Let’s face it. Manipulation is a big part of what politicians do. Let’s take a look at two of the ways they do it: reframing and figleaves.
Reframing is what it sounds like. It’s like changing a shabby picture frame for a sparkly new one. The picture inside doesn’t change. Just the frame. Politicians do it by adding a few words or a refined word choice to their statements. A negative becomes a positive. The conversation about the topic then changes. Reframing can dress up a politician’s statement, dress down an opponent’s argument, and win over the public.
There are many examples of word-choice reframing in the political arena. Here is one.
In response to legislation designed to allow denial of service to homosexuals, it wasn’t “anti-gay”; it was “pro-religious freedom”. Thus, something discriminatory now sounds like something constitutional. Discrimination is still on the table, but the policy has been dressed up. At the same time, anyone opposing the idea has to explain why they are against religious freedom as promised by the Constitution. In the process, the politician can sway the public that the policy is both good and just.
Applying figleaves can be a key part of the reframing technique. What do I mean by “figleaves”? I got the term from an article by Prof. Jennifer Saul. (Links to her articles on the subject are in the “feature length” version of this article, which can be found here.)
If statues of naked people come to mind, you are on the right track. The private parts of nudes in art are sometimes covered over by a fig leaf. The fig leaf changes them from “lewd” to “respectable”.
Similarly, politicians can add small qualifying phrases to cover their unrespectable comments. A now famous example comes from early in then-candidate Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. I am sure you remember the statement. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Wait for it. Here comes the little qualifier, right at the end. “And some, I assume, are good people.”
That little tag at the end is the figleaf. It provided enough of a modesty covering to allow the statement to be called “not really racist”. Because of that little addition, Trump did not say ALL were bad. Since it was not technically a statement on all Mexican immigrants, it was not technically racist.
In reality, what he said was racist. The entire statement used clearly racist pronouncements. It was a blanket assessment of a single group of people based on nothing more than nationality and immigrant status. The add-on was clearly nothing more than window dressing. A figleaf covering over the bold racism of the proceeding statements.
They are simple. They are small. Yet these figleaves can accomplish a whole lot. There are many types of figleaf application. However, they all serve the same goal. By adding these tiny smidgens of respectability to problematical statements, politicians avoid consequence.
We, the public, are not meant to notice the figleaves are there. Or if we do, we are meant to be reassured by their presence that the statement is not controversial.
Putting It All Together
This kind of reframing and manipulation was not new at the time of the 2016 Presidential election. It is not limited to any single party. Through these techniques, a positive becomes a negative, and a negative becomes a positive. The conversation about the issue is forced to shift to something more favorable to the politician and less favorable to his opponents. The public can be swayed and reassured about the politician’s statements. And the politician can accomplish all of this without actually changing his or her position at all.
All of us get manipulated by politicians to some degree. I am spotlighting these techniques to make you more aware.
So, before accepting what a politician says, challenge yourself. Forget modesty. Pull aside the curtain. Tear off the figleaves. And take a good look at the naked statements underneath.
Curious to know more? Wondering about the music video that inspired this? Want to get a more thorough explanation of reframing and figleaves? How about a more detailed look at some real world applications? Please check out the feature length version of this article, found here.
(Cover Image Credit: By Sputnikcccp, 2006. Image from Wikipedia)