George Lakoff: “What policies are proposed and adopted depend on how Americans understand policy and politics. That understanding depends on communication. In that, the Democrats — both the president and his progressive critics — have surrendered. The Democrats have left effective communication to the conservatives, who have taken advantage of their superior communications all too well.”
Lakoff, the liberal linguist based at UCal-Berkeley, is out with a long op-ed titled “Untellable Truths”, from which the paragraph above is taken, applying his long-standing arguments about arguments to the current Dem vs. Repub argument over tax cuts for millionaires.
Oops. I did it again. Lakoff says that liberals railing against “tax cuts for millionaires” play directly into the hands of the righties.
I’ve wanted to read a piece like this for a few weeks, a piece about “framing” and the conservative superiority in the message wars. Like many liberals, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with liberals’ ability to lose the political battles even though they have (according to me) the superior facts and arguments on their side. (Of course, fool that I am, I always try to keep my mind open to the possibility that my own ideological predispositions blind me on the question of which side really has the superior facts and arguments.)
Forget about it, advises Lakoff, at least that last bit about facts and arguments. Stop trying to point out the factual and logical flaws in what the righties say about tax cuts. Try to stop using the word tax at all, since the Repubs own it and every mention of it somehow helps them. It isn’t about facts and arguments. And liberals (oops, “progressives,” word choices matter much more ) lose the arguments in large part because they believe in rationality based on a social science-y model of rationality. Here, from the new op-ed, is how Lakoff dismisses rationality addicts like me:
“When democratic political leaders go to college, they tend to study things like political science, economics, law and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason – enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world.
“The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false. Reason is physical; it does not fit the world directly, but only through the brain and body; it uses frames and conceptual metaphors (which are neural circuits grounded in the body); it requires emotion; it serves empathic connections and moral values as well as self-interest, and language fits frames in the brain, not the external world in any direct way.”
Conservatives/Republicans understand that winning the argument in political terms is not about argument but about marketing. Lakoff:
“Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades, they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans.”
Lakoff has been trying for some years to get liberals — progressives — to take into account how language affects the brain, perhaps most famously in the 2004 bestseller: “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.” But apparently it ain’t working. He seizes the current to explain again how words interact with the brains of us naked apes:
“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.’ Putting ‘no’ first activates the idea ‘Tax cuts for millionaires.’
“Next, ‘millionaires.’ Think of the TV show ‘So You Want to Be a Millionaire’ or the movies ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘How to Marry a Millionaire.’ To most Americans, being a millionaire is a good thing to aspire to.
“Then, there is ‘tax.’ To progressives, taxes are forms of revenue allowing the government to do what is necessary for Americans as a whole – unemployment insurance, Social Security, health care, education, food safety, environmental improvements, infrastructure building and maintenance, and so on.
“But the conservative message machine, over the past 30 years, has come to own the word ‘tax.’ They have changed its meaning to most Americans. They have been able to make ‘tax’ mean ‘money the government takes out of the pockets of people who have earned it in order to give it to people who haven’t earned it and don’t deserve it.’ Thus, ‘tax relief’ assumes that taxation is an affliction to be cured and a ‘tax cut’ is a good thing in general. Hence, conservatives make the argument, ‘No one should have their taxes raised.’
“The conservative slogan activates the conservative view of taxes. But the progressive slogan, ‘No tax cuts for millionaires,’ also activates the conservative view of taxes! The progressives are helping the conservatives.
“The conservatives have a superior message machine: Dozens of think tanks with communications facilities, framing experts, training institutes, a national roster of speakers, booking agents to books their speakers in the media and civic groups and owned medias like Fox News and a great deal of talk radio. Their audience will hear, over and over, ‘No one should have their taxes raised.’
“There is no comparable progressive message machine. But even if one were to be built, the Democrats might still be using messages that are either ineffective or that help the conservatives. Why?”
Finally, Lakoff tells progressives what to do instead of “reason:”
“‘Don’t use conservative language, since it will activate their moral system in the brains of listeners. Don’t try to negate their arguments. That will only make their arguments more prominent. Use your own language and your own arguments. Truth squads and wonk rooms are insufficient.
“If there is a teachable communication moment for President Obama, this is it. Bring back ‘empathy’ – ‘the most important thing my mother taught me.’ Speak of ‘empathy’ for ‘people who are hurting.’ Say again how empathy is basis of democracy (‘caring for your fellow citizens’), how we have a responsibility to act on that empathy: social as well as personal responsibility. Bring the central role of empathy in democracy to the media. And make it clear that personal responsibility alone is anti-patriotic, the opposite of what America is fundamentally about. That is the first step in telling our most important untellable truths. And it is a necessary step in loosening the conservative grip on public discourse.”