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Naming and Framing: George Lakoff’s Moral Politics

George Lakoff of Berkeley is one of the giants of modern linguistics and brain sciences–an authority on neural networks, how the mind works, and most especially how the body politic responds to words that cue frames of moral meaning. He gave me a provocative earful the other day and I post it here in two twenty-minute takes.
In Part One, Lakoff exults in the Internet ventilation of political talk; its visible effect in MoveOn and the Dean campaign is “only the beginning. He maps the “naming and framing” dimensions of the California recall campaign and Arnold Schwartzenegger’s election. The “competent clerk” Gray Davis walked into a trap of deregulated energy prices and brownouts that had been contrived by the Bush White House. Arnold was no eccentric, in Lakoff terms, but the modern machine Republican, the embodiment of “individual discipline in a difficult, dangerous world… a strict leader who’s got moral authority to protect you. Who better than the Terminator?” And then Lakoff picks his way through the mostly disguised meanings and motives around the Iraq war.
In Part Two, I begin with the paradox of our times: that we are learning to live with both an information revolution and a culture of propaganda. “What the Right has done,” Lakoff answered, “is create a populist art form known as the rant.” He laments the lost language of world leadership: who makes good use these days of key words like fairness, freedom, trust, cooperation, treaty obligations, the values of the United Nations charter, respect, competence, responsibility and openness? Lakoff sets Howard Dean’s language and body-language in the Harry Truman tradition. Dean is “forceful, serious, honest–not namby-pamby.” He thinks that a medical doctor makes “a very good messenger.” He wishes Dean would campaign in the South around doctor’s visits to Veterans Hospitals. “Talk to the patients and the doctors there about what it means to fight in a war–about what happens to you… and what happens to the other people you see.” Lakoff thinks Dean and the Democrats in general are “not there yet.”
George Lakoff is a devout progressive with cold comfort for liberals. Conservatives, he says, have won the fight over political language. It’s a central argument of Lakoff’s book Moral Politics that for the last 30 years, left-wing foundations have been doing what comes naturally, “helping people who need help,” while right-wing foundations have put a network of thinkers and writers to work honing symbolic phrases like “tort reform” and “tax relief.” Even with Al Franken on your side, there is no winning an argument around “tax relief” that sounds like mercy and justice for the afflicted. “If you use their language,” Lakoff said, “you use their mode of thought; you use the way they think about the world.” It is the work of Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute to assemble the cognitive scientists and media masters to build a fresh language of progressive ideas.
Lakoff thinks it’s a 5-year assignment. I wonder why it should be so complicated or so long. Listen to our argument here. And look for yourself, please, at the December Atlantic Monthly. The cover story, “Tour of Duty,” is taken from John Kerry’s war diaries and letters home from Vietnam 35 years ago. For example:
“Wherever I went and young Vietnamese men would look at me I grew scared. There really was no way to tell who was who. You could be in a room with one and not know whether he was really a Charlie or not… Whom did you begin to trust and where did you draw the line. Another ludicrous aspect of the war.”
On the death of a close friend from Yale, Dick Pershing, grandson of the US Army legend in World War I, “Black Jack” Pershing, Kerry wrote: “Then I just… cried–a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of feeling before–so numb.”
The closer Kerry came to fighting and death, the more absurd everything felt, as on the night when his Swift boat escorted the Vietnamese mercenaries, mostly ex-Viet Cong, who blew away four evidently defenseless people in a sampan. Kerry wrote about facing a young woman who survived: “I felt a certain sense of guilt, shame, sorrow, remorse–something inexplicable about the way they were shot and about the predicament of the girl… I hated all of us for the situation which stripped people of their self-respect.”
To his future wife, Judy Thorne, Kerry wrote home: “Judy, if I do nothing else in my life I will never stop trying to bring to people the conviction of how wasteful and asinine is a human expenditure of this kind.”
George Lakoff argues that in America today “there is not a publicly acceptable language of opposition to war.” I don’t believe him. John Kerry named it and framed it in 1968. Yet Kerry seems to have brought none of the hard lessons of Vietnam to bear on the neo-imperial folly that has boobytrapped American troops in Iraq. A renewed American conversation today needs candor and courage more than cognitive science. If John Kerry had addressed Iraq on the Senate floor with the simple heart of his letters home from war, if he’d remembered what he’d written, he–and we–might have been spared the mess we’re all in now.

{ 19 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | November 25, 2003 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    I listened to both parts a little before midnight… It’s almost 2am and I still can’t sleep… What Lakoff is saying is immediately important. I feel like an epic battle of archetypes is brewing… Sweet Jesus! Is Schwartzenegger really governor of California!?!… “Connect the dots”… we (Dean candidacy) have a lot of work to do… I’ve decided to transcribe this interview.

  2. Anonymous | November 29, 2003 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    A couple of interesting comments have come to me by email from George Lakoff’s colleagues at the Rockridge research group.

    Dear Mr. Lydon,

    I’m with the Framing Project at the Rockridge Institute. I work closely with George Lakoff every day. He forwarded the link you sent him to your blog, and I listened to the part of the interview where you and George are disagreeing about how ready Americans are to hear that war is hell. I have some thoughts on this, and would like to share them with you.

    I agree with both you and George. I think George is right that there is an extremely important level on which it is difficult to get war is hell discourse out there. I also think you are right in that on some deep psychological and emotional level Americans want desperately to hear that war is hell. The gap comes, I think, from not being adequately clear about what level we’re talking about.

