A Handbook For Manipulation and Deceit, Rationalizations Included


This wasn’t considered newsworthy by the mainstream media, and that alone is worthy of some pondering: a 70-plus page how-to guide titled “Preventing Gun Violence Through Effective Messaging” has surfaced, produced last year by the Washington, D.C.-based firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.* The guide is a political strategy lesson for anti-gun advocacy, and its favored tactics involve emphasizing emotional hot-buttons over rational discourse and informative debate. The manual was produced, it appears, for the Seattle-based Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility (WAGR) before the Sandy Hook tragedy, but its advice tracks in every way with the approach employed by Democrats, including President Obama, during the disgraceful rush to exploit public horror over the shooting in an effort to pass strong anti-gun measures in the states and nationally.

Of course this is newsworthy. The public is the target of manipulation, deception and persuasion tactics that are designed to provoke half-baked opinions and positions based on emotion rather than rational analysis. If the public recognizes such tactics as the cynical ploys they are, such tactics will not be as effective. Such tactics shouldn’t be effective, and should be employed by honest, ethical advocates on any side of any issue. The mainstream media chose not to publicize the manual because 1) most reporters agree with the manual’s objective, and 2) the mainstream media eagerly facilitated the unethical methods recommended, and will probably continue to do so.

“The debate over gun violence in America is periodically punctuated by high-profile gun violence incidents including Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, the Trayvon Martin killing, Aurora, and Oak Creek,” the guide points out. “When an incident such as these attracts sustained media attention, it creates a unique climate for our communications efforts.”  Early on, the document it makes it clear that the “communication efforts” must always concentrate on stirring up emotions, not relying on facts or engaging in substantive debate. “A high-profile gun violence incident temporarily draws more people into the conversation about gun violence. We should rely on emotionally powerful language, feelings and images to bring home the terrible impact of gun violence.”

For example,  the guide addresses Stand Your Ground laws and advises substituting pejorative (and misleading) descriptions like  “Shoot First” and “Kill at Will,” asserting that these terms are “more accurate and persuasive.” At every turn, the guide cautions against getting bogged down in potentially nuanced statistics and facts, and urges anti-gun advocates to overwhelm any efforts at balancing or considering pros and cons with talking points based on  emotion salted with one-sided, group-tested statistics and generalities...”The core frame should be personal and emotional—centered on ‘people’ and not on facts, laws, or legislation.”  The top things to remember, cautions the guide,



Recommended phrases to use in forums and interviews include,

  • “It breaks my heart that every day in our country (state or city) children wake up worried and frightened about getting shot.”
  • “Just imagine the pain that a mother or father feels when their young child is gunned down.”
  • ” The real outrage – the thing that makes this violence so unforgivable – is that we know how to stop it and we’re not getting it done”

To the authors of the guide, effective persuasion “means emphasizing emotion over policy prescriptions, keeping our facts and our case simple and direct, and avoiding arguments that leave people thinking they don’t know enough about the topic to weigh in.”

That’s right, keep them ignorant and thinking that they aren’t. It’s the American way.

The guide is professional and well-thought out. It is certainly a useful document for any advocate to study before going on a talk show, or before drafting remarks at a rally, and it is obvious that this is exactly what such advocates do, if not with this document, then with similar ones. It is creepy to read line after line that is immediately recognizable as an endlessly repeated “talking point” during the Trayvon Martin uproar and the Sandy Hook aftermath. The manual also could grow cynicism on a rock. There is nothing honest or genuine about the political and policy-making process that the guide presupposes and attempts to control. There is nothing productive either. The objective is only to win—to get a desired policy initiative past the stage where public support is important and into the back rooms where the deals can be cut . You know that there was an equivalent document during the Affordable Health Care Act. These are blueprints for rushing policies into law, not for educating the public or fairly exploring complex issues before taking giant leaps of faith. They are, in short, instruction books on how to exploit the ignorance of the American people and distort the democratic process.

This is a bi-partisan practice, of course. The only difference between this guide and those produced by conservative consultants is that if one of those was found, the mainstream media would have reported it, Media Matters would have announced that it was a smoking gun document showing how evil Republicans corrupt America with their lies, and on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell would have smirked over it for a week.

The number of rationalizations at the ready, therefore, begin powerfully with “Everybody does it” (#1 on the Rationalizations list). So is, as a direct result, #2, “They’re just as bad” and #7, “Tit for tat,” Such a document and the politics behind it also invokes #3, Consequentialism, and #4, Marion Barry’s favorite, “If it’s legal, it’s ethical.”  It employs # 11, the Dissonance Drag, since the reason it will be deemed acceptable by anti-gun types is because they happen to like the people using the strategy; if the same document outlined the NRA’s approach, they would sincerely and passionately feel it was despicable.

It is the very embodiment of The Saint’s Excuse (#12), otherwise known as “It’s for a good cause,” as well as #13, Self-Validating Virtue. #17,  Hamm’s Excuse or “It wasn’t my fault,” is one of the predictable responses to criticism: “Hey, this is how the game is played. We didn’t make these rules; this has been going on for decades. Don’t blame us!”  My least favorite rationalization of all, #22, Comparative Virtue,  “There are worse things,” is also in play; so is “We have no choice” (because the evil NRA keeps buying legislators and rational debate doesn’t work!), # 24#27, “These are not ordinary times!” is a natural, of course.  So is #30, The Troublesome Luxury, usually expressed as “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now!”

Politics being politics, it’s perfect for #31, The Unethical Role Model, as in “Thomas Jefferson/Abe Lincoln/ Jack Kennedy would have done the same thing.” Heck…A new book suggests Jesus might have done the same thing!

Fourteen out of thirty-two possible rationalizations is an impressive arsenal, all right, but they are still rationalizations for what is a Machiavellian, “the ends justifies the means,” “by any means necessary,” unethical strategy that intentionally aims at the weaknesses of democracy and exploits them through the cynical use of psychology, manipulation, and deceit. Yeah, I know, it works, just as so many methods used by governments and interest groups to deceive the public and warp their perceptions have worked and work still.

That’s not really working, though, is it now? Causing a system designed to involve an informed and rational citizenry  to malfunction by exploiting laziness, ignorance and hysteria isn’t working, just because it succeeds. In fact, such tactics result in the kind of politics and government we have right now.

That is called, not working, but failing.

* According to the guide, Quinlan was part of “a team of communicators” with “decades of experience advising organizations on message development and strategic communications.” Other members of this team were Frank O’Brien, creative director and founder of OMP, another Washington, D.C.-based firm, and Jeff Neffinger and Matthew Kohut at KNP Communications, also headquartered in Washington, D.C. Among GQR’s clients are the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Joyce Foundation, several state education associations, Defenders of Wildlife, National Public Radio and the Sierra Club. Among OMP’s clients are Planned Parenthood of America and the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Sources: WSJ, Washington Examiner, Examiner

14 thoughts on “A Handbook For Manipulation and Deceit, Rationalizations Included

  1. I can understand what they’re trying to do. They know that the prevailing culture doesn’t lead people to think rationally so much as impulsively when it comes to ideology. Therefore, if you want people to support your ideology, you give them impulses to act on. To a certain extent it’s natural to lead people to feel passionate about ideas, e.g. products you are selling, or admirable concepts like “education” and “freedom.”

    However, I don’t want to live in a society where these impulses drown out the rational questions like, “what makes people want to threaten or harm other people in the first place?” or “how do most people who use guns violently obtain those guns?” Leaving out the questions involving the conscious agents in any societal problem is seldom a good idea. Passion for solving a problem is great for getting people involved, but it should never get in the way of seriously considering all aspects of the problem and all possible solutions.

    We need people to be passionate about rationality.

    • I find myself agreeing with the cephalopod. The “anti-gun lobby” (or the “pro-RESPONSIBLE gun policy lobby” as I prefer to refer to them as) has plenty of statistics and facts that make a strong case for tighter gun controls… that being said, the reality is we live in a society where most people are immediately disinterested in reading or hearing anything that too closely resembles math or data. The strategy they have outlined is sadly the one that is most effective given the basic psychology of most of our country (and perhaps even our species). At least they haven’t said, “just don’t even bother bringing up the actual statistics and the data plots, no one really cares about them anyway, just make something up on the fly if you really have to”… that seems to be the direction the right side of the political spectrum has been happy to take, and that should be troubling to all of us.

