Thursday, September 23, 2004

Lakoff on How Conservatives Use Language to Dominate

I am grateful to John Gallagher for sending me this link to an interview with George Lakoff.
I reproduce some of it below, with my comments in blue.

Interviewer asks: Back up for a second and explain what you mean by the strict father and nurturant parent frameworks.

Lakoff responds: Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better.

BV: Shades of Rousseau. People are intrinsically good; society is the problem.

Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.

BV: I fail to see how any of this "follows" (Lakoff's word) from his premise that children are born good and can be made better by their parents. How does he justify the leap from particular parents who nurture their children to Big Government as the 'parent' of all of us?There is no justification at all. It is aus der Pistole geschossen, shot out of a pistol, to borrow a phrase from Hegel.

And notice all the wonderful things that Lakoff associates with Big Government all the while ignoring the fact that the latter is inimical to some of them. For example, civil liberties are endangered by Big Government -- as 'progressives' will themselves point out when it comes to criticizing John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good.

BV: Partially correct, but unfair. Lakoff is engaging in a silly oppositionalism. Conservatives don't say the opposite of what 'progressives' say: they don't say that children are born bad, but that they are born with deep-rooted tendencies to BOTH good and evil, and that it is therefore naive and dangerous to assume that they are naturally good.

The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong.

BV: Biased. Tells his wife what to do? Then why are Tammy and Michelle conservatives? I don't reckon that Michelle lets her husband tell her what to do.

The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline.

BV: More bias. The only way? No, but a way that is sometimes necessary.

The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

'Taxes are what you pay to be an American, to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers.'
-George Lakoff

So, project this onto the nation and you see that to the right wing, the good citizens are the disciplined ones — those who have already become wealthy or at least self-reliant — and those who are on the way. Social programs, meanwhile, "spoil" people by giving them things they haven't earned and keeping them dependent.

BV: Surely this is largely true.

The government is there only to protect the nation, maintain order, administer justice (punishment), and to provide for the promotion and orderly conduct of business. In this way, disciplined people become self-reliant. Wealth is a measure of discipline. Taxes beyond the minimum needed for such government take away from the good, disciplined people rewards that they have earned and spend it on those who have not earned it.

From that framework, I can see why Schwarzenegger appealed to conservatives.
Exactly. In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it's in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn't have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what's right and wrong, and he's going to take it to the people. He's not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he's going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.

You've written a lot about "tax relief" as a frame. How does it work? The phrase "Tax relief" began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush's inauguration. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going.

BV: A reliever is a hero? Quite a stretch.

So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. "Tax relief" has even been picked up by the Democrats. I was asked by the Democratic Caucus in their tax meetings to talk to them, and I told them about the problems of using tax relief. The candidates were on the road. Soon after, Joe Lieberman still used the phrase tax relief in a press conference. You see the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot.

BV: This is bullshit. Taxes are a burden, and we naturally speak of being relieved of burdens. There is no call to bring in heroes and villains. 'Tax relief' is an innocuous phrase. It does not beg any questions, or import any bias, or betray any 'spin.'

A typical leftist, Lakoff just assumes without any attempt at proof that the individual wealth-producer must justify his keeping of his wealth. But it is the other way around: the government must justify its taking of his wealth, often for purposes that the individual finds morally offensive.

So what should they be calling it? It's not just about what you call it, if it's the same "it." There's actually a whole other way to think about it. Taxes are what you pay to be an American,

BV: So before 3 February 1913, when the 16th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, the amendment that ushered in the income tax, Americans were not Americans?

to live in a civilized society that is democratic and offers opportunity, and where there's an infrastructure that has been paid for by previous taxpayers. This is a huge infrastructure. The highway system, the Internet, the TV system, the public education system, the power grid, the system for training scientists — vast amounts of infrastructure that we all use, which has to be maintained and paid for. Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues to be an American. In addition, the wealthiest Americans use that infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people don't. The federal justice system, for example, is nine-tenths devoted to corporate law. The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy. And we're all paying for it.
So taxes could be framed as an issue of patriotism.

BV: It would take a long time to respond to this. I would question the dues analogy for one thing. We would have to delve into empirical questions, such as how much money does the SEC consume as opposed to the food stamp program, which the wealthy do not make us of? And so on. And let's not forget who pays the taxes. It's the rich who pay the lions share of the taxes. If taxes are dues, then maybe they should join a different club.

It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's the same thing with our country — the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way. There would have to be a manual. Republicans have one. They have a guy named Frank Luntz, who puts out a 500-page manual every year that goes issue by issue on what the logic of the position is from the Republican side, what the other guys' logic is, how to attack it, and what language to use.

What are some other examples of issues that progressives should try to reframe?
There are too many examples, that's the problem. The so-called energy crisis in California should have been called Grand Theft. It was theft, it was the result of deregulation by Pete Wilson, and Davis should have said so from the beginning.

BV: Win by linguistic hijacking!

Or take gay marriage, which the right has made a rallying topic. Surveys have been done that say Americans are overwhelmingly against gay marriage. Well, the same surveys show that they also overwhelmingly object to discrimination against gays. These seem to be opposite facts, but they're not. "Marriage" is about sex. When you say "gay marriage," it becomes about gay sex, and approving of gay marriage becomes implicitly about approving of gay sex. And while a lot of Americans don't approve of gay sex, that doesn't mean they want to discriminate against gay people. Perfectly rational position. Framed in that way, the issue of gay marriage will get a lot of negative reaction.

BV: Here Lakoff the leftist displays the characteristic elitism of the Left. He thinks the folks are stupid and cannot grasp the issue of gay marriage. The folks think that marriage is about sex?

But what if you make the issue "freedom to marry," or even better, "the right to marry"? That's a whole different story. Very few people would say they did not support the right to marry who you choose. But the polls don't ask that question, because the right wing has framed that issue.

BV: Be serious! The issue is not freedom to marry. The issue is whether or not society should sanction 'marriages' between people of the same sex. 'Gay marriage' describes the issue accurately, whereas 'freedom to marry' obfuscates the issue.

One can see from this how leftists are out to win at all costs. Lakoff simply wants a formulation that allows his side to win regardless of whether or not that formulation accurately labels the issue in question.

Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

BV: Call it 'verbal obfuscation' rather than 'framing.' Don't posture as if you are making a contribution to lingustics here when what you are doing is purely ideological.

None. They don't get it at all. But they're in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don't have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able to reference them in a sound bite. Other people have to put these ideas into the public domain, not politicians. The question is, How do you get these ideas out there? There are all kinds of ways, and one of the things the Rockridge Institute is looking at is talking to advocacy groups, which could do this very well. They have more of a budget, they're spread all over the place, and they have access to the media.