George Lakoff does not Recommend Propaganda   3 comments


I’ve now completed my last round of finals at UCSD, fulfilling my Political Science major (with a philosophy minor on the side). Alas my true love remains language, the lens through which I’ve ever-increasingly pursued my academics. I can no longer read an article without imagining how Frank Luntz or George Orwell might have interpreted the author’s selected vocabulary. My interest in political language is a splash shy of obsession.

Dr. George Lakoff, interspersedly-relevant professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley, recently penned an article for the Huffington Post titled Untellable Truths, when maybe he should have been preparing final exams for his students. I’m quite prone to finals-induced blogging myself, so that’s entirely understandable, but I’m stunned by Dr. Lakoff’s verbosity, typos, and progressive dishonesty.

Untellable truths? What is that?

Untellable truths, like their inconvenient cousins, are unverified and agenda-laden; also related to statements like “I invented the internet”

Lakoff’s most famous work concerns the concept of framing and conceptual metaphor in daily use. Framing involves the images and emotional associations triggered in your brain when you hear a given word or phrase. Conceptual metaphors affect how you judge relationships between entities within a given frame. Lakoff’s favorite example is “tax relief” in which the conceptual metaphor designates taxes as an affliction requiring heroic remedy, activating the frame that tells you taxes are invariably bad and must be peeled away. The idea behind framing is that you can influence the emotions (and therefore decisions) of your audience by using language that unwittingly compels their minds to process an issue in terms of a metaphor that favors your agenda. It’s serious stuff.


Lakoff wants to use framing to handcuff your mind to the progressive agenda

With that in mind, I’d like to take a look at important parts of Lakoff’s article, and figure out how this frame-a-holic thinks his craft should be used. He notes that people think in terms of frames and that conservatives control a great deal of the political frames people are used to hearing. Because most liberal elites don’t understand the power of framing or how it works, they adopt conservative frames and thereby help further embed conservative viewpoints in the public conscience. Not understanding the basics of framing presents enough of a disadvantage for liberal label-makers, and its finer intricacies present tougher challenges still. Lakoff explains:

Let’s start with an example, the slogan “No tax cuts for millionaires.” First, “no.” As I have repeatedly pointed out, negating a frame activates the frame in the brains of listeners, as when Christine O’Donnell said “I am not a witch” or Nixon said “I am not a crook.”

The plain meaning of a phrase doesn’t really have any causal relationship with how people interpret it. The emotional effect of negation doesn’t pack the punch that its grammatical effect might suggest– it leaves the frame that’s supposed to be canceled out in tact. How many times have you gotten the feeling that someone screaming “I don’t care!” actually cares quite a bit? Something similar is going on here. Even if you are arguing against a policy, if you use your opponent’s frame and just negate it, you’re reinforcing the frame. Lakoff makes this point, and then further down his lengthy post, makes the following admission:

“Framing can also be misused for the sake of propaganda. I strongly recommend against it.”

Hey! He’s negating recommendation! That means he recommends framing for propaganda! Strongly recommends it! He doesn’t quite say “I don’t recommend it”– syntactically the negation comes post-frame, but what’s preventing a master of language from admonishing, “to do so is immoral and unacceptable,” without any sort of negation? Leaving the “strongly recommend” frame there for your mind to inhale is inexcusable for someone who knows exactly what he’s doing.


Oooh– Gotcha, George 😉

From here, we take a decidedly skeptical look at everything Dr. Lakoff explains and advocates. Since the general masses don’t really think in progressive frames by default, manufacturing liberal-friendly frames should be used to remedy this. He commissions the conversion of moderates and independents into full-blown “progressives” through the strict restriction of language, expounding:

“The Democrats need to activate and strengthen the progressive moral circuitry in their brains. That means using only progressive language and progressive arguments, and not moving to the right or using the right’s language.”

Promote the progressive values of free thought and diversity through lexical bottleneck! Like that’s not contradictory. I’ve read many of Professor Lakoff’s books, and I’ll tell you– he’s not kidding. In each of his works, he uses simple and easily digestible explanations as to how liberals and conservatives think, the latent bias and blatant inaccuracy of which require thoughtful excavation. And he keeps saying his personal beliefs are true and the truth, trying to hammer that frame of progressive “truth” into the reader’s mind. He is a true believer that repetition strengthens a frame in peoples’ minds, here’s a list of labels he wants progressives to start pounding into our heads:

greed crisis in place of economic crisis
blessed immigrants in place of illegal immigrants
government for profit in place of privatization
public theft in place of tax breaks
• failing citizens in place of failing schools
corporate cruelty in place of profit maximization
deadly coal in place of clean coal

Seriously. Don’t apologize if you chuckled at some of these wares of Lakoff’s imagination, which clearly were never poll-tested by average people. Illegal immigrants are now blessed immigrants? Are legal immigrants now to be labeled cursed immigrants? And because tax breaks are really just public theft, it’s clear that private earnings are government property first and foremost, and whatever you keep, you stole– Lakoff will tell you that his frames are truth, over and over.