      • Did you miss the line,”This is a bi-partisan practice, of course,” as in, “If you assert that either end of the political spectrum does this more than the other, you are 1) biased, 2) lying or 3) nuts”?

        As to “At least they haven’t said, “just don’t even bother bringing up the actual statistics and the data plots, no one really cares about them anyway, just make something up on the fly if you really have to”…—you could only say that if you didn’t follow the disgraceful anti-gun (It’s anti gun: who are you kidding?) campaign, that had the President himself quoting phony statistics, and Charlie Rangel talking about “millions” of kids being killed by semi-automatic weapons. Isn’t the entire emphasis on children being killed inherently a false statistic? It’s an assertion in defiance of the facts—so they don’t make up numbers to support it, they just falsely assume facts that aren’t true. Most anti-gun advocates in the public really think gun violence has been increasing, when it is going down dramatically—the people using the handbook have no intention of correcting that misconception, and the rhetoric of people like Gaby Giffords reinforces it.

        Your comment, if you can assess it objectively—which, based on your comment, I doubt— just says “I’m in favor of gun control legislation and fact-free, emotional manipulation works by convincing people of what I want without actually making a fair argument, so it it’s OK with me.” Which is what I said about the handbook and its users—they will rationalize it, but they are unethical, and gaming democracy.

        I’m in favor of better and better enforced gun control legislation, but I’ll oppose any side that cheats like this, and any policy measures sold by intentionally dodging the tough questions and exploiting ignorance.

        • It’s true that both sides use carefully constructed emotional arguments to spin and manipulate in order to get their way. However, I have to point out that as far as I have seen, only one side coordinates and publishes instructions on how to be a better manipulator. I don’t feel it’s fair to simply assume that because both sides are bad, anything the one does is automatically assumed to be done by the other, as well. That’s a tactic used too often by the ‘hang both the parties/don’t bother voting crowd.

          • I am 100% certain that both sides have printed materials that do this. I have heard as many Republicans ape talking points on show after show as Democrats—you haven’t? Do you really think it’s a coincidence?

            • I’ve long since given up on taking sides or keeping score since it’s become clear to me that both major parties have unacceptable flaws in their official ideologies and methodologies. I’d like nothing more than for people to face up to the uncomfortable questions they currently avoid by simply assuming an answer they like and going from there. Political parties keep people loyal, in part, by presenting people with all the wrong questions and irrelevant facts, and by pushing their emotion buttons. I’m looking for a way to break the system, to get people to stop taking the easy way out, because as we here all know, that way lies destruction. Getting people to practice establishing common ground first and identifying where their perceptions diverge would be a good start.

              In the spirit of anti-manipulation, here’s some key concepts of Paradigm Synch (just a catchy name for what mature people do already): Reject the idea of “obviousness.” What’s obvious to you and what’s obvious to me are different. Blame is useless at this point, but respect is essential. Trace back the sources of your beliefs until you find common ground, and then work forwards from there to figure out where you diverged and why.

              We need this, and I’m not giving up on it.

      • or the “pro-RESPONSIBLE gun policy lobby” as I prefer to refer to them as

        I just hurt myself, I rolled my eyes so hard.

        Not a single law that has been proposed would do a single thing to “make people safe”, nor do most of the more restrictive laws (Chicago still runs red, Sandy Hook happened where there were draconian anti-gun laws, and “gun-free zones” are an invitation to shooting sprees).

        You’re not “pro-responsible gun policy”, you’re “pro-things-that-make-me-feel-good gun policy”.

        that seems to be the direction the right side of the political spectrum has been happy to take, and that should be troubling to all of us.

        Oh go fuck yourself.

        • “Oh go fuck yourself.”

          Thanks again AM, I needed that! Count me a, “first, control people who (with guns) want to control other people by controlling those other people’s guns first” person.

  2. It breaks my heart that every day in our country (state or city) children wake up worried and frightened about getting shot.”

    “Just imagine the pain that a mother or father feels when their young child is gunned down.”

    ” The real outrage – the thing that makes this violence so unforgivable – is that we know how to stop it and we’re not getting it done”

    If you add “by blacks” after the end of the first two sentences and after the word “violence” in the third sentence, that woould be the blueprint for white nationalist propaganda.

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