Monday, July 19, 2010

The High Ground Maneuver

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame talks about Steve Jobs' use of language:

I'm a student of how language influences people. Apple's response to the iPhone 4 problem didn't follow the public relations playbook because Jobs decided to rewrite the playbook. (I pause now to insert the necessary phrase Magnificent Bastard.) If you want to know what genius looks like, study Jobs' words: "We're not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy."

Jobs changed the entire argument with nineteen words. He was brief. He spoke indisputable truth. And later in his press conference, he offered clear fixes.

(...)

I have long had a name for Jobs' clever move. I call it the "High Ground Maneuver." I first noticed an executive using it years ago, and I've since used it a number of times when the situation called for it. The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."
The strongest reason, I think, that Barack Obama won the 2008 election was because of this. The 2004 election speech that catapulted him into the public sphere:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America.
Bear in mind that he is using this as an argument for voting for Democrats. Or, here's another attempt to shift frame around American politics, from the inauguration address:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
In each maneuver, he tries to loosen the Republican false oppositions by reframing the debate -- and therefore be able to push his agenda further forward.

But let's not forget that this strategy does not necessarily work. Eric Massa tried to "reframe" his groping of a male staffer by saying "You can take anything out of context." As though to the people who were involved, it seemed harmless (which is not really the testimony that came out from the staffers).

And really, wasn't the failed king of this tactic Donald Rumsfeld? When asked to comment on looting in Iraq, he famously said, "Stuff happens." (Theatergoers: David Hare wrote an entire play by this title) Or what about thinking about the Iraq War from really high up:



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So the moral of the story is that there's some advantage to the high ground, but it's not impenetrable.

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