The Frame Game - a professor of linguistics and
cognitive science explains the overwhelming success of conservative Republicans, and a blogger suggests "People like that
can get us all killed."
The buzz on the political web logs this week - the "blogs" - was a long interview in the University
of California, Berkeley News. It was a long read but worth it. I used to teach linguistics, so of course
I'm sort of in tune with a professor of the same at the most radical of the University of California campuses.
The source is here, should you wish to read the whole thing. The UC Berkeley News,
Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics,
by Bonnie Azab Powell, NewsCenter 27 October 2003
The URL for this is: http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/10/27_lakoff.shtml
The trust of Lakoff's argument is that the conservatives have mastered the art of framing the
discussion about how to run this country, or actually, how to live one's life. As Powell, the interviewer, puts it,
with Republicans controlling the Senate, the House, and the White House and enjoying a large margin of victory for California
Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's clear that the Democratic Party is in crisis. Lakoff, a professor of linguistics
and cognitive science, thinks he knows why