Dissertations >> Manda Scott: Whispering to the Amygdala

Manda Scott: Whispering to the Amygdala

The Role of Language, Frame and Narrative in the Process of Transition

“In order to fix the climate crisis, we need to first fix the Government crisis. Big money has so much influence now.… Our democracy has been hacked.”
Al Gore (Carole Cadwalladr, 2017c)

It is said of Donald Trump that the world’s press took him literally but not seriously, while his myriad supporters took him seriously but not literally (Zito, 2016). In more objective terms, we could say that his opponents on both sides of the political aisle parsed his language with their cerebral  cortices, found it lacking in rational coherence, and rejected it, while his supporters heard him with their brainstems, responded with their gut instincts - and voted into office an individual who finds it useful to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accord and indulge in verbal brinkmanship with North Korea.

Amidst the continuing fallout from that election, comes the revelation that staff at the US Department of Agriculture have been told to avoid using the term ‘climate change’ in any official documents. According to emails leaked to the Guardian, it is to be replaced with the term, ‘weather  extremes’, while ‘reduce greenhouse gases’ has been abandoned in favour of ‘build soil organic matter and increase nutrient use efficiency.’ (Milman 2017b) This is not a new phenomenon: for decades, those on the right of the political spectrum have understood the power of language to shape a debate.

Indeed, the term ‘climate change’ itself was coined by Frank Luntz, author of ‘Words that Work’, and of the 1994 Republican ‘Contract with America’ which is credited with turning around failing GOP fortunes, giving them the first majority in the House since the 1950s (Abadi, 2017). Luntz argued  that the earth’s climate was benign and always changing and required Republicans under his sway to use ‘climage change’ in place of the then-current phrase ‘global warming’ in an effort to reduce the sense of threat and urgency embodied in the concept. By his own lights, his strategy saw  success when the left-leaning newspapers and media took up the term. (Luntz, 2007).

Opposite is a list of words or phrases he suggests that Republicans should not use, and alternatives to employ instead to strengthen the conservative frame.