Interview online here.
The following is a Truthout interview with Professor George Lakoff about his latest effort, THE ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!, to convince progressives to “frame” their political language and appeals based on deep-seated and active values. These are positions and actions that most of the public supports, but absent appropriate “framing” often vote their fears instead of progressive beliefs. It is necessary to ground a nurturing politics for the common good and core values in language and a moral foundation that appeals – rhetorically and emotionally – to the better selves of voters.
Mark Karlin: Before we get into the new edition of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, THE ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!, I wanted to ask you a bit more about something you said to me in a conversation at your home awhile back. You noted that it’s not surprising that Republicans are more persuasive than Democrats because they are more skilled at selling and marketing. Does this also relate to the prevalence of consumer advertising in the US that convinces people to buy things that they don’t need or want?
George Lakoff: The marketing profession uses knowledge about the mind, the brain, language, imagery, emotions, the framing of experiences and products, personal and social identity, and normal modes of thought that lead to action and that change brains over time. Marketing professors in business schools study results in these areas and teach courses on how to market most effectively. Again, they study normal modes of thought – the way people really reason. It would be strange to call such modes of thought “irrational” since they are the forms of reason that we have evolved to get us through life.
In short, marketers take results from my field – cognitive science – the field that does scientific research on real reason, on how people really think. Marketers know very well that most thought is unconscious – the usual estimate is about 98 percent. They use their knowledge of how unconscious thought works. And they know that consumers are not aware of how knowledge of the science of mind is being used to sell them products that often they don’t need or may actually harm them.
Can you talk a little about progressives who are surprised that rational arguments don’t win elections?
Cognitive scientists study how people really think – how brains work, how we get ideas out of neurons, how framing and metaphorical thought work, the link between language and thought, and so on.
But other academic fields have not been using these results, especially, political science, public policy, law, economics, in short, the main areas studied by progressives who go into politics. As a result, they teach an inadequate view of reason and “rationality.” They miss the fact that our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.
What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different. Cognitive linguists have learned a lot about how all this works, but few progressives have studied cognitive linguistics. For a thorough review of such differences, take a look at my book Whose Freedom?, which shows how reasoning about freedom can take two utterly different forms for progressives and conservatives.
You have a section in the ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! devoted to metaphors of terror. How can progressives successfully respond to a use of fear since 9/11 to manipulate the public? We are seeing the fear factor at work most recently with ISIS and Ebola.
That’s the wrong question. You don’t “respond.” Progressives constantly ask how to “respond” to illegitimate claims by conservatives, whether about fear or anything else. That is because conservatives have an effective communication system and progressives do not, and conservative marketers better understand real reason. To deal with illegitimate fears, you don’t wait till you have to respond. You need (1) to build an effective communication system, (2) to communicate the general progressive value system, (3) repeat the truths that reveal what is right about those values, (4) act with courage to promote the sense of courage, confidence and hope that allows the truth to be meaningful and powerful. Within such a context, one can honestly and openly discuss the facts that undermine such fears, so that the illegitimate fears don’t get established in the first place.
But no such system is in place. What now? Once an illegitimate fear is out there when we really are safe, you need constant repetition of the real situation and congratulations for the administration for making us safe under difficult conditions. This has to be said by many, many people in all kinds of situations, never defensively, never answering conservative charges.
Of course there are real fears – like climate change, dangerous forms of corporate power, real diseases like ebola and governance vacuums that allow barbarous regimes to form. They have to be met by real understanding as they begin to arise, the courage to name them and study them, effective communication and real action. Slogans are not “responses.” Linguistic sniping is not a “response.” There is work for progressives to do, and it can be done.
You have always emphasized that political language must be grounded in moral values. You have a chapter in your book on “freedom issues.” How can progressives reframe the idea of freedom to gain broader electoral support?
Progressives don’t have to reframe freedom. Most Americans have a deep, but unconscious sense of what it is that holds them back, making life hard, treating them unfairly, oppressing their spirits, threatening their futures and creating real pain – in short, what denies them freedom in so many of the realms of life. They may be very different from each other and there may be dozens of them, but they have to all be named as denials of freedom, because they are.
Naming and framing are different. Framing is conceptual, it is about ideas that allow you to understand what you are experiencing. Naming is giving language to those ideas – often ideas you already have, possibly as part of your unconscious brain mechanisms. Naming can make the unconscious conscious.
