Debate Prep: Remember Your Frames!

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debatelakoffWe're all gathering tonight at Tim's house to watch the debates and it's bound to be a doozy.  With the two presidential candidates, Barack "Hope" Obama and John "I've-Crashed-Three-Or-Four-Airplanes-So-I-Think-I-Know-A-Thing-Or-Two-About-How-To-Run-A-Country" McCain, sparring over who our next leader will be.  This second debate will likely be marked by vicious attacks and economic policy dramatics so I just wanted to remind all of you to keep George Lakoff in mind tonight.

George who?  I'll put it in perspective for you before I tell you about Lakoff himself and why he's perhaps the most important person for anyone who wants to get into politics to read.

Lets say that you go to a family wedding and inevitably get into it with your redneck uncle.  You can show your redneck uncle a whole pile of facts about why global warming is real and man-made, how the Bush administration lied repeatedly in the buildup to Iraq, about how Repbulican laissez-faire/trickle-down economics have been disastrous for everyone including the both of you, how McCain is dangerous because of his often trigger-happy style of leadership, or why it's terrible to shop at Wal-Mart.  Does it change his mind?  Of course not.  It's always the most frustrating thing and it usually means that in the future you'll seek to speak less and less to your redneck uncle.  Why do you think that happens?  There's always the easy answer that your redneck uncle is a fucking jackass who only listens to conservative talk radio (how could your own bloodline have married into his family?!) but in actuality the answer is far deeper than that.  You and your uncle have a lot in common, even if you'd never admit it.

Lakoff is a professor of neurolinguistics at UC Berkeley and he has devoted his career to examining how people make decisions.  Often times we humans make choices that do not actually benefit us.  Why would we do that?  Because we are not operating rationally but rather emotionally first and then rationally -- within our own emotional subconscious.  If this sounds like bullshit, then consider a few example of such behaviour:  the last time you bought a girl way out of your league a drink at the bar; the last time you broke your diet; the last time you impulsively bought a shirt you'll never wear; the last time you voted Republican.  All of these (to varying degrees) are instances where you're emotion and the mind-set you were in over-rode pure eighteenth-century Enlightenment, mathematical, Spock-style LOGIC.

george_lakoff.jpgLakoff's books are about applying this idea of emotion-based rationale to politics.  He argues that people make choices in politics based on who or what they believe to be "right" or "moral."  He goes on to state that we have two major emotional systems with all of our brains for what makes things right or moral. 

The first is what he calls "Strict Father Morality."  There is good and evil in this world an in order for good to overcome evil the good people need to be disciplined and teach their children what good behavior is.  The more disciplined you are the better and more moral you are.  Those who are not disciplined are evil and must obey the disciplined ones who will guide them.  Words and phrases that emphasize obedience, discipline, and loyalty will activate this type of emotional logic.

The other form of morality is known as "Nurturing Parents."  A child who is raised with love and affection by both parents knows right from wrong.  The child makes discoveries for themselves and is trusted to be good. Words like empathy, responsibility, and trust will activate this type of emotional logic.

On a subconscious level we view the government as a family and these two different ideas of family and morality can be keyed into using specific words or sets of words called frames.  So when a certain issue or politician successfully frames the argument, one of these two world views have already been activated in peoples' subconscious minds.  This often times trumps the facts so that when facts conflict, then the person disregards the fact that doesn't fit the world view.

A classic example of this is Scooter Libby.  Sure, he may have broken the law in his part of exposing an under-cover CIA agent who's husband had criticised the Bush Administration and the Iraq War (and in the ensuing cover-up of that scandle).  But people who have been keyed into the Strict Father Morality for understanding George Bush and what he means will see that Scooter Libby was only trying to loyally protect the father who was only trying to protect them from the evils of fundamental Islam.  More importantly, the father (GW Bush) is the most moral and therefore CANNOT be immoral -- by definition!

Suffice it to say that conservatives like Karl Rove understood what Lakoff's books are about for about two decades and this is one of the major reasons that progressive causes have been loosing out.  You can't win a debate against "tax relief" or the "war on terror" or "pro-life," because in accepting those frames you've already conceded on an emotional-subconscious level and it's up to people like Lakoff to explain it too us.

So lets watch tonight to see how many times we hear John McCain refer to Barack Obama as "unfit to lead," or talk down to him like in the first debate.  Lets see how many times Obama refers to "irresponsiblity" on Wall Street or talks about how we're "all in this together."  These are the frames that determine the terms of the debate and whoever can successfully evoke these frames will win the debate, the election, and a new washer and drier unit!

5 Comments

  • 1

    Jeff,
    It's time for you to get some business cards printed advertising your "eighteenth-century Enlightenment, mathematical, Spock-style LOGIC". That's a high demand trade these days.

    In the pre-Toderized draft of my DNC article (s'Ok Toder) I said that Palin represents a turn towards the dystopian and that she puts me in mind of Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE. Many other people saw this immediately too.
    Through the lookingglass (the redneck, Oil and Gas thirsty, Joe Six Pack, Hockey Mom, Neo-Con, Christian Right lookinglass)- she's NO LESS dystopian! Let me say that again. She strikes everyone I talk to-regardless of how the discussion is framed or how fervently they support her- as some sort of living proof of how far down our country has sunk. Her supporters just choose to see her as some kind of perky, folksy Charon, ushering us all across the river Styx.
    Chilling to talk to these people, truly chilling.

  • 2

    Great article. "Don't Think of an Elephant!" is a must-read. I loved it, even though I can't seem to apply Lakoff's theories well enough to win an argument with my girlfriend.

    But hey, you forgot to mention "DTOAE" it is a very short book, novella-style - Rednecks take note!

  • 3

    I'm tahrred of y'all lib'ruls on this webbin'site always besmirchin' m'name. Yeah, comment'r num'br' one, I'm talkin' t' you.

    Me 'n ma commin-law wahffe, Hockey Mom, 'r gon' tell all our friends - Dittohead, Pro Lifer, Biblethumper, Morbidly Obese White Supremacist, and NRA Joe - to boycott yer site.

  • 4

    [...] to those certain people that share my DNA: my family. Jeff touched on this in his article about George Lakoff, but it’s one thing to have your crazy uncle talk about why the government doesn’t have [...]

  • 5

    [...] those of you who read this site regularly probably know that I like to spout off at length about the linguistics of our political culture.  But there are times when actions truly do speak [...]

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