Verbicide: How to manipulate with words
What's the difference between drilling for oil and exploring new sources of energy? Nothing really, but notice the mental shortcut that happens as your read these phrases. Think what connotations or pictures each one evokes in your mind. In one case, you will probably see petroleum-smeared, dying birds after an oil spill, in the other a forward thinking enterprise trying to solve one of the world's major challenges. One is clearly negative, the other rather positive.
This is an example of manipulative language using a technique called framing. The way something is presented, or framed, by choosing certain words determines how it is perceived, thus influencing people's thoughts exactly the way the writer or speaker has intended. This technique has been perfected by people with an agenda - from salesmen, religious leaders to politicians - because it is so effective.
Twisting and tweaking the truth
There is no doubt: New Zealand politicians and their well-oiled PR machinery also know every trick in the book of public relations. It’s more than just writing weasel words. These professionals are well-versed in the art of twisting and tweaking the facts by using not only, but also, the art of framing.
By repeating their phrases over and over again, their statements eventually become firmly rooted in people’s minds, assuming a degree of authority and credibility that makes them seem beyond doubt. The way officials apply spin treatment to the issue of overseas pensions is no exception.
What can be found in Government press releases, many of which are reprinted verbatim and uncommented in the press or quoted on the radio or on TV as if they were the absolute truth, is an amazing concoction of manipulative tricks. It runs the whole gamut from obfuscation to distortion, from evasion to misrepresentation.
So does official correspondence. Innumerable immigrants as well as New Zealanders who have worked overseas and accrued entitlements to overseas pensions have written letters to WINZ, their local Members of Parliament or other bureaucrats.
Some simply asked questions in disbelief at what had happened to their New Zealand pension once they found out that their overseas pension was deducted from NZ Super. Some even dared to question the ethical legitimacy of this practice. The stereotyped responses they received also reflect the entire repertoire of the Government’s manipulative language.
Singing from the same song sheet
This is no surprise. The Government is well aware of the need for a one-voice policy and employs an army of efficient, highly skilled public relations staff who manage the language of its communications and shape public messaging. Some call them the Wellington Mandarins.
Just like these high-ranking bureaucrats in imperial China who were carefully selected, well-educated, lettered and loyal servants to the Emperor, the Wellington Mandarins ensure that only streamlined messages are communicated from all New Zealand government departments, agencies and politicians’ offices. They are skilled communications strategists and accomplished ghost writers. We call them spin doctors.
Following is an excerpt from the proposal on the treatment of overseas pensions, submitted by the Office of the Acting Minister for Social Development and Employment to Cabinet in 2008. It comes under the heading “Publicity”:
During the Review there has been much interest on this issue from stakeholders. Therefore, regardless which policy proposals are adopted, (Editor’s note: one of these proposals was the discontinuation of the Spousal Provision, which was not adopted by Cabinet because the money to finance its abolition could not be “found”) the Government needs to put out clear and robust messages on this issue.
A communications strategy detailing comprehensive stakeholder engagement will be developed. This will be built around the following messages:
- the current system provides very good protection for most New Zealanders and therefore the Government is maintaining the wider policy largely in its current form
- in terms of treatment of overseas pensions, most countries apply a principle that people receive the equivalent of one state pension – New Zealand achieves this through Section 70 of the Social Security Act.
The key audiences are NGOs such as Grey Power and Age Concern, migrant community groups, Pacific governments, other governments, the New Zealand public, and the media.
The communications strategy, with clear, consistent albeit not really robust messages, was developed, implemented and seems to be working well. This explains why every letter from the Ministry of Social Development, from any WINZ office and from most Members of Parliament on the issue of Section 70 contains identical cookie-cutter phrases.
The real greedy grabbers
The most infuriating aspect of the Government’s line of reasoning (see below Terminology for the Spin Language Detector) why the Direct Deduction Policy is justifiable against all obvious anomalies, is the underlying implication it carries. It infers that immigrants and New Zealanders with overseas pension entitlements who protest this practice are being greedy. Those politicians who don’t mince their words even call it double-dipping.
The real double-dipper or even triple-dipper is, in fact, the Government. NZ Super is paid from general taxation. This is one stream of pension funding. In addition, by taking away people's contribution-funded overseas pensions under Section 70 legislation, the Government is dipping into a second income source for pensions.
As most – but not all – overseas pensions are taxed in New Zealand, this adds a third income stream to the New Zealand government’s revenue generating machine. In this way the Government lines its dedicated pension pockets by dipping into three sources while unashamedly calling those it fleeces double-dippers.
