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Frame Game

by Geoffrey Nunberg

Steven PinkerGeorge Lakoffreviewad hominemTo hear Lakoff tell it
We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century understanding of the mind.... In thinking, the old view comes originally from Descartes' 17th Century rationalism. A view of thought as symbolic logic was formalized by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege around the turn of the 20th Century, and a rationalist interpretation was revived by Chomsky in the 1950's. In that view, thought is a matter of (as Pinker puts it) "old-fashioned ... universal disembodied reason." Here reason is seen as the manipulation of meaningless symbols, as in symbolic logic.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms...

These questions matter in progressive politics, because many progressives were brought up with the old 17th Century rationalist view of reason that implies that, if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion--since reason is universal. We know from recent elections that this is just false. "Old-fashioned ... universal disembodied reason" also claims that everyone reasons the same way, that differences in world-view don't matter. But anybody tuning in to contemporary talk shows will notice that not everybody reasons the same way and that world-view does matter.
actuallyIt's true that modern cognitive scientistsarguedkick the bucketTalking Right
The nation can be a body with a head, stomach, heart, and arms, or a person who is young, grows old and sick, and dies. The nation can be a ship, as poet Walt Whitman portrayed it, which sails on, loses its moorings, drifts, or has to be righted. It can be a theater, where people and issues wait in the wings, take center stage, or lay an egg. It can be a house, crumbling at the foundations or built to withstand the buffeting of the winds. It can be a city, as both Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo described it, though with different images of what was going on in its various neighborhoods. It can be a party (to which everyone must be invited). Or as David Brooks suggests, it can be a high-school cafeteria where each clique has its table. And sometimes it's just a nation: not all the vocabulary we use to talk about national life has its conceptual origin in some other domain.
In 1994, I dutifully read the "Contract with America" and found myself unable to comprehend how conservative views formed a coherent set of political positions. What, I asked myself, did opposition to abortion have to do with the flat tax? What did the flat tax have to do with opposition to environmental regulations? What did defense of gun ownership have to do with tort reform? Or tort reform with opposition to affirmative action?... The answer is that there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways.

... I worked backward. I took the various positions on the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, "Let's put them through the [family] metaphor from the opposite direction and see what comes out." I put in the two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.
isWilliam SaletanCarol MaxwellwouldI suspect that one reason for Don't Think of an Elephantclaim
every thought we think--permanent or transient, rational or irrational--is instantiated physically in the brain. The implication that frames, by being "physically fixed" in the brain, are especially insidious or hard to change, is gratuitous.
Even if it were plausible to assume
There is a common belief that there is an ideological "center"--a large group of voters either with a consistent ideology of their own or lined up left to right on the issues or forming a "mainstream," all with the same positions on issues. In fact, the so-called center is actually made up of 'biconceptuals', people who are conservative in some aspects of life and progressive in others.
kindsIn fact you wouldn't guess from Lakoff's analysisPolarized America
What [conservatives] have done is to create, via framing and language, a link between strict father morality in the family and religion on the one hand and conservative politics on the other. This conceptual link must be so emotionally strong that it can overcome economic self-interest....

Conservative political and intellectual leaders ... represented an economic and political elite, but they were seeking the votes of middle- and lower-class working people. They needed, therefore, to identify conservative ideas as populist and liberal/progressive ideas as elitist--even though the reverse was true. They faced a massive framing problem, a problem that required a change in everyday language and thought. But strict father morality gave them an important advantage: It suggests that the wealthy have earned their wealth, that they are good people who deserve it.
What's the Matter with Kansas?Talking RightDon't Think of an Elephant
In the 2000 election Gore kept saying that Bush's tax cuts would go only to the top 1 percent, and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him, because as conservatives they believed that those who had the most money-the "good" people-deserved to keep it as their reward for being disciplined.

