The Fine Art of Spin Doctoring

When I was in the classroom as an English teacher, there was an activity I cobbled together from the reading of a few key texts I’d read in my grad program.  The texts were:

  • Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff

  • Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear by Frank I. Luntz

  • Language Exploration and Awareness: A Resource Book for Teachers 3rd Ed. by Larry Andrews

The two political books engage with the role of rhetoric from the conservative (Luntz) and the liberal (Lakoff) viewpoints.  They were key in understanding just how deliberately what is said by our politicians is planned out. At times, I found myself shuddering to know just how much money and effort is dedicated to this fine art of spin doctoring.  The books by Luntz and Lakoff were fascinating, but Andrews’ book was the one that caused me feel as though I was being dared to test it all out.

On pages 254-256, he discusses a poll by the New York Times on welfare spending.  There were two questions posed on the same issue; however, they were phrased differently.  The results of those questions were contradictory to each other. This is a commonly used technique that can help pollsters know more about their audience than just yes or no.  So, I decided to see how my students would react to a sample poll. The only thing was, I was going to give it in two parts. Three questions as a do-now, and another three at midpoint, after which I would tally them and give the results as a wrap-up.  Here are the first three (I’ve included the tallies from only one day of this lesson. The results remained pretty consistent for every time I used it) :

  1. Should the government use taxes to support programs which ensure that the families of underprivileged children receive appropriate funds to provide them food and shelter? Results:  NA=1 Y=50 N=6

  2. Should the government require private businesses to bear the financial responsibilities of increasing the income level of the underemployed?  Results: NA=1 Y=18 N=38

  3. Should the wealthy pay the same percentage of taxes on their income as the poor?  Results: Y=31 N=26

Now here is the second set:

  1. Should the government give money to the poor?  Results: Y=38 N=17

  2. Should the government raise the minimum wage?  Results: Y=35 N=20

  3. Should the wealthy pay more money in taxes than the poor?  Results: NA=1 Y=39 N=15

Aside from noticing the rhetorical/semantic differences, look at the results.  I managed to get the students to vote themselves out of supporting a minimum wage increase.  They would then argue trickery, that the questions were not the same, etc.  I would agree with them. Then I asked about the issues at play in these questions.  Were they the same? Could I justify my question as relevant when it was married to the issue I was gathering data on?  We agreed yes, even if in some spots it required a bit of sideways talk and thinking.

Some things about this exercise--first, I have used it in a red voting district and I have used it in a blue one.  The results tended toward the same outcomes. Second, the students who participated in this were second semester seniors--i.e. eligible voters for the next election.  Third, this is why I struggle with data, because of how I gathered my data. If I wasn’t playing both sides of this process to draw back the curtain for the students, I may find myself pleased with myself and my results, but that’s not how I work.

So why bring this into The Ed Narrative blog?  One, I think that the idea of persuasion has changed.  It has even moved past this simple bait and switch that I’ve laid out for you here.  Now, there is the approach of blind insistence. The more one says something, the more it will be believed.  Perhaps that is because like the exercise in Lakoff’s book, we are hearing about an elephant we’re not supposed to think about--so what do we do?  We think about it.

As educators, this knowledge can be used to help bring people to our sides, whether they are colleagues or students.  It can also be walking a tightrope that can make others question our intentions and veracity. But more than anything I hope this serves as a reminder not just of the importance of which words are used, but also how they are sewn together to form a bigger picture--true or not.

One more book I’d recommend, even if it may seem a little dated:

  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business By Neil Postman