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,
#1: ALWAYS START WITH THE PAIN AND ANGUISH THAT GUN VIOLENCE BRINGS INTO PEOPLE’S LIVES
#2: USE STATISTICS TO REINFORCE AN EMOTIONAL ARGUMENT, NOT TO REPLACE IT.
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.