Some part of me wants to explain Lakoff’s lack of success–modest at best inroads into framing public discourse and the closure of his Rockridge Institute— as self-inflicted. Maybe he only obliviously invoked the “strongly recommend” frame when discussing the merits of propaganda. Maybe he really doesn’t see the irony in decrying conservatives’ superior communication skills before proceeding to label President Obama a “pragmatic incrementalist” like that term might mean something to regular people. I don’t think he doesn’t understand these things, but I can’t figure out the strategy behind it.

If there’s one error Lakoff makes that I think he might actually not understand, it’s the direction in which framing operates. Lakoff seems to think you can invariably impress proprietary frames onto your audience, ones you just make up that people don’t naturally agree with. That you can get people to like policies that don’t pass today’s smell test if you attach it to a piercing phrase and repeat it a lot. His recipe goes something like:

1) Come up with a phrase that uses a word that triggers an emotion
2) Repeat it over and over, and
3) Guffaw as people start to believe it

He seems to think he can come up with effective terms a priori, without testing whether the language clicks with regular people. He conjures terms alone or within small clusters of elites and still claims his frames are truth. Infamous conservative pollster Frank Luntz uses focus groups and opinion polls to verify that his well-crafted terms actually activate an idea that people already think. Lakoff’s method seems to operate on the notion that he’s going to force people to think about issues in a certain way, even if the logic of his position is anathema to how they intuitively approach it. I’m not saying that blueprint is dead on arrival, but it just seems difficult to implement and inadmirable.

So Lakoff wants to pound frames into your mind that don’t already exist in your philosophy, whether you like it or not. Then he gets circular while failing to understand what makes conservatives better communicators. He claims that the nefarious trio of Frank Luntz, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh are jointly and exhaustively responsible for conservatives being superb and effective framers. If only liberals had comparable resources and talents, the framing battle field would be balanced, nevermind the all-you-can-eat buffet of liberal universities, Hollywood celebrities, newspapers, media outlets, and MSNBC blowhards. It can’t be that conservatives activate frames in regular peoples’ minds that already exist while the frames progressives bombard us with activate our common sense helper T cells.

Lakoff’s apparent logic about who activates frames and how they’re embedded in the mind lacks something, which I’ll call groundedness. It means that the frames you’re trying to activate actually are grounded–are hooked into–the person’s common sense values. Lakoff seems to advocate that somehow, if you keep repeating a frame, there’s going to be a critical point at which your target believes it–if you keep asking that girl out, eventually she’ll say yes. It’s like expecting to move forward because the wheels keep spinning, even though the wheels aren’t on the ground. Trying to manufacture groundedness via relentless repetition, as opposed to tapping preexisting common sense, worries me.

So prescribed, the liberal framing method would be like if ESPN started putting mediocre or blooper plays on SportsCenter’s Top 10, expecting that people will eventually think those were spectacular plays. In reality, we have existing notions of what constitutes a spectacular play, and its appearance on Top 10 only validates its spectacularity if it fits what we already internally believe. The SportsCenter Top 10 was created to celebrate great plays, not involuntarily change your mind as to what a Top 10 play is.

If plays like this made the Top 10 every night, you’d come to expect it, but would you start to believe it deserved Top 10?

Conservative messagers believe that you have to activate a frame that already exists in your audience’s mind, not one you synthetically planted there through repetition. The reason for crafting the language carefully is to make sure it accurately reflects how people think. The problem progressives have isn’t born in their phrasing, but their policy. It’s merely symptomatic that their complex, academia-derived terms like “corporate cruelty” and “pragmatic incrementalist” don’t mean anything to regular people. We don’t come up with terms like that on the street, outside the lab or classroom. It’s elitist, inaccessible, and doesn’t activate a frame that holds any warmth.

It’s just not effective to plan to bring the frames to the people. Ultimately, the audience brings the frame to the language— that’s what makes it so powerful. Plotting to bring phrases to the people and repeat them until they are adopted, no matter how objectionable, seems to assume what liberals are so often characterized as assuming: that they’re smarter than everyone and if only the dummies understood how wonderful so-called “progressive” policies are, they’d agree and lavish praise upon liberal leaders. Once/if Lakoff solves the progressive framing problem, they’ll still have to deal with the regular-people-don’t-like-your-policies problem.

Lakoff’s framing prescription is a variation on the “we have to educate the moronic masses so they can understand how great we are” exhortation. The frames exist in our minds, and our minds will reach out and grab ones that we connect with. I guess you can force a frame on people by concocting strange phrases in a Berkeley lab and getting your followers to repeat your wording over and over. If your policy has no roots in moderate minds, you have to transplant the roots. Even if that sounds inefficient and totalitarian, it does seem possible in theory.

I strongly recommend against it.

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Posted December 14, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

Tagged with , , , ,

3 responses to “George Lakoff does not Recommend Propaganda

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  1. pass it on

  2. cool

  3. good

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