Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Democrats Make Defiant Gesture... Scary!

This morning I came across a New York Times article about Obama's impending appointment of Susan Rice as his National Security Advisor.  The Times claims that this is "a defiant gesture to Republicans who harshly criticized Ms. Rice for presenting an erroneous account of the deadly attacks on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya."

What's the message?  That Democrats are strong -- after all, they're defying Republicans!

What's the metamessage?  That Democrats are weak -- after all, in any relationship, only the weak party is in a position to defy.  Children can defy their parents, for example.  But would it be coherent -- can you even imagine -- a situation where parents could be described as "defying" their children?  If you did hear about such a thing, you'd immediately and instinctively recognize that the power balance in that family is radically out of sync.

Now, in all communications, which matters more -- the message, or the metamessage?  You already know the answer from common sense and everyday experience.  The message is always eclipsed by the metamessage.

(By the way, for novelists, this understanding is critical for writing good dialogue.  The greater the gap between the message and the metamessage -- the text and the subtext, the words and the meaning -- the more engaging the dialogue.  For more, I recommend Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.)

What's interesting is that the Times is commonly understood to be a liberal media outlet.  To the extent this is true (in fact, I don't think right/left is the most productive prism for understanding the way America's media works -- establishment/insurgent, or corporate-owned/independent, provides a more accurate and useful framework), here we have the spectacle of a liberal-leaning media outlet presumably believing they're portraying the Democrats as tough, while implicitly revealing they believe (correctly, in my view) that Democrats are in fact weak compared to Republicans.

I find this kind of messaging, and Democratic cluelessness about it, fascinating.  If you want to learn more, here's my short book on the subject:  The Ass is a Poor Receptacle for the Head: Why Democrats Suck at Communication, and How They Could Improve.

1 comment:

ryan field said...

I agree for the most part, but I would find it entertaining to catch one of the alleged journalists at the NYT off guard and ask him/her the difference between the message and the metamessage. But I could be wrong about that, too. Maybe I'm underestimating them.