In November 1973, under pressure to resign as President of the United States, a defiant Richard Nixon addressed the nation on television. “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” Nixon said. “Well, I’m not a crook.” By using the word “crook,” Nixon made people think that’s exactly what he was, and he ended up leaving office the following the year, disgraced.
This lesson in how not to frame your debate begins George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, which outlines how progressives can better articulate their message. “When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame,” writes Lakoff in explaining Nixon’s blunder. In other words, never use the language of your opponent. This is why you won’t find the Humane Society of the United States initiating debate on the criticisms made by agribusiness in the current Proposition 2 ballot measure in California, or bills like it. HSUS might carefully respond to attacks that Prop 2 will increase the cost of eggs, for example, but the organization does not present this as part of its central argument in op-eds and other communication to the public; no, the cost increase is part of the opponent’s frame ― an attempt to scare consumers. Instead, HSUS asks voters to imagine what it must be like for an egg-laying hen, pregnant pig or baby calf to live in confinement, unable to even turn around.
Lakoff, who teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is a specialist in “framing”: the way that language shapes how we think. Though it primarily deals with political discourse, Lakoff’s book has a few things to teach us about presenting the animal rights argument. Indeed, Don’t Think of an Elephant is one of two books on framing that activists would do well to study.
Our job as activists is to frame the vision of the animal rights movement ― its values and mission ― in a way people can easily understand and embrace. Although most people today are probably not in agreement that the world should go vegan, the majority of people do agree that animals should be not abused. The problem is, people almost never see animal abuse, and when they do, they think it’s an isolated incident. By framing our message so it resonates with a person’s core values, we demonstrate that those values are already aligned with the goal of ending animal suffering and exploitation. One way to do this is to explain the abuse of farmed animals within the frame of companion animals, since people are more familiar with dogs and cats. Whether speaking to people on the street or writing letters to editors, we can remind the public that “Farmed animals are offered no protection against such routine abuses as debeaking, toe removal, branding, dehorning, tail docking and castration ― all performed without any pain relief. Yet, if someone were to treat a dog or cat this way, he or she would be charged with animal cruelty.”
As Lakoff observes, people think in frames, and every word evokes a frame. The word “elephant,” for example, evokes a frame with an image of an elephant and certain knowledge: an elephant is a large animal (a mammal) with large floppy ears, a trunk that functions like both a nose and a hand, large stump-like legs and so on. I believe the animal-rights movement has done well to frame corporate agribusiness as the architects of “animal factories” and “factory farms.” These pejorative terms are much more widely used ― and understood ― than the term agribiz prefers: “concentrated animal feeding operation.” Indeed, a search for “factory farm” on Google comes up with 182,000 results, vs. 29,100 for “concentrated animal feeding operation”; “animal factory” yields 175,000 results. “Puppy mill” is another example. You’ll find 1,680,000 results for that term on Google, while the innocuous-sounding “commercial dog breeder” comes in with only about half a million.
The lesson here is to use our own language ― frames that will help people see the connection between their choices and animal abuse ― rather than the language of those who exploit animals.
Lakoff’s conservative counterpart is Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work. Luntz is probably best known for convincing Republicans to use words like “climate change” instead of “global warming” and “energy exploration” rather than “oil drilling.” His point is these words sound better to the public, because, according to Luntz, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” that matters most. Many of the examples Luntz offers come straight from companies exploiting animals, which illustrates just how well they do their job and make animals suffer.
Luntz provides readers with his Ten Rules of Effective Language:
1. Simplicity — Use small words. Avoid words that might force someone to reach for the dictionary (because most people won’t).
2. Brevity — Use short sentences. Never use a sentence when a phrase will do, and never use four words when three can say as much.
3. Credibility is as important as philosophy — People have to believe it to buy it.
4. Consistency matters — Repetition, repetition, repetition. Finding a good message and then sticking with it takes extraordinary discipline, but it pays off tenfold in the end. You may be making yourself sick saying something over and over, but many in your audience will be hearing it for the first time. (During the Prop 2 initiative battle in California, supporters of the measure to ban intensive confinement have constantly said Prop 2 would allow animals “to stand up, turn around, lie down and fully extend their limbs” — often several times in the same interview or debate).
5. Novelty — Offer something new. Words that work often involve a new definition of an old idea (such as when author Ruth Harrison used the term “factory farms” in 1964 to describe what the ag industry calls “concentrated animal feeding operations”).
6. Sound and texture matter — A string of words that have the same first letter, the same sound or the same syllabic cadence is more memorable than a random collection of sounds (see #5).
7. Speak Aspirationally — Messages need to say what people want to hear. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his “I have a dream” speech. (This can be difficult when addressing the plight of animals. I often speak about rescued animals living on sanctuaries, free from pain and fear. Getting people to visit a sanctuary so they can meet these animals themselves is even better.)
8. Visualize — Plant a vivid image. There is one word in the English language that automatically triggers the process of visualization: imagine. (Asking people to imagine their dog or cat being forced to undergo painful medical tests or to be locked in a wire battery cage for two years and then slaughtered can be a way to help people see things differently.)
9. Ask a question. Luntz cites the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” as perhaps the most memorable print-ad campaign of the past decade.
10. Provide Context and Explain Relevance. You must give people the “why” of your message before giving them the “therefore” and the “so that.” Some people call this framing, but Luntz prefers the word context.
Finally, remember: Rhetoric is an art used to persuade your audience, and like any art, it takes practice and discipline. Activist Bruce Friedrich recommends that we become familiar with the atrocities committed against animals, so that we’re better able to paint a picture with our words. “Although hard,” Bruce says, “it is very useful to watch videos with some regularity so that images of some of the forms of cruelty in factory farming are always fresh in your memory. This way, when people ask you, ‘Why are you a vegan?’ or, ‘Why are you an activist?’ you’re able to describe concrete and specific examples of the horrors that are routinely inflicted on animals. For example, rather than saying, ‘Animals are treated badly on factory farms,’ you will be able to say, ‘On factory farms, chickens grow so fast that they become crippled under their own weight,’ or ‘Cows and pigs often have their limbs hacked off while they’re conscious and able to feel pain,’ or ‘Animals are denied their every need and desire, they’re mutilated and cooped up in their own waste, they’re violently loaded onto trucks, causing injuries, and they’re slaughtered in the most painful and inhumane manner that you can imagine. If a dog or a cat were treated the way farmed animals are treated, everyone involved could be thrown in jail on felony cruelty-to-animals charges.’”
Such videos are not easy to watch, but they do remind us that relatively few people ever witness what goes on in the darkened corners of animal enterprises, and it’s up to activists to shine a spotlight on them.