Thursday, December 08, 2011

George Lakoff - Words That Don’t Work

One of the biggest issues facing progressives, in my opinion, is their failure to understand how important words are to realizing their agenda. George Lakoff keeps trying to convince them - to little success thus far.

Think of some recent political buzz words: Obamacare, death tax, big government (refers exclusively to social programs), government handouts (social safety nets), tax relief (cutting taxes on the wealthy, so that most people who pay taxes pay at the same rate, regardless of income), job creators (supposedly the wealthy), defense of marriage (anti-gay marriage), and the list can go on and on, for example, most Americans equate socialism with communism because of the GOP/Fox News management of memes. This is how the GOP controls the national conversation and programs the voters.

Progressives have yet to understand that this is how they lose - over and over again. When is the last time the progressives controlled the conversation in the same way? The Great Society?

Common Dreams posted this recent article from Lakoff - I am including below it an interview from UC Berkeley done in 2003.
 
Progressives had some fun last week with Frank Luntz, who told the Republican Governors’ Association that he was scared to death of the Occupy movement and recommended language to combat what the movement had achieved. But the progressive critics mostly just laughed, said his language wouldn’t work, and assumed that if Luntz was scared, everything was hunky-dory.  Just keep on saying the words Luntz doesn’t like: capitalism, tax the rich, etc.

It’s a trap.

When Luntz says he is “scared to death,” he means that the Republicans who hire him are scared to death and he can profit from that fear by offering them new language. Luntz is  clever. Yes, Republicans are scared. But there needs to be a serious discussion of both Luntz’s remarks and the progressive non-response.

What has been learned from the brain and cognitive sciences is that words are defined by fixed frames we use in thinking, frames come in hierarchical systems, and political frames are defined in moral terms, where “morality” is very different for conservatives and progressives. What lies behind the Occupy movement is moral view of democracy: Democracy is about citizens caring about each other and acting responsibly both socially and personally. This requires a robust Public empowering and protecting everyone equally. Both private success and personal freedom depend on such a Public. Every critique and proposal of the Occupy movement fits this moral view, which happens to be the progressive moral view.

What the Occupy movement can’t stand is the opposite “moral” view, that Democracy provides the freedom to seek one’s self-interest and ignore what is good for other Americans and others in the world. That view lies behind the Wall Street ethic of the Greedy Market, as opposed to a Market for All, a market that should maximize the well-being of most Americans. This view leads to a hierarchical view of society, where success is always deserved and lack of success is moral failure. The rich are the moral, and they not only deserve their wealth, they also deserve the power it brings. This is the view that Luntz is defending.

Referring to the rich as “hardworking taxpayers” ignores the fact that a great percentage of the rich do not get their wealth from making things, but rather from investments in other people’s labor, and that most of the 1% are managers, not people who make things or directly provide services.  The hardworking taxpayers are the 99%. That is not the frame that Luntz wants activated.

But Luntz is not just addressing his remarks to Republicans. He is also looking to take Democrats for suckers.  How? By choosing his frames carefully, and getting Democrats to do the opposite of what he tells Republicans. There is a basic truth about framing. If you accept the other guy’s frame, you lose.

Take “capitalism.” It arises these days in socialist discourse, and is seen as the opposite of socialism. To attack “capitalism” in this frame is to accept “socialism.” Conservatives are trying to cast Progressives, who mostly have businesses or work for businesses or are looking for good business jobs, as socialists. If you take the Luntz bait, you will be sucked into sounding like a socialist. Whatever one thinks of socialism, most Americans falsely identify it with communism, and will reject it out of hand.

Luntz would love to get Democrats using the word “tax” in the conservative sense of taking money from the pockets of hardworking folks and wasting it on people who don’t deserve it.  Luntz doesn’t want Democrats pointing out how private success depends on public investment – in infrastructure, education, health, transportation, research, economic stability, protections of all sorts, and so on.  He doesn’t want progressives talking about “revenue” which is defined in a business frame to mean money needed for any institution to function and flourish. He doesn’t want Democrats talking about the rich paying their fair share for the massive amount they have gotten from prior investments in a robust Public. Luntz would love to lure progressives into talking about government “spending” rather than investments in education, health, and infrastructure that will benefit most Americans.

He doesn’t want progressives pointing out that corporations govern our lives far more than any government does — and for their profit, not ours. He doesn’t want any discussion of corporate waste, or military waste, which is huge.

Luntz would love to have Democrats talking about “entrepreneurs,” which evokes a Republican view of the market as a tool for self-interest. His proposal to discuss “job creators” instead hides the fact that the business community has not been hiring despite record profits. He certainly does not want discussion of outsourcing and minimizing pay for work, which leads corporations to eliminate or downgrade jobs and hence keep wages low when profits are high.