    George’s claim about framing has to do with deeply ingrained habits of thinking. It has to do with the fact that conservatives have succeeded, over time, in inculcating certain thought habits in the American public. So much so that Republicans now believe – and they may be right – that all they have to do to hush criticism of the Iraq war is to question opponents’ patriotism. The bell rings, and we salivate.

    Your claim seems to operate on a deeper level of the human psyche: that our inherent compassion shouldn’t allow us to make war, and that people are ready to hear this.

    My take on it is this: A great many Americans are at war with themselves. Their deepest human instincts tell them that war is hell; their immediately-available cognitive resources tell them that war is necessary and patriotic. Our long-term goal is, through reframing public discourse from a more nurturant perspective, to turn the former into the latter, i.e., to habituate our compassionate instincts through the long-term reframing of public discourse.

    The word habituate here is crucial. That’s really what it’s about. The predominant habits we have in our thinking and our language in the U.S. in 2003 are about war as necessary and patriotic. That doesn’t mean there aren’t strong countervailing conceptual resources at our disposal. There are, which is why we’re filled with hope at Rockridge.

    Thank you and best,

    Jason Patent

    I responded:

    Dear Jason:

    Thanks for a thoughtful response. In the next day or two I will post an interview with Will Hutton in London in which he compounds the argument for a new language of realism not just about war but about the world at large and our relation to it. It’s got to be coined, and as I say it will require simple courage as well as the wizardry of Cog Sci. Stay on the case!

    Best to you, and thanks,

    Chris Lydon

    Next in the email:


    I hope you don’t mind if I add a little to what Jason said yesterday.

    It’s not just a matter of the neo-cons managing to get the War Is Hell frame suppressed right now. It ties into the whole “glorious war” patriotic motif of so much of western civilization. For a closer look, consider the WW2 movies that came out during and even after that war. I suppose the Iliad has a War-isn’t-all-glory motif (people’s brains getting splattered, etc.)–but even there there’s a stronger heroic-war one.

    Lots of glorious wars in other cultures, too, and opposition to war on humanitarian grounds is always questioned as unpatriotic (well-known examples in, e.g., WWI, with the “white feathers” presented by “patriotic” Englishwomen to military-age Englishmen who were not in uniform, labeling them as “cowards” and unpatriotic)

    The part of all human beings that finds war horrible once it is accurately presented is exactly why it WON’T ever be accurately presented by governments and other propaganda sources (e.g., entertainment). Instead, enemies have to be demonized (“they kill babies” seems to be recurringly popular) and “we” have to be on the side of God (or, rather, God has to be on our side).

    Getting people (and not just Americans) actually to go to war almost always requires a rather extraordinary propaganda effort.

    And getting people to think about war from a Nurturant perspective (as something that is sometimes necessary, but never glorious) (even though people sometimes do transcendently unselfish things in war) is a civilizational shift of an order of magnitude akin to what was done to get people in many countries to turn against the hitherto-“natural” institution of slavery. Which, of course, means (I hope) that it’s not impossible.

    Thanks for a provocative interview series,

    Pamela Morgan
    (Director of Framing Research, The Rockridge Institute)

  3. Anonymous | December 4, 2003 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Mr Lydon,

    Both the lead in and comments have me very eager to listen to you talk with George Lakoff, unfortunately I get a “page cannot be displayed” for part 1 and a never ending search when I click on part 2. Is there something I’m not doing? Dues I must pay?

    You (plural, of course) have introduced me to a lot of interesting thinking over the years and I’m glad to have a way again of listening in on your conversations.

    John Hooks Davis

  4. Anonymous | December 18, 2003 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I found your interview with George Lakoff very intriguing. What struck me was when Lakoff stated that framing a new progressive language involved both “discovery” and “creation”. At that point I thought Lakoff was tapping into a necessary balance between what we might call a Rortyan/Bloomian pro creative position and a pro (re)discovery position that would allow those integral (already) progressive voices from America’s recent past (Emerson, Whitman, Dewey)to be heard again and again and again–like war cries (to be taken most literally). The forces of real Conservation and real Progress (like Wallace Stevens’ “cold copulars”) must embrace in a more deeply meaningful way. This involves, of course, retaining and maintaining a memory for war. The only thing ‘creative’ about war is the memory it generates of its own horror. If it does not do this, then it is utterly destructive, and per Lakoff (and Dewey), a very terrible habit indeed.

    I have just recently tuned into this space and I applaud what you are doing.

    A Canadian Fan
    Ken McClelland

  5. Anonymous | January 22, 2004 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry if it comes off obnoxious, but, Ken McClelland (as some of
    our favorite media
    are fond of using first name – last name, instead
    of familiar first or formal last) — do you see how you personify the problem.
    Do you feel the need to show your erudition? Even I, usually interested in
    “intellectual” things (ha! – left as an exercise for the reader to figure out
    what “ha!” refers to) felt the need to stop reading after the “Rortyan/Bloomian”
    part; how do you think most people would react? 🙂
    people would respond?

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  15. dizi | May 15, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I listened to both parts a little before midnight… It’s almost 2am and I still can’t sleep… What Lakoff is saying is immediately important. I feel like an epic battle of archetypes is brewing… Sweet Jesus! Is Schwartzenegger really governor of California!?!… “Connect the dots”… we (Dean candidacy) have a lot of work to do… I’ve decided to transcribe this interview.

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