Speaking American

TALK SOFTLY AND CARRY A big stick. The domino theory. Slippery slope. The Axis of Evil.
A choice phrase like the Silent Majority, coined by Richard Nixon to counter anti-Vietnam war activism, can turn the tide of public discourse on a dime. Once those unheard millions were conjured up, their supposedly pro-war views had to be addressed.
Metaphor Project director Susan C. Strong knows the best epithets have come from the right — and she’s determined to give environmentalists and other progressives a fighting chance to communicate effectively. “I was frustrated that we were using language the public didn’t understand,” she says. At a conference in 1997, she proposed a radical solution: mainstream the message.
Strong meant to hook into quintessential American stories — the American Dream, The Frontier, Rags to Riches, Democracy’s Defender, and the Melting Pot. “I found that progressives knew very well what the core myths were,” she says. What activists need to do, Strong argues, is to tweak those myths, adding a green component.
For instance, environmentalists can evoke health images: we need to “follow nature’s rules,” “be better stewards,” “erase the ecological deficit,” “live simply and starve the corporate cancers.” The Metaphor Project website suggests: “Decide to speak American by using simple language and familiar images.” Activists are told to avoid long words, complex arguments, historical analysis, or attacks on America.
Strong’s latest focus has been the war. “Real patriots drive hybrids,” “Resistance is fertile,” and “Let’s try preemptive peace” are part of a long list on Strong’s site, together with a pointed reminder that demonstrators should avoid anything “that could be construed as angry, violent, or hateful speech. Signs, speeches, banners, and buttons in public gatherings are in reality public performances…”
<b>LD: We talk a lot about not preaching to the choir. How do we change churches?</b>
SS: The stakes are way too high today to speak only the way our fellow well-educated, well-informed, abstract-thinking liberals and progressives do. This preaching-to-the-choir style has never been more dangerous for our country and the planet.
<b>Could you give an example of how we could better frame an argument?</b>
People want to be safe. More and more people are realizing that if the environment is unhealthy, they aren’t safe. Americans are also very concerned about being strong. Democratic candidates are picking up on that, saying that if we don’t take care of our people we’re not strong, and that if we don’t have a safe environment we can’t be strong. The candidates need to talk about how fostering community is patriotic. They can use the “p” word.
<b>Words can sting. Rush Limbaugh calls us “environmentalist wackos” while visionary activist Caroline Casey responds with “sane, reverent people.”</b>
As good as “sane, reverent people” is, it’s not zingy enough. Environmentalist wackos is good. We need to figure out the reverse.
<b>What’s changed since 9/11?</b>
There’s been a very quick learning curve on the question of mainstreaming our language. Progressives have learned that we need to distinguish between core American values and how the US government acts. There is much less kneejerk anti-American rhetoric. That’s a huge step forward.
<b>Are some issues too hot to handle?</b>
All issues should be easy to talk about. Everything can be part of the American story. Of course, people working on the issue must be willing to take the step of translation. The strength of progressives is that our mission is to get the truth out. But the truth is often very different — what Noam Chomsky calls the consensual trance, the media version of reality. The process of getting the truth out, and more importantly, understood, is complicated. Invoking the American story is a way to open up the dialogue. The right has been telling the American story for years. If we start using it too, it’s a very interesting new situation. The question can arise more quickly of who is really telling the truth. That’s when you start getting to the facts.
<b>What are the biggest problems?</b>
There’s a level of cynicism. The right says they’re in favor of healthy communities, and we say we’re for that too. That’s when we need to say, “Let’s look at the record.”
<b>What happens when the truth is depressing and negative?</b>
People can easily be made to despair. People get it that we’re wrecking our environment, but they feel helpless to do anything about it. Or they feel it’s too late; people feel trapped. So along with the truth, you need to deal deal with those feelings, ask explicitly if it’s too late or if something can still be done.
There’s also the problem of conflict of interest. I’ve got a little phrase here I wrote — “The American people’s rights to an ecologically healthy and safe community versus the property rights of special individuals or corporations.” The key word here is special.
<b>Do you work with corporations?</b>
(Laughs.) No, I’m afraid I’m preaching to the choir.

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