Hidden behind his proposal to substitute “careers” for “jobs” is his attempt to appeal to young people just out of college and grad school who expect more — a profession — not just a mere “job.”  But of course, corporations are downgrading positions away from professional careers and more toward interchangeable McJobs requiring minimal ability and with minimal pay and benefits.

Luntz is right about not saying “sacrifice.” He is right that most Americans are already hurting more than enough. They want a viable present and a future for themselves and their children and grandchildren. He is right to suggest “talking about how 'we're all in this together.' We either succeed together or we fail together." But that is the opposite of conservative morality. It is the progressive view of a moral democracy that all of Luntz’s conservative framings contradict. It is an attempt at co-opting the progressive moral system, because the Occupy movement is showing that it is an idea of Democracy that makes sense to most Americans. And it is an attempt to take Obama’s strongest moral appeal away from him.

Unfortunately, Luntz is still ahead of most progressives responding to him. Progressives need to learn how framing works. Bashing Luntz, bashing Fox News, bashing the right-wing pundits and leaders using their frames and arguing against their positions just keeps their frames in play.

Progressives have a basic morality, which is largely unspoken. It has to be spoken, over and over, in every corner of our country. Progressives need to be both thinking and talking about their view of a moral Democracy, about how a robust Public is necessary for private success, about all that the Public gives us, about the benefits of health, about a Market for All not a Greed Market, about regulation as protection, about revenue and investment, about corporations that keep wages low when profits are high, about how most of the rich earn a lot of their money without making anything or serving anyone, about how corporations govern your life for their profit not yours, about real food, about corporate and military waste, about the moral and social role of unions, about how global warming causes the increasingly monstrous effects of weather disasters, about how to save and preserve nature.

Progressives have magnificent stories of their own to tell. They need to be telling them nonstop.

Let’s lure the right into using OUR frames in public discourse.

George Lakoff
George Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.
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From UC Berkeley News, a 2003 interview with Lakoff.

Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics

George Lakoff


– With Republicans controlling the Senate, the House, and the White House and enjoying a large margin of victory for California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's clear that the Democratic Party is in crisis. George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, thinks he knows why. Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them, says Lakoff.

The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive.

George LakoffGeorge Lakoff dissects "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases
Read the August 26, 2004, follow-up interview
In 2000 Lakoff and seven other faculty members from Berkeley and UC Davis joined together to found the Rockridge Institute, one of the few progressive think tanks in existence in the U.S. The institute offers its expertise and research on a nonpartisan basis to help progressives understand how best to get their messages across. The Richard & Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor in the College of Letters & Science, Lakoff is the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," first published in 1997 and reissued in 2002, as well as several other books on how language affects our lives. He is taking a sabbatical this year to write three books - none about politics - and to work on several Rockridge Institute research projects.

In a long conversation over coffee at the Free Speech Movement Café, he told the NewsCenter's Bonnie Azab Powell why the Democrats "just don't get it," why Schwarzenegger won the recall election, and why conservatives will continue to define the issues up for debate for the foreseeable future.

Why was the Rockridge Institute created, and how do you define its purpose?

I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I got tired of seeing what was going wrong and not being able to do anything about it.

The background for Rockridge is that conservatives, especially conservative think tanks, have framed virtually every issue from their perspective. They have put a huge amount of money into creating the language for their worldview and getting it out there. Progressives have done virtually nothing. Even the new Center for American Progress, the think tank that John Podesta [former chief of staff for the Clinton administration] is setting up, is not dedicated to this at all. I asked Podesta who was going to do the Center's framing. He got a blank look, thought for a second and then said, "You!" Which meant they haven't thought about it at all. And that's the problem. Liberals don't get it. They don't understand what it is they have to be doing.

Rockridge's job is to reframe public debate, to create balance from a progressive perspective. It's one thing to analyze language and thought, it's another thing to create it. That's what we're about. It's a matter of asking 'What are the central ideas of progressive thought from a moral perspective?'

How does language influence the terms of political debate?

Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a frame.


'Conservatives understand what unites them, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.'
-George Lakoff
If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" - something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

Here's another example of how powerful framing is. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's acceptance speech, he said, "When the people win, politics as usual loses." What's that about? Well, he knows that he's going to face a Democratic legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic politicians as politics as usual - in advance. The Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically framed as enemies of the people.

Why do conservatives appear to be so much better at framing?

Because they've put billions of dollars into it. Over the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]

And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

Why haven't progressives done the same thing?

There's a systematic reason for that. You can see it in the way that conservative foundations and progressive foundations work. Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system, which I analyzed in "Moral Politics," has as its highest value preserving and defending the "strict father" system itself. And that means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this very well.

Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better.

Back up for a second and explain what you mean by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks.

Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones - those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant - and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they haven't earned and keeping them dependent. The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.
Read the rest of the interview.
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