Richard G. Jones, Jr.
Scholar, Educator, Author

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Gun Control vs. Gun Violence Prevention:

Mar 4, 2013

The Power of Words to Shape Public Opinion

Mark Glaze, the director of the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns was quoted on a recent story on NPR about the power of words in the “gun control” debate. He stated, “We talk about gun violence prevention, because that's what it is.” As you can see, the framing difference here is between "control" versus "prevent."

Generally, the word “control” is more intrusive than the word “prevention.” After all, we consent to rules and regulations that seek to “prevent” something more easily than we consent to “control.” Although there may not be a rational or practical difference between the two positions, the power of words to influence our perceptions about one or the other is unquestionable. Glaze points out that his organization’s polling suggests that “gun violence prevention" polls much better, up to 20 percent better, than “gun control.”

While some people might say that such distinctions are just a matter of semantics, the tweaking of words can change opinions – even when the words essentially refer to the same thing. Fortunately for politicians and unfortunately for people trying to make sense out of what politicians say, many of the words we use to discuss deeply held beliefs are abstract and have many different connotations. In this sense, a liberal politician and a conservative politician can both use the word “freedom” to refer to very different things. To return to the gun control debate, the National Rifle Association prefers the term “gun rights.” Using the word “rights” evokes strong reactions in many Americans and people in general.

George Lakoff a linguist at UC Berkeley is featured in this NPR story and he is someone that we turn to frequently in Communication Studies to explore the power of words. He notes that the words we use influence the way we see the world around us. They also affect our reactions. Just as different notes played on a piano evoke different emotions, so do different words.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz is also featured in the story. He is well known for helping the Republican party reframe the “estate tax” as the “death tax,” which essentially changed public opinion about the tax overnight, even though it was the same thing no matter how it was labeled.

There are many other examples. Would you be more likely to support oil drilling if it was called “energy exploration”? Does climate change or global warming matter more to you? Although the terms refer to the same general problem, climate change was introduced as an alternative to global warming which had almost become a joke.

Many people who identified as liberals became "progressives" when liberal became a dirty word. But, liberal is being reclaimed again.

When I teach about gender and communication, I often ask my students to raise their hand if they consider themselves feminists. I usually only have a few, if any, who do. I’ve found that students I teach are hesitant to identify as a feminist because of connotations of the word. However, when I ask students to raise their hand if they believe women have been treated unfairly and that there should be more equity, most students raise their hand.

Words don’t just convey meaning. They can also perform actions and shape our reality. These are just some examples of the power of verbal communication. I have a whole chapter devoted to verbal communication in my textbook, Communication in the Real World, so feel free to check it out!