Thursday, April 07, 2005

Framing Lakoff

As I worked on this piece out on my back porch, a fox came into the yard. We eyed each other, and I continued furtive typing. A careless click sent me irrecoverably away from the page, deleting a draft 90% complete. (The server was busy and nothing was saved.) I thought about giving it up. The world doesn't need more deep thoughts from me today. It needs to see more foxes.

I've watched them enough to know a fox's day mostly consists of dealing with things getting away. Time to get started....

George Lakoff has said that contemporary American politics is about worldview, and of the two prevailing views, conservatives have done a better job of defining the frames within which we discuss the day's political issues.

Frames are conceptual structures, often expressed as metaphors, that shape the way we see the world. A frame only allows you to accept facts that fit within it. Thus, who succeeds in framing an issue will be difficult to beat in subsequent debate.

Lakoff is a progressive who mainly calls attention to frames and how they operate. He helps us understand how language is, as Edward T. Hall put it, "a system for organizing information and releasing thoughts and responses in other organisms," not for implanting thoughts or transferring meaning from one brain to another. In other words, the meaning contained within metaphors is already in us, just awaiting the words to call it forth.

"When you think you lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily... A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion of his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase, tax relief. But there is not established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there."
—Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff


Lakoff's work is based in cognitive science, and as you can imagine, most political minds would prefer to get right to the short version, which has become this set of metaphors: The Nation is a Family. Conservatives favor a family led by a Strict Father worldview and progressives prefer a Nurturant Parent. The worldviews of both sides align with or can be explained by these two parental models. Ezra Klein explains why Daddy polls better than Mommy.

There's a discussion going on at Majikthise that focuses on this aspect of Lakoff's central metaphor. But there's more to Lakoff and Strict Fatherhood than dad coming home to lay down the law and haul out the belt. Lakoff helps you understand the conservative moral system and how that affects views of individual responsibility and the government's role.

Here's a sampling:

The World is a Dangerous Place. Living is about survival, and a responsible parent's first priority is to protect the family and prepare the young to survive on their own. This requires instilling fear, especially of those different from your kind. You must be able to quickly determine who is good and worthy of trust, and who is evil and might harm you. Preemptive violence against evildoers is prudent and justified.

Winners are Moral. In the struggle for survival, the fit will prevail. This competition wil produce winners and losers as part of the natural order. The top dogs deserve their rewards because they have disciplined themselves, made sacrifices and taken no help from the government. Simply by pursuing their self-interest and investing their wealth, they create jobs and opportunity for others who want to follow their example. It's an abomination when people receive rewards they haven't earned. It makes them weaker and less able to compete.

Morality is Health. Health is strength. Thus, weakness is a sign of immorality. Immorality is a communicable disease. It can spread via contact with the infected and unclean. For example, homosexuality can be caught, so to prevent it, you must be careful not to allow gays and lesbians to come near you or your children. But with the proper treatment, the disease can be cured. Halleluia!

Government is a Business As such, it should operate according to marketplace principles, not moral ones, and its work should be subject to cost-benefit analysis. Taxpayers are consumers of services who only pay for what they use. They have no obligation to do business with the government and have the right to seek the same services from other providers who charge less or provide services more tailored to the individual's taste. If a government does not please its customers, it deserves to go out of business.

....Now, two hundred yards away through woods, a blue TV screen winks back at my laptop. This time next month you won't be able to see across the creek. This time next month, we'll be on to something else and there will be one less squirrel or two around the bird feeder.

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