Democracy is a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through their government to provide public resources for all. In short, in a democracy, the private depends on the public. Businesses depend on public resources: roads, bridges, the interstate highway system, sewers, a water supply, airports and air traffic control, the Federal Reserve, a patent office, public education for your employees, public health, the electric grid, the satellite communications, the internet, and more. Individuals depend on public resources like clean air, clean water, safe food and products, public safety, access to education and health care, housing, employment – as well as everything listed above. Without such public resources, you are not free.
Do you think that Elizabeth Warren does a good job of conveying that, in your words, “the private depends on the public”?
She does it better than anyone else in public life. She sees the truth and has the courage and articulateness to say it out loud and effectively.
The Democratic party right now seems outwardly to stand for nothing in general, just a laundry list of positions. But most Democrats understand that “the private depends on the public,” namely, that public resources for all allow for private freedoms, whether in private enterprise or private life. Republicans talk about freedom all the time, but the Democrats are the real party of freedom and need to say it. The truth of progressive freedoms is part of what we take for granted, so much part of the fabric of our lives that we don’t pay attention to it. Naming it makes you pay attention to it.
Why does it only reinforce the right-wing message to denounce their positions in political ads – and in do so repeating them – rather than affirming positive moral programs and perspectives?
Don’t think of an elephant! You’ll think of an elephant. Negating a frame reinforces the frame, makes it stronger. There are implicit negatives, like “I’m the honest candidate in this campaign.” When you affirm your own positions and speak positively, you undermine the opposition implicitly. When you go on the offensive, you put them on the defensive. If they have to negate your positions, they will be helping to reinforce yours.
Let’s look back on the Obama campaign of hope and change in 2008. Would it be fair to say that he used many of your framing principles in his successful rise from obscurity? However, when he began governing he largely abandoned the underlying values of the framing he had articulated when running for the presidency. How do you react to that assessment, in general?
Obama is complex. On the one hand, I think he had and still has those principles: He spoke of empathy as the most important thing his mother taught him, and I believe he meant it. Yes, I had been writing about it since I published Moral Politics in 1996, but I wrote about it because progressives have it and it is central in our politics.
On the other hand, Obama was clear from the start that, as he said out loud when he was a senator, in order to become a senator and do any worthwhile things, he felt he had to pay attention to the interests of major Illinois industries. That, he said, made him a pragmatist.
Obama is also a rationalist; that is, he has the false theory of human reason that many progressive policymakers have and that he mastered in law school and teaching law. According to classic rationalism, if you just tell people the facts, then by universal logic, people will reason to the right conclusion. For example, the president thought that if the public liked each of the major provisions of his health care bill, they would support the whole bill. They still like each provision. Conservatives never attacked the major provisions. Instead they attacked it on two moral grounds: Freedom (government takeover) and Life (death panels). These are not the same issues so far as our brains are concerned, and morality is more of a determinant of personal identity than the details of insurance. The conservative manipulation of real reason won out over the repetition of insurance provisions. Yes, the provisions work. And so does the conservative moral framing.
On the one side, Obama and other Dems are hemmed in by a false theory of human reason. On the other side, they are trapped by an overwhelming force: the consultant army, the infrastructure of PR firms, pollsters, consultants, etc.
Polls impose artificial bell curves that suggest that there is unified “middle,” that most voters are there, and that the Democratic candidates need move to the right, and if the president polls badly, then the candidates should dissociate themselves from him. These strategies and others are self-defeating. Yet the candidates, the elected officials, the party members, and the media have all become dependent on the consultant army. They accept the need for: (1) the pollsters to segment the populations and decide who to target with what list of issues, (2) PR firms to create talking points and make ads, and (3) opposition researchers to attack and negate what the other side says.
I suspect that Obama has been trapped a number of times by the consultant infrastructure that advised him to go against his principles, supposedly to gain political support. It was predictable that it could not work and it didn’t. For details, see my Truthout piece from Nov. 6, 2014. Change is possible, but harder now.
What are some frames to counter “government by corporation”?
Again, it is a matter of naming a single truth: Corporations govern your life in many, many ways for their benefit, not yours. Name what people already experience and resent for good reason. How do corporations govern your life for their benefit, not yours?
Start with your health insurance company and your internet and cell phone providers. Continue with all the times you call for customer service, get a robot voice, have to press a bunch of buttons, and then wait on the phone for half and hour to an hour – or be directed to a website, where you have to spend lots of your time. You are working for the corporation – when you spend your time, the company saves money on hiring human beings and makes more profit. You are contributing to their profit with your time, which is part of your life, and hardly a pleasant part.
