Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Reform" and "taxes": Words of Warning

Quick now, does the word “reform” have positive or negative connotations?

My guess is that you’d say positive. After all, if we try to reform ourselves, we are trying to make ourselves better, not worse.

And now we have “Health Care Reform.” The built-in assumption is that "the reform" will be good. So who could be against health care reform?

I might be — if I strip the legislation's provisions from its name and look at what it actually does.

It may or may not make things better. It could even make health care worse in this country — although that’s hard to imagine.

For those who oppose the current legislation as it moves forward, the very name “Health Care Reform” is a problem.

The name merges with the thing itself, and the connotations rub off. It’s a classic case of what semanticists call “reification.” The name becomes the thing. The Latin word for “thing” is “res.” (An aside: a "republic" is "a public thing." You'd think that "Republicans" would support "public things" over private ones. Something strange happened as republicans became Republicans.)

Here’s another one. What is your gut feeling about “taxes”? Not so good, right?

In January, Oregon voters will be called upon to vote on two “tax” measures that have been put on the ballot by tax opponents. Voting against the measures is a vote against the new taxes passed in the last state legislative session. The “anti-tax” campaign by a business coalition calling itself “Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes” will avoid detailing how the proposed taxes will be levied, who will pay them and what the money will be used for.

The key word in the anti's campaign is “taxes,” and opponents are counting on the public's aversion to them, no matter who is paying. Lazy headline writers are already using short forms like “Anti-Tax campaign" and “Tax Reversal Effort.” In doing so, they are unwittingly framing and distorting the issue.

Those who support the new taxes, which are to be levied on the wealthy and large businesses, need to seize the debate by rebranding the issue to show what’s at stake. They need to talk about “tax fairness” and “paying for public services” such as decent schools for kids.

Campaign causes can be won or lost by the names used to describe them.

The political playing field tilts to the dominant name — and frame.

To see how the competing coalitions are playing the "tax/fairness/jobs etc." issue, see Empower Oregon and Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes.”

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7:58 PM  

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