But there's no evidence at all that this is true, and lots to suggest that it's simply wrong. In polls, a great majority of working- and middle-class Americans say that Democrats will do a better job on issues like taxes and social security, and associate the Democrats with values like fairness. And if some of those people wind up voting the Republicans, it isn't because they believe that the rich are morally entitled to keep their wealth. It may be because they don't have much faith in the power of the Democrats to address their concerns, as Karl Agne and Stanley Greenberg have argued, or because they personally don't stand to gain much from existing government programs, as Stephen Rose has suggested. Or it may be because they simply find values issues more compelling or comprehensible than economic ones. But until now, it's only Republican ideologues who have argued that working-class Americans really take moral satisfaction in the increasing wealth of the top one percent. The difference is that when that claim comes from the right, it's a politically self-serving canard, whereas coming from Lakoff it's simply an effort to make the facts fit his theory. Why does any of this matter? Pinker suggests that the danger is that Democratic politicians might actually take Lakoff at his word and build their strategies around his ideas. But as best I can tell, Lakoff's direct influence on the language of the Democrats has been negligible. He may have had the ear of some prominent Democrats, but you couldn't tell it by what comes out of their mouths. And no wonder--as Pinker and a number of other people have observed, Lakoff's own framing suggestions are pretty lame. Democratic politicians don't need to know anything about cognitive science to realize that referring to taxes as "membership fees" or to trial lawyers as "public protection attorneys" would make them easy targets of Republican ridicule. And as for his proposal that Democrats should reframe "activist judges" as "freedom judges," a Google search turns up no instances of the phrase apart from remarks that make fun of the suggestion. True, linguists coin slogans about as well as physicists ride bicycles. And the fact that Lakoff has a tin ear for political phrasing doesn't negate his indirect influence in drawing Democrats' attention to the importance of framing. That's all to the good. It's easy to say that what matters is ideas, not language. But while people often exaggerate the effect of Republican slogans and bumper stickers, there's no question that a well-turned catchphrase can do a lot of work in shaping public opinion--think of "cut and run." As Walter Lippmann pointed out in Public Opinion, American political life is saturated with verbal symbols that "assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas." However compelling the ideas that Democrats come up with are, they'll have a hard time packaging them unless they can do a better job confecting the wrapping paper. (My own sense is that liberal Democrats would do better revisiting the populist language that brought them to the ball in the first place than invoking the labored moral frames that Lakoff proposes. But that's for another conversation.) But ultimately, I think Lakoff's political importance has to be reckoned not by his effect on the party professionals, but by his appeal to rank-and-file liberals, progressive activists, liberal bloggers, and the like. (In the press, Lakoff has gotten only about a quarter as many mentions as James Carville over the past two years. On the Internet, the two run neck-and-neck.) And here the effects of Lakoff's thinking may not be so salubrious. Over the last few decades, the right has managed to reconfigure the polarities of American politics so that economic divisions are trumped by the bogus cultural distinctions of the "red-blue" divide, and in the process "liberal" and "conservative" have been redefined as opposing social styles or personality types, rather than as contrasting philosophies of government. Indeed, listening to the talk shows on Fox News, you might have the impression that the two sides are really distinct political genders. As it happens, that picture of an America riven into two distinct nations--"more divided than at any time since the Civil War," as people sometimes say--has no empirical reality for the mass of ordinary Americans, as researchers as politically diverse as Alan Wolfe and Morris Fiorina have shown at some length. But once you start thinking of liberals and conservatives as distinct kinds of people, divided by deep moral differences that grow out of their early family experience, then it's easy to fall into the hyper-moralizing rhetoric of political polarization. True, many liberals have always been prone to this tone of argument. But Lakoff's writings seem to give a scientific imprimatur to the idea that liberalism and conservatism are distinct mentalities--that we're the ones who are "for nurturance and care," for example. And while liberals may find that picture flattering, it also plays into the rhetorical hands of conservatives, who are happy to reframe ideological divisions as warring personalities and lifestyles and to obscure the economic roots of political divisions. In fact the most damning thing you can say about Lakoff is that he too often takes the right at its word.