Oil companies – our wealthiest corporations – are destroying the planet for their short-term profit. Corporations govern your life by putting hidden carcinogens and other poisons in your food, cosmetics, furniture, etc. for their profit, not your health. For details, go to ewg.org. These are facts. In isolation, one-by-one, they are just a laundry list. Isolated facts don’t help. Together they tell a truth: Corporations govern your life for their profit not yours, in all those ways. Name it. Repeat it. We need reform at the deepest level.
You write, “remember that voters vote their identity and their values, which need not coincide with their self-interest.” I remember writing a commentary on a poor congressional district, let’s say about 98 percent white, in Kentucky. Most of the residents were on food stamps, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid – or all of them. However, they have voted in recent elections by landslide majorities to re-elect a congressman who opposes food stamps and supports cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Can you elaborate on how this can occur?
A single moral worldview dominates conservative policies in every domain of life – family, personal identity, sex, religion, sports, education, the market, foreign policy and politics – what I’ve called strict father morality. Your moral worldview is central to how you understand your life.
In a strict father family, the father is in charge and is assumed to know right from wrong, to have moral as well as physical authority. He is supposed to protect the family, support the family, set the rules, enforce the rules, maintain respect, govern sexuality and reproduction, and teach his kids right from wrong, that is, to grow up with the same moral system. His word defines what is right and is law; no backtalk. Disobedience is punished, painfully, so that children learn not to disobey. Via physical discipline, they learn internal discipline, which is how they become moral beings. With discipline they can become prosperous.
If you are not prosperous, you are not disciplined enough, not taking enough personal responsibility and deserve your poverty. At the center is the principle of personal responsibility and moral hierarchy: those who are more moral (in this sense of morality) should rule: God over man, man over nature, parents over children, the rich over the poor, Western culture over non-Western culture, America over other countries, men over women, straights over gays, Christians over non-Christians, etc.
On conservative religion, God is a strict father; in sports, coaches are strict with their athletes; in classrooms, teachers should be strict with students; in business, employers rule over employees; in the market, the market should decide – the market itself is the strict father, deciding that those who have financial discipline deserve their wealth, and others deserve their poverty; and in politics, this moral system itself should rule.
Conservatives can be poor, but they can still be kings in their own castles – strict fathers at home, in their personal identity: in their religion, in their sex lives, in the sports they love. Poor conservatives vote their identity as conservatives, not their lack of material wealth.
One of your last chapters is on how individuals can respond to conservatives. What are some key strategies?
Not everyone functions with just one worldview in every aspect of life. Many, if not most, people are primarily either strict or nurturant, but partly the other in some areas of life. I call them bi-conceptuals, since they have in their brains both worldviews – each inhibiting the other – and applying those worldviews to different ranges of issues. With respect to political issues, those who are mostly one, but partly the other, are called “moderates.” But there is no one shared moral or political ideology of the moderate. Moderates differ on what they are moderate about and what their primary worldview is.
The existence of bi-conceptuals is hopeful. Conservatives who hold some progressive policies that are governed by the nurturant worldview, can have that nurturant worldview appealed to and strengthened. But that requires hearing progressive language and thinking progressive thoughts that will strengthen the progressive worldview already there in his or her brain.
In personal interactions, as over the Thanksgiving table with conservative relatives or in your social or business life with colleagues and coworkers, the first thing to realize is that, for the most part, conservatives believe deeply that they are morally right, that they and other conservatives are operating from the right moral principles. They don’t believe that they are immoral, and they don’t believe that right and wrong don’t matter. As moral beings, they want to be treated with respect. And in personal relationships, respect is appropriate.
The question is whether they are bi-conceptual, whether they have partly progressive values. So turn the conversation to an issue defined by nurturance: What have you done, or are you doing, that helps other people or helps your community? What makes you feel good about it? And so on. If there is nurturance there, bring it out and magnify it, and respect it. Try to keep conversation focused on such issues. Don’t try to argue against their conservative positions, and certainly not in their language. Listen. Be patient.
If you must discuss political differences, just be positive, starting with your values and with how you understand freedom and how it arises from citizens working together to provide public resources for everyone. Use your language, not theirs. Stay respectful.
In conclusion, I would like to add something for my fellow Truthout readers. There are deep truths that are known about how brains work, how our unconscious minds work, and the effect of language on the mind and brain. Those are vital truths, because only by mastering and using them can you avoid the traps of laundry list truths, truths that don’t add up to the communication of general progressive values, truths that have given us a Democratic Party that seems not to stand for any overriding value. Lists of truths that are not made meaningful by values are destined to be ignored. Make truths matter. Wed truths to values.