environmental protections,” declares a March 28 headline in TheWashington Post. An April 27 article in the Post described an “effort to remove environmental protections.” Two days later, another Post article stated that Trump’s term in office has “already seen multiple rollbacks of environmental protections.”“Trump signs order at the EPA to dismantle
The Post isn’t the only publication pushing such language. Here’s The New York Times: “President Trump’s unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement.” Here’s The Huffington Post: “Environmental Protections Save Lives, Create Jobs And Strengthen The Economy.” Here’s The New Yorker: “It’s clear that we’re about to witness the steady demolition, or attempted demolition, of the environmental protections that have been put in place over the past five decades.”
In each of those instances, the words “environmental protections” could easily have been replaced by “environmental regulations.” I’m speaking anecdotally here, but in recent months both mainstream and activist media have seemed to use “environmental protections” more often and “environmental regulations” less.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” And one of the chief paths of persuasion, he argued, comes “when the speech stirs their emotions.” So which word has more emotional appeal, regulation or protection? Regulation denotes “a law, rule, or other order prescribed by authority, especially to regulate conduct.” Protection is defined as “the act of protecting or the state of being protected; preservation from injury or harm.” Regulation is coercive, perhaps punitive; protection is warm and fuzzy.
As I puzzled over this apparent shift in terminology, my mind naturally turned to the retired Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Lakoff has spent years thinking about how political progressives could become more persuasive with the public. To achieve that, he wants progressives to engage in what he calls “honest reframing.” “Reframing is telling the truth as we see it—telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation,” he writes.
Lakoff believes that conservatives have been masterful at rhetoric, ah, framing. He cites the phrase “tax relief,” which implies that taxes are an affliction and the politicians who favor it are heroes. People on the left, he argues, need to reframe progressive taxation as requiring “those who benefit most should pay their fair share.”
So I was not surprised to discover that in January Lakoff wrote a short essay titled “The Public’s Viewpoint: Regulations Are Protections.” He begins by citing Trump’s assertion that he intends to “cut regulations by 75 percent, maybe more.” Then Lakoff asks, “What is a ‘regulation’?” He goes on to assert that from the viewpoint of corporations, “‘regulations’ are limitations on their freedom to do whatever they want no matter who it harms.” (Never mind that killing customers is usually not a good business strategy.) On the other hand, Lakoff claims that the public views a regulation as being “a protection against harm done by unscrupulous corporations seeking to maximize profit at the cost of harm to the public.”
Lakoff’s solution? “Imagine the NY Times, or even the USA Today headline: Trump to Eliminate 75% of Public Protections,” writes Lakoff. “Imagine reporters finding out and reporting all over America exactly what protections would be removed.” One of his three key takeaways is: “Shift the frame: always say ‘protections’ instead of ‘regulations.’ “Protections” is a more simple and accurate description.”
From simply inspecting recent coverage, I don’t have to imagine that. I can just open the paper and read it.
Interestingly, Lakoff also urges his readers to always take the Public’s Viewpoint by asking themselves, “What would increase the public’s wellbeing?” I think that’s good advice. As it happens, regulations—sorry, protections—are making Americans $4 trillion poorer than they would otherwise be. So keep an eye out for reframing, everyone! Otherwise, rhetoricians might get away with reframing those costly, job-killing environmental regulations as healthy, community-building environmental protections.