Terminology for the Spin Language Detector
If there were a Spin Language Detector to expose how the Government’s spin doctors twist the truth, the device would certainly work to capacity when fed NZ Super related texts. Programmed to identify framing, just one of a number of manipulative language strategies, it would be very busy.
The main official tenet is: no-one should be better off. To substantiate this doctrine, one recurring argument used by the Ministry of Social Development, WINZ and politicians of the mainstream parties to try and justify Section 70 is recited like a mantra. It reads something like this:
On the face of it, this sounds reasonable. But in fact it is just another popular trick from the political PR toolkit: using a logical fallacy to deliberately shape public opinion the way it suits the Government. If given such material to analyse, the Spin Language Detector would certainly flash a red light for Advanced Manipulation. Let’s see what else this smart device would flag as framing for political spin in this statement.
Pensions versus benefits
It would certainly flag “benefits”. Using the terms benefit and pension interchangeably does happen in officialese, and deliberately so, although the two are as different as chalk and cheese. Owing to the efficacy of framing and the frequency of its repetition, this obfuscation has also seeped into general usage.
However, by far most overseas pensions are pre-funded by contributions made from work income, so their payment is not a benefit. By blurring the difference between pensions and benefits officials who do so try to give the impression that the foreign retirement income is a social welfare benefit, a form of state-funded support or, in other words, a hand-out.
It would indeed amount to double-dipping and an unfair advantage if pensioners who receive NZ Super would also draw a non-contributory, tax-funded overseas pension paid by another government. However, Section 70 also captures many contribution-based pensions. The closest substitute term for these pensions would be retirement savings or personal annuities but not benefits.
Deducting versus topping up
The device would also sound a piercing warning beep for “topping up”. This term suggests that the New Zealand government is generously topping up partial overseas pensions.
It does, but first it deducts them by applying Section 70 in order to then again add the difference to full NZ Super. So, on balance, these pensioners are indeed receiving one full pension consisting of their overseas part-pension plus a supplementary payment in the form of NZ Super. But the money they have put aside for their retirement while working overseas, be it on a voluntary or compulsory basis in government-protected or government-managed schemes, is lost for them. This is not only twisted logic, but logic turned upside down. This practice is not topping up but paring down pensions.
Advantage for immigrants versus advantage for stay-at-home Kiwis
The Spin Language Detector might even freeze at “advantage”. It is not the immigrant or the New Zealander who has worked overseas who is advantaged. The opposite is the case: New Zealanders who never went abroad to work and never paid into a foreign government-managed pension scheme are privileged. Civil servants can receive unabated additional superannuation payments from other pension funds in addition to full NZ Super (see also the story about The real double-dippers).
The ordinary Kiwi is told that KiwiSaver, whose payment levels will directly correspond to the amount of contributions made, won’t affect NZ Super. The Spin Language Detector would also classify this as populist propaganda, another cheap trick from the spin doctor’s toolbox used to play on emotional aspects such as patriotism and envy. All most pensioners penalised by Section 70 want is to keep the money they put aside for their retirement before they came, or came back, to New Zealand and also receive NZ Super proportional to their years of contributing to the NZ tax base and economy.
Fair versus unfair
Encountering the words “fair” and “unfair” used with grotesquely inverted meanings would most likely make the Spin Language Detector crash. Calling the New Zealand pension system fair, as most official statements either openly – and brazenly – do or insinuate reduces it ad absurdum.
The politics of language
Framing is a term used in social science. It is based on the framing theory founded by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann in 1981.
Framing suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences how people perceive things, how they think about an issue and how they act on it.
Framing is skilfully used by politicians in their communications. Its purpose is to lead others to accept one meaning over another.
The use of terminology with regard to Section 70 is a prime example of manipulative language using a number of framing techniques:
spin – to give a concept a positive meaning;
contrast – to describe a situation in terms of what is not;
catchphrases – to frame the Government’s stance in a memorable and familiar way.
Playing with the truth
Is it …
- adjusting or cutting the budget?
- letting staff go or laying staff off?
- a military operation or war in Afghanistan?
- a transfer station or a waste dump?
- information or propaganda?
- controlling or killing possums?
- compensation or a fine?
- a condition or a disease?
- a problem or an addiction?
- reforms or just changes that are not necessarily an improvement?
Each such „frame“ elicits an intended shift in the meaning of a message and influences how the listener or reader perceives it.