The Hollow Victims of the Right
My mother had a good friend named June. In the 1970s, with the introduction of Ms. Magazine, my mother was experimenting with the use of the term “Ms.” since a woman’s marital status really should be irrelevant to any discussion of the person. June, however, was incensed. As a young boy, I listened as she drew deeply on her Newport Menthol and smokily denounced the new term.
I’m married and I worked hard to be married. I’m a good wife and I run my household like a naval academy. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished and I won’t have my accomplishments belittled by ‘Ms.’; I’m a Missus, dammit!
In other words, June was making it clear that she was defined by her marital status. It was fundamental to whom she was. Even though her husband didn’t make enough money to fulfill his role as sole breadwinner in the 1950s ideal that she had adopted; even though she, unlike June Cleaver, worked as an accountant to make ends meet; even though their union had yielded no children to chatter at the traditional family meal, that role as wife, married to the man she had won in the noble competition for the worthy mate, was central to her identity. Key to this understanding is the fact that this identity, while deeply held, was so fragile that a mere word threatened it. Her response to my mother was not that of reflection and review; it was a response to a threat.
Words as Threat
My spouse, Janette, has decided that she is going to take me up on a challenge to use non-gendered pronouns in all cases where the gender of a person is irrelevant or unknown. If she is talking about a specific individual of known gender, she will, of course, use the gendered pronoun; but, if explaining something that uses a generic person as a character in some example, she will refer not to the default “him” but to the gender neutral “em”. She mentioned this on her Facebook page and the resulting response was astounding.
Great old friends were railing against the deprecation of gender. Oh, we are all neutered now. Some friends were terrified at the fact that there actually were practical non-gendered pronouns that would actually fill in for cases where the gender of the subject is not known. But it wasn’t just that.
Of course, people are triggered by all sorts of things and we often don’t fully understand the reason why. Something about non-gendered pronouns challenges something deep inside. In discussing this with Janette, I began to wonder if this wasn’t similar to the distress experienced by my mother’s friend. Was this all about identity? Were some of Janette’s friends confronting a question of identity — as a man, as a woman? Without that gender attribute providing their definition, would they risk becoming nothing, an undefined thing? Were they afraid that they may lose their value without the key definition of their gender?
That was just an enthusiastic discussion on Facebook. Is it possible, though, that we have uncovered something important? Let us consider further. When we know our identity, we know what we are, we are able to explain our value. Because of what we are, we know our role, our purpose, our fundamental worth. You read this knowing what you are: you are a software developer, a writer, a traditional printer, a salesperson. You know who you are: loving, wise, intrepid, impulsive. Your definition is clear and known to you. If your definition is thin: “I’m a white man” or “I’m a libertarian” then any identity challenge is a mortal offense. If your definition is built up from a diverse collection of skills and qualities, then yours is a thick definition: “I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a thinker and a lover.” In this case, any challenge is merely a critique worthy of careful review.
“You are a bad mother!”
“Thank you for that critique. Help me understand how I might improve as a mother.”
If your personal definition is thick, then an assault on one component is less of a threat. The other parts of your identity support you as you re-evaluate the component in question. If your personal definition is thin, then a challenge to that one attribute will destroy you.
To understand oneself and to master one’s personal identity is a long and difficult process. Some may require decades of reflection, disappointment and experimentation to finally craft and comprehend the bulk of one’s personal identity. Once that life-long process is sufficiently accomplished, that person may be recognized by others using terms like mature, centered or even wise. One who has not endeavored honestly to prosecute a life of reflection and growth may acquire a mere façade that appears to be an identity. A Proud Boy or a Three Percenter may, after a life of lazy guessing, obtain an identity by essentially joining a club.
We may ask the question, “By what handle does Tucker Carlson manipulate his minions?” A person whose identity is comprised of a number of skills and curated qualities is a complex person whose robust personal identity may be easily observed but, as with any complex mechanism, may not be easily dismantled. A manufactured identity secured by affinity with those who would defraud is a fragile thing: a single handle with which the owner may be undone. Defense of such an identity requires weaponry.
A Handle for Propagandists
What if the messages of the Right-Wing propagandists are addressing this simple mode of thought:
I am defined by this thing. If this definition is thrown into question, I am nothing.
It is possible that the Republican Organization is manipulating those with a thin personal definition as their primary target. Could it be that the plethora of Right-Wing alternative facts and sinister questions are intended simply to challenge the trivial purpose confined in the shriveled breast of those whose personal definitions are thin?
Those who identify simply as white and male are naturally afraid of all non-whites and non-males who may threaten the supremacy of that thin identity. Those who identify as a traditional wife and mother are naturally afraid of gay men who may usurp that role. It is even possible that a percentage of Bernie supporters may have built a thin identity around the honorable Senator’s words and goals. In all of these cases, we are addressing the deeply held needs of people whose search for their actual identity has been interrupted. They either lacked the skill to undertake that exploration or they were stopped by others who exploited that opportunity to merge them into some cult-like imposed identity.
If this hypothesis is a fair representation of reality, is it possible that the messages being propagated by the well-funded Conservative machine provide us with hints regarding the thin identities for which each message is crafted? Knowing these identities, can we craft benign and supportive messages that may inspire personal growth rather than embattled fear and anger? Fear and anger serve the regressive Right by distracting the victims of the modern State from their actual oppressors. They practice with guns rather than protest monopoly power. They aggressively protest at women’s clinics rather than fight for a living wage and competent sex education. They cheer at CPAC rallies against life-saving vaccinations rather than advocate for universal health care. Currently, the Right-dominated media are wielding these distressed people by their fragile thin handles so as to keep them desperate and distracted.
