Getting the Message Right or Getting the Right Message?

listening.gi

I came across this article, appearing way down in the on-line edition of the NYTimes. The article, "Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus," refers to a study of the impact of the language used in getting the attention and commitment of the public on environmental issues. Framing is important as it shapes the images for and meaning to those who hear the messages. This article focused on global warming, but the same is true about any issue.

The problem with global warming, some environmentalists believe, is “global warming.”

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in Washington.

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk about “our deteriorating atmosphere.” Drop discussions of carbon dioxide and bring up “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.” Don’t confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like “cap and cash back” or “pollution reduction refund.”

I find this whole approach ominous. I do understand the importance of using language that can easily slip by the filters in our receiving apparatus. But using soothing metaphors like "deteriorating" also induce an unconsciousness to the reality of the situation and to the need for action. I found a quote made years ago by Harold Geneen, then President of ITT, the company that made conglomerates popular. Geneen said, "In business, words are words; explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.

Performance means actions taken to change the present reality to a future that fits the vision of the actors. Obscuring the present reality is bound to produce actions that will produce the desired world only by chance. In any case, the words we use in talking about global warming and related aspects of unsustainability should induce people to stop and think. Context matters as well as the words. If someone has a deep-seated distrust of people advocating for the world, it isn't going to make much difference if that person asks them to pay attention to the "deteriorating atmosphere" or to "global warming."

The way out of this form of deafness is not through the clever choice and manipulation of words, but by restoring the consciousness of everyone's place within and as a part of the global system. If we do not care about what is being spoken (or seen), the words we hear get directed to the body's trash heap. If we do care and if we judge the speaker to share our concerns, we are likely to listen carefully even if we do not agree with the specific content of their words.

|