In the world of magic, there’s a concept known as “the force”. It has nothing to do with light-sabres and small green muppets. In fact, it’s the means by which a stage magician or mentalist seems to give you a choice, but ensures that the choice you make is the one she wants. The simplest version is the “pick one card” technique — two cards on the table, and the spectator is told to slide one away. If the spectator has chosen the card the magician wants, why then: the magican says “Okay, that’s your card. Hold onto it carefully!” But if the spectator has chosen the other card, the magician nods, and says: “Okay, we’ll discard that one, shall we? Now you take the remaining card and hold onto it carefully!”
Since I’m using that metaphor — hold on to that image carefully, will you? Because I have to change topics slightly for now. Bear with me. I’ll get back to it.
Language shapes our thoughts. We think in words, and when we try to conceive of ideas for which there are no words, we find ourselves floundering.
Words have connotations: connections, secondary meanings, relationships with ideas other than the central concept conveyed by the word itself. A man who gets it on with a lot of women is “a stud”. A woman who has her way with a lot of men is “a slut”. What’s the difference? Well, if you can’t see it for yourself, try using those two words in conversation for a while. Sooner or later, a smart woman will straighten you out; hopefully with a left hook.
Anyway, back to our hidden card: politics is opinion and opinion is debate, and if you can choose the words that frame the debate, you can force your audience to the conclusion you want before the debate even begins.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: why does Tony Abbott constantly refer to refugees who turn up in boats as “illegals”?
If your answer is that they’re illegal — bzzzt! You lose. Australia’s a signatory to the 1954 UN treaty on refugees. Those people have a legal right to seek asylum, and they are exercising it quite legally.
If your answer is that Abbott is an idiot — nope. Wrong again. The man is a wrong-headed, vicious, venal lackey who will suckle at the anus of anybody with more money than him, but he is not an idiot.
The answer is simple: Abbott is framing the debate.
By using the word “illegal” relentlessly and endlessly, he pushes that word into the public consciousness. The people who want to believe in his line of garbage consciously mimic him. Pretty soon, you find that you can’t actually talk about what to do with asylum seekers any more, because the first thing you have to do, every time, is explain that they’re not illegal.
Get the picture? Abbott has forced the game. You can’t talk about the really important aspects of the refugee problem because he’s forced you into the position of defending the legality of the asylum seeker’s actions. You can’t talk about the nation’s responsibilities because you’re busy explaining that these people are legally entitled to do what they do.
And Abbott walks away laughing while you fume and snarl and waste your energies trying to educate his followers and the people stupid enough to copy them.
This isn’t a new tactic, but it’s only in the last thirty years or so that it’s been used in an organised, planned, and carefully choreographed fashion. Like most of the things Abbott has, this tactic came from the US right wing think-tanks that led the assault on American freedom and rights all the way back in the 80s. They bought up the US media in a big way, and planted shills like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and a bunch of other mouth-breathers on radio and TV. Then they fed specific words to those people, and to the politicians who were in on the joke, and they used this power to shape American politics.
That’s how you get a “USA PATRIOT Act” that assaults American freedom at every level.
Now, I don’t give a fig for American politics. The Yanks got themselves into this situation; they’ll get themselves out. What I’m worried about is the way in which Abbott and his ilk are copying from their American idols, and the effect it’s having on my country. I’ve been watching Abbott and his people for a long time, and I’ve seen them rig the debate and push public opinion without anyone on the other side calling them on it. Instead, the opposition falls straight into the trap time and again: they don’t stay on their own message, but fall over themselves to give Abbott’s words more power by publically arguing against them. They push facts and science against the idiot mantras that Abbott’s people foist on the public — and facts and science keep losing. And while all that’s going on Abbott and his people keep going their merry way.
I think it’s about time we changed that game-plan. Don’t you?