Can these same thin identities be repurposed by a skilled application of Progressive messaging? Is the fragility of the handle an opportunity to wrest that person away from their oppressors and build a wall of protection around those feeble identities. Can those identities be thickened against those who would exploit them?
The Progressive’s Dilemma
In George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the professor explains that each individual understands the world based upon a frame. The frame is basically the world that a person sees through eir eyes and eir understanding of emself in that world. Not all frames are reasonable representations of reality and no frame is a perfect representation of reality; but, in order to communicate with any person, we must understand eir frame. When I first read Lakoff’s book, it left me with a profound feeling of hopelessness. How would we understand, for example, what frame was responsible for George W. Bush’s win in 2000? There must be thousands of different frames. How would we use Lakoff’s understanding of human influence in a practical way in order to avoid a Bush-like nightmare in the future?
A few nightmares later, we are looking at a world wherein the propagandists and the cooperative Right-Wing media have actively winnowed down the variety of frames into a few that are actually comprehensible. I don’t think they could be counted on one hand but there are clearly fewer than there appeared to be in my initial reaction to Lakoff’s book. While the Bush presidency inspired a burgeoning market in scholarly research into the Republican political phenomenon, it was the Republican messaging itself that actually did the hard work. While a Progressive message seemed incomprehensible to me in 2000, the wealthy oligarchs, in an attempt to simplify their own messaging, narrowed the field in order to allow a single Sean Hannity message to affect as many victims as possible.
As a result, the Progressive message may also be more effective. Despite the Regressive movement playing into the hands of Progressives, there is another crucial barrier to success which may be summed up in a single word: ethics.
Lakoff did not discover the frame all by himself. He is echoing and reinforcing research dating back to the 1950s in Wayne C. Minnick’s book The Art of Persuasion (out of print, find it on eBay) or Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence both of which explore the field with great practical scholarship. Lakoff’s frame, though, is useful in its expressiveness. It clearly defines the only doors into a person’s inner thoughts. A thin identity allows only a few doors, maybe only one. If the Progressive is not willing to open that door, the Progressive cause is truly hopeless. In order to communicate with a person, you must enter through the door provided. If you do not have the courage to enter through that door, your message, like so many Progressive messages to date, will not be heard.
The message that the Right provides to the white American male in order to distract him is this:
You are a white American man. You are threatened from all sides as foreigners enter the country to take your job and to rape your woman. They cut off your blood line by aborting your children. They steal your money by leeching your hard-earned taxes from a corrupt government that doesn’t care about you. How can you fight these horrible forces arrayed against you?
The trick is to provide a message of helplessness that impersonates a message of power. A progressive message would have to identify the listener as strong and capable, to put the listener in a place of comfort and personal agency. There’s only one problem: there’s only one door. The Progressive must enter through the door provided. Consider this Progressive message to the white supremacist.
You are special. You are a white American man. You are strong and you use your skill to produce value every day. The value you provide is respected by all Americans as you serve your family, your community and the world. The community of all Americans respects your work and knows your inestimable worth.
This message starts from an accepted frame and moves gradually in the direction of the white man as a contributing part of the community as opposed to a lone victim playing the stressful role of terrified, armed, hero protecting his family from the onslaught of an ill-defined fictitious assailant. Does this result in a parade of white American maleness to the gates of the Progressive Utopia? Of course not. We are here because of a decades-long Regressive campaign sponsored by amazingly wealthy provocateurs. It will take this message followed by hundreds of others that will build on this one encouraging an understanding of the healthy agency which white males and eventually many others may recognize as an understanding of their role in society as a first step to a robust thick identity.
The dilemma, of course, is that the message is not the whole truth. A Progressive would insist upon a message closer to this:
You are special in the same way that everyone is special. You are a white American male and you have value. Not more value than others, of course, but still you have value in that you are a human being with skills and hopes and aspirations. Just like all other human beings. Those of African, Chinese, Vietnamese, French and all other native descents are of equal value, but…
As should be obvious, telling the whole story will lose your reader in the first sentence. You must enter by the door provided and that fully qualified explanation of everyone having value is not it.
Let’s try another one. The Right-Wing media will seek to support the childish view that we are all lone actors working on our own pulling ourselves up by magical bootstraps and building our wealth without any outside support. This myth, known generally as Libertarianism, is a popular method for assuring that those individuals will never join together in protest against the system that is holding them back. The Right-Wing message to these people is:
You know that no one will help you. The government is incompetent and you are surrounded by libtards. Your only hope is in your own intrepid self. Fight hard against all odds and demand your right to do whatever is necessary for you to thrive. Arm yourself. Be ready, at all times, to defend your liberty and do not back down when Socialism threatens.
Here, the individual is reminded that ey is on eir own. The genius of the message is that it is pointless to collaborate with others because it is essential that the individual must stand alone and, John Galt-like, master the world and make eir fortune in eir own inimitable way. This conceit holds another population of thin identities in check so that the oligarchy may prosper. How might a Progressive message enter this door?
You are special. You have made it on your own with your own sweat and stamina. Everyone respects you for your accomplishments. You provide real value. You are entitled to the value you produce; but, there are others who respect liberty but have taken a wrong turn. Will you help to correct them? Can you serve your community by helping others to understand your strength and become better people themselves? Others need you. Are you strong enough to help others?
Here again, can Progressives get past the notion that only the complete truth will persuade when all evidence tells them the contrary? Can Progressives find comfort in telling the partial truth knowing that the complete truth will convey no useful message? Can the Progressive see this minor corruption of the complete truth as virtuous because it accomplishes a greater good? We must persuade through the existing frame and wealthy Republicans have assiduously and successfully narrowed the full list of frames to a countable few. Dare we exploit this array of minor falsehoods to the ends of truth and progress?
Can Progressives dare to bring Marketing to a Marketing fight?
This work represents the opinion of the author only.