Graham Steele: Beer, smokes and elephants
Looking at the frames and viewpoints that shape political decisions
Quick — don't think of an elephant.
You can't help it — you just thought of an elephant. The word evoked a trunk, tusks, a tail, the whole big, beautiful animal.
Don't Think of an Elephant! is the title of a slender volume published in 2004 by the American linguist George Lakoff. But Lakoff wasn't writing about linguistics. He was writing about politics.
Lakoff's theme is that there are "frames" — words, phrases, metaphors — that shape how we see the world. If someone says elephant, we think of an elephant even if we're told not to.
I got to thinking about frames last week when I saw the McNeil government promise on Tuesday to allow U-Vints and then, without any apparent sense of irony, promise on Thursday to tightly regulate e-cigarettes.
They're the same issue — or are they? It depends on the frame.
When I was the minister for the Liquor Control Act, I came up against the issue of U-Vints. These are stores that provide space and supplies for customers to make wine and beer on the store's premises.
I didn't like them. I saw them as a source of cheap alcohol, difficult to monitor and therefore a public health issue.
The store owners went on a public relations offensive with a very different frame. They were just trying to provide a service to seniors living in apartments who didn't have space to home-brew or couldn't carry the heavy carboys.
They also painted themselves as small-scale entrepreneurs who just wanted the government to leave them alone.
Head on a platter
To cut a long story short, they handed me my political head on a platter. Their frame was far more powerful than my frame.
So when the McNeil government announced last Tuesday that U-Vints were going ahead, the Chronicle Herald ran an editorial saying, "We hope this removal of unnecessary liquor laws marks the beginning of a new trend, one in which government looks to clear away obstacles for Nova Scotia entrepreneurs rather than adding ever more red tape."
There was no acknowledgement that the government might have had any reason to be wary of U-Vints. My frame had been wiped off the map, replaced by the frame of entrepreneurial freedom.
And then, only a couple of days later, the McNeil government announced a get-tough stance on electronic cigarettes.
Health Minister Leo Glavine said the law would be changed to treat e-cigarettes like regular cigarettes. Banned from public places. No sales to minors. Sales from behind the counter. It was, he said, a public health issue.
Public reaction was swift and negative. Letters to the editor and online comments pointed out e-cigarettes are not at all like regular cigarettes. The nanny state. Red tape.
One New Glasgow store owner, Shai Conners, vowed to fight. She said she serves nearly 6,000 e-cigarette customers out of her small shop and she ships all over Atlantic Canada.
"I'll fight tooth and nail. I'll fight pretty much to the death right now," she was quoted as saying. "I'm a mother, I have kids and I have mouths to feed."
The story of the underdog is a powerful frame. We root for underdogs. We don't even think about it, we just do. David versus Goliath was already an old story when David fought Goliath. It's deeply embedded in our culture.
Here's another powerful frame: politicians can't be trusted.
I was knocking on doors during my very first election and a woman said, "You're liars! You're all liars!" before slamming the door. I wanted to say to her, "Wait, you don't know me."
Every politician thinks they're different and it's only the other guys who can't be trusted. But the frame of the untrustworthy politician means everybody in elected office starts from a deep hole. There are no exceptions — not me on U-Vints, not Leo Glavine on e-cigarettes, nobody.
I expect Glavine to argue that U-Vints and e-cigarettes aren't the same at all. He'll argue with facts, he'll marshal the anti-smoking lobby, he'll try to shut Shai Conners down.
But he's fighting two powerful frames and he's going to lose.