that I have the scientific data to back this assertion up, but at least Geoffrey Nunberg agrees with me that people are generally pretty good at detecting when someone's trying to spin them. Phrases such as "friendly fire" and "death tax" unapologetically advertise their whitewashing functions, and whether audiences agree with the underlying issue positions or not, they can tell persuasive maneuvers are afoot.

Or are they?

Look at those two phrases again—do they really serve the same function? Let's consider "friendly fire" first. One of its more obvious functions is to try to soften the emotional impact of soldier(s) accidentally wounding or killing their comrades, insofar as words can accomplish such a task. But a brief examination of the phrase's orgins reveals that it also marks a very technical distinction as well: "friendly fire," defined in opposition to "enemy fire," serves to indicate the origins of the attack. The euphemistic dirty work the term performs is clear, as is the fact that it makes no attempt to convince listeners that its referent is in any way acceptable. "Friendly fire" does sound less blameworthy than its opposite, but this is appropriate given the act's accidental nature. None of this is to say that the term doesn't perform a perception management function—it certainly does, but the function is anesthetic rather than persuasive. When people fully understand the nature of a sufficiently egregious referent, no amount of lexical legerdemain can stem the inevitable torrent of condemnation.

We might call talking points of this type "low-controversy" spin, because the fact that no one disputes the referent's atrocity means that all that's left for the message to do is palliate the mind. "Ethnic cleansing" is a similar example, one which Steven Poole examines at length in his recent book Unspeak. Much of Poole's analysis focuses on the phrase's diplomatic consequences, such as the fact that applying the more precise and visceral term "genocide" to what was going on in the Balkans during the mid-90s would have enjoined Western signatories to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention to intervene. He laces the entire discussion with a moralistic disgust over the metaphorical equation of ethnically-targeted massacre with "cleansing," as though the victims were nothing more than germs to be blithely scrubbed away. However, as is perhaps understandable in a non-academic work, Poole fails to investigate empirically the question of the phrase's effect on public-opinion: does it in and of itself make people less likely to condemn an act than the label "genocide"? I would hypothesize that "ethnic cleansing" would only be able to do so to the extent that it can ambiguate its referent acts. If "ethnic cleansing" is popularly understood as a catchall that may in any given instance refer to displacement, imprisonment, abduction, and/or mass murder, the resulting ambiguity might very well make crimes so designated appear less serious than those called "genocide." On the other hand, if most people interpret it as a mere synonym or euphemism for "genocide," it probably won't do much to modulate their perceptions one way or the other (aside from continuing to incense those like Poole who find semantic attempts to ameliorate crimes against humanity reprehensible). Until someone does the data collection, we'll never know which is the case.

In contrast to low-controversy spin, words and phrases such as "death tax" and "pro-life" are designed toward very different ends. Their users intend to convince audiences to judge their referents as laudatory, contemptible, innocuous, dangerous, deceptive, or otherwise. The difference between the two types lies in the degree of controversy their referents attract: loaded rhetoric is much more effective when applied to high-controversy topics and occurrences than those upon which there is broad agreement. In those cases in which people are aware they're being spun (i.e. the majority of cases), the language used is only one factor in the appeal's success, but in all events the intentions are transparent. For lack of a better term, let's call this type of spin "high-controversy."

But again, compare "death tax" to "pro-life"—they're both quite tendentiously loaded, but the latter refers to something relatively unambiguous, while the former constitutes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate its far more complex referent. Most people who consider themselves "pro-life" believe on religious grounds that life begins at conception. Such an absolutist formulation doesn't leave a great deal of conceptual wiggle room for spin to exploit: if your denomination places embryos on the same moral footing as fully-formed humans, you are obligated to oppose abortion, and if it doesn't, you're not. What the conservative elite calls the "death tax" is a different story, however: they spent millions of dollars giving their constituents the wrong idea about how the estate tax worked and to whom it applied in their ultimately successful push for repeal (for more detail on just how they did so, see Death By A Thousand Cuts by Graetz and Shapiro). Once again, we see that confusion about the referent greatly expands the power of spin to command attention and secure consent.

So, with our two variables in mind (degree of controversy and degree of ambiguity), we can construct the following basic spin taxonomy:

Higher AmbiguityLower Ambiguity
Higher Controversy

"death tax"
"climate change"

"tax relief"
"intelligent design"
"peacekeeper" (bomb)
Lower Controversy"ethnic cleansing"
"global warming"
"peak oil"
"friendly fire"
"collateral damage"
"terminate with extreme prejudice"

High-controversy high-ambiguity spin is the most insidious, as users skillfully exploit lack of public expertise or consensus on exactly what the referent is with widespread disagreement on the normative issue to help shift undecided parties into their camp. High-controversy low-ambiguity spin includes issues upon which the two sides are clearly defined and firmly entrenched. The items in this category aren't likely to change many minds because the component facts of the debate are fairly easy for the layperson to grasp.

Low-controversy high-ambiguity rhetoric designates issues that everyone agrees are problematic, but that the general public doesn't fully understand. It derives some persuasive power from the complexities, but not as much as the double-high category. Finally, spin's power is at its lowest ebb in the double-low box, because everyone knows exactly what the referents are and everyone agrees that they are repugnant or at least undesirable.

There's probably a million things holes in this conceptual contraption, but it's just a first stab. Comments are welcome.