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Category: Public Communication / Topics: Change Criticism Government Information Management Leadership Perception Policy

Wall of Words

by Stu Johnson

Posted: January 5, 2018

Thoughts on framing arguments for public debate…

It seems incredible, but some lessons are hard to learn. Then again, I am talking about Washington, D.C.! A current example: the controversy over immigration reform, specifically the use of the term “wall’ applied to methods of securing the border between the U.S. and Mexico. 

Current news reports on potential bipartisan support to extend DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), show the problem.  Democrats, who insist on DACA renewal as a step toward immigration reform, are upset with President Trump’s demand that in order for him (and a willing number of Republicans) to support DACA, approval of spending on a border “wall” must be part of the deal. The arguments against a wall include such things as incredible cost and the impossibility of constructing an actual wall on every inch of the border. 

Here’s the problem: the argument is increasingly fixated on the literal meaning of the term “wall.”  However, below the headlines for years have been discussions of broader approaches to “border security,” everything from an actual wall to various types of fencing, electronic technology and increased human surveillance. In October 2014, with Republican control of the House in the closing years of the Obama administration, the Committee on Homeland Security of the U.S. House of Representatives, under chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), produced a Blueprint for Southern Border Security, in which it was stated:

The varied terrain across the U.S.-Mexico border presents a number of challenges in terms of determining the best mix of technologies and personnel to obtain full situational awareness. Certain geographic areas lend themselves to ground-based technologies such as fixed towers and unattended ground sensors; but other areas are better suited for surveillance by airborne assets (manned/unmanned aircraft or aerostats). The rugged terrain of many areas of the border makes cameras of little value as they are unable to see into the space below mountain crests.

There is no template that can be applied to allocate the same resources along the entire border. Varying terrain and threats will shape resource allocation requiring each sector to have unique requirements for technology, personnel, and infrastructure to first achieve situational awareness and ultimately operational control. 

The term “wall” has been rigidly and literally affixed to President Trump, in large part due to his own and his aides use of that term, which others assume is to be taken as a modern-day Great Wall of China extending along the entire border with Mexico.  Even today, on a radio report, I heard a White House spokesperson refer to the need for approving a “wall” as part of a DACA deal. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

It’s hard to find news stories about it, but I did remember hearing before Christmas about the construction of a number of prototype sections of “wall” near San Diego, which included fencing as well as traditional solid walls. One story I did find, appeared in the LA Times today, reporting the distribution of flyers warning against the use of bats, bottles and ‘implements of riot’ at the site.  That story focused on potential protests and made no mention at all of the actual purpose of the test site and various types of approaches to border security that I had heard described in an earlier radio report, which also gave the impression that this demonstration site was focused on physical barriers as part of a mixed approach to border security.

There is a simple principle: When you try to argue for something, avoid language that can be used against you. Think of the consequences! In this case, since a literal solid, tall wall is physically impossible (and even inappropriate) along the entire border, would it not be better to use a more general description? This could be framed as “improved border security” or “technology,” which can come closer to the multi-faceted approach the McCaul Blueprint talked about—and which the President and his aides are far too reluctant to mention.  Using the term “wall” is simple, to be sure, but its literalness is only fueling opposition.

“Obamacare” became a similar problem during the Obama administration for references to the Affordable Care Act. While used by supporters, it became a catchphrase for disaster by opponents. Once settled in the public mind, the impression is hard to change. Again, notice how a single word became a stereotype for something more complex. 

In the case of Donald Trump, however, it is not the opposition, but the result of his own approach. It demonstrates what happens when you try to squeeze a world of complex ideas and arguments into the realm of 140-character tweets. 

Trump’s wall is the most recent example of this phenomenon.  It happens over and over again in politics, academia and the private sector—Donald Trump has taken it to new heights (or depths!), but his is not the first administration to do it—arguments are framed in ways that actually encourage division rather than open discussion.

If you want to win over people (which may be subject to question!), put yourself in the position of the opposition.  It may be difficult to find any common ground, but is it not better to start there rather than destroy any chances of reaching out simply because of the language you used to frame your argument?  Don’t build a wall of words!


Stu Johnson is owner of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois focused on "making information make sense."

E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*)

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Posted: January 5, 2018   Accessed 157 times

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