The Power and Pitfalls of Talking Inequality

A new Congressional Budget Office paper reviewing income inequality concludes that the pattern of increasing inequality will continue for years to come — unless we decide to make some policy shifts or there is some other major economic change.

Many advocates will be inclined to reference inequality and this new CBO paper as they promote policy solutions, since it seems to present such a natural news hook for advocates to review and revive policy proposals, such as those that make it easier for employees to stick together in the workplace.

In this essay — part of the Topos Library of articles with framing advice relevant to many issues — the authors (Topos principals Axel Aubrun and Joe Grady) discuss inequality as an organizing idea for communications.

From one point of view, this focus on Inequality is justified and even morally essential. What could be more important than trying to address the many areas in American society where one group is disadvantaged relative to others? Observations about Inequality aren’t just true, they’re also at the heart of many people’s motivation to become involved. Much of the passion that drives activism and advocacy springs from people’s instinctive rejection of Inequality, and their commitment to working against it.

BUT, does a commitment to reducing Inequality mean that we know how to talk about Inequality? Years of research on how Americans understand and talk about social issues suggest that, depending on the audience, discussions of Inequality must overcome important and complex challenges. In fact, the findings show clearly that when we talk directly about Inequality, listeners often take away a message that is the opposite of what we intended, and despite our skill and our good intentions, the discussion can end up doing more harm than good. While there are certainly some audiences that respond exactly as hoped, communications that are targeted at “the general public” can often fall on deaf ears, or worse, when they focus on this theme.

The reasons have partly to do with American assumptions and values – and at an even deeper level, with the (universal) nature of “everyday thinking,” and the mental tools people everywhere use to think about the world.

The authors review a number of pitfalls communicators should try to avoid and offer advocates ways to work toward the goals the they care about while avoiding these unfortunate traps.

Read the rest.