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Wednesday, November 03, 2004

No Monopoly On Morality

On June 8th, I heard George Lakoff, UC Berkeley linguistics professor and a founder of the Rockridge Institute, speak on the use of language in politics. His views seem particularly apropos today, so I'll summarize them briefly.

Conservatives spend billions of dollars a year funding a network of 43 think tanks that has been growing since 1970. They've used these insitutions to build up a formidable language apparatus: 80% of TV talking heads spring from these institutions, and Frank Luntz puts out a 600-page training manual yearly. They systematically frame the discourse in ways that favor their viewpoints. Lakoff called on progressives to begin reframing the issues.

To explain framing, Lakoff told us, "Don't think of an elephant." (This is the title of his new book which has appeared since then.) But we had to think of an elephant to process this command. Thus, negating the frame still invokes it. Similarly, Bush frames his tax cuts as "tax relief". The word "relief" implies that taxes are an affliction, the one who relieves you of them is a hero, and the opponent is a bad guy. Frames trump facts. For example, the Bush administration successfully put Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida in the same frame.

Furthermore, progressives tend to campaign on specific issues and programs. Conservatives, on the other hand, campaign on values. Progressives have failed to understand that people vote their values, not rational self-interest. By not talking about values, they have allowed the notion to arise that only conservatives have them, whereas in fact progressives simply have a different value system.

Both conservatives and progressives see the family as a metaphor for the nation, but they perceive the family very differently. For conservatives, the family is rooted in strict discipline. For progressives, on the other hand, the family is rooted in nurturing, empathy, and responsibility, first for oneself and then to others. Lakoff's explanation of the political entailments of these two viewpoints was very interesting, but would take too long to summarize here. The Rockridge Institute was founded to understand the conceptual system of conservatives and liberals, fill in the conceptual gaps, and create language to combat the Orwellian language of the conservatives.

Lakoff now seems particularly prescient. But progressives can take heart in Barack Obama's convention speech, which returned to the language of values, as a rallying point for the hard work that now, more than ever, must continue.

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