George Lakoff is a leading figure in the field of cognitive linguistics who has ventured into the sphere of politics on the side of liberals and progressives. My impression is that he seems to have made little headway, but there are sound reasons why we should listen to him.
How Cognition WorksIn order to understand how to approach political debate we need to know how cognition really works. There is still a tendency to see reason as conscious, unemotional, logical, and like reality. Along with this we see language as neutral. Out of this tendency comes a belief that people are aware of what they believe and how they think. That if we only tell people the facts they will come to the right conclusion. We see morality as rational and universal. In fact all of these assumptions are demonstrably wrong.
Thanks to neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio we know that thought is physical. It has a physical basis in the brain, and also it is shaped by how we physically experience th world and interact with it. We know that 98% of thought is unconscious and non-linear. We know that rationality actually requires emotion. We experience the value of information as emotion. We actually decide what facts are salient by checking how we feel about them. Our emotions tell us is information is consistent with our values. If we are cut off from emotions, as people sometimes are by brain damage, then we cannot make appropriate decisions because we cannot decide which facts are important. In my writing on religious faith I have called this the problem of salience.
Reason is embodiedImagination and action use the same parts of the brain. When we see someone doing an action, parts of our motor cortex, the so-called mirror neurons, are active, just as they would be if we were doing the action ourselves.
This in turn enables us to observe a person and explore what internal state in ourselves would produce the same facial expressions, body language and other non-verbal cues. We call this ability to gain insight into the inner state of another person, empathy. As Jeremy Rifkin says, “we are soft-wired for empathy”. So this is why appeals to emotion tend to work better that appeals to reason. Advertising executives and conservatives know this.
FramesWords are embedded in ‘frames’. Lakoff uses the example of saying "Don't think of an elephant". Even though this is a negative injunction, it invokes thoughts, images & emotions associated the word 'elephant'. This combination of responses is what he calls a ‘frame’.
When George Bush took office he repeated used the phrase ‘tax relief’. The word ‘relief’ invokes the feeling of relief when some burden has been lifted from us. Combined with tax, the phrase frames tax as a burden, as an affliction. The one who offers relief from affliction is a hero, and the one who opposes it a villain. Democrats tried to fight this by saying that "tax relief is a bad thing" But in doing so they simply invoked the ‘relief’ frame, and opposing relief they became villains. They actually helped to make Bush sound heoric.
One cannot simply negate a frame with a fact, because the word invokes the frame. One has to shift the discussion, which conservatives are good at! The ‘tax is a burden’ frame has deeply infected the UK as well as the debate which swirled around Cameron's fingering of Jimmy Carr. A lot of people believe that it is fine to avoid tax if it is legal. At best we are prepared to follow the letter of tax law, but not the spirit. We have bought into the conservative framing of tax. David Cameron began the Conservative’s election campaign earlier this week by outlining welfare policies. Whatever else you may say about Cameron, he or his advisors clearly have been paying attention on how to frame a political debate, and have a considerable head start. He has carefully framed welfare as “something for nothing”.
It is important not to grasp at or dismiss this brief overview too soon. The framing of a discourse requires considerable knowledge of the field. I hope I’ve gotten enough across to interest those who might be involved in framing the progressive discourse for the coming election. I hope that some people will take a closer look at Lakoff’s ideas.
A good place to start is Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust