Words That Don’t Work

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By George Lakoff

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 a 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.
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How to Frame Yourself: A Framing Memo for Occupy Wall Street

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By George Lakoff

I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the movement might think about framing itself.

About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is. All politics is moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter! Some moral principles or other lie behind every political policy agenda.

Two Moral Framing Systems in Politics

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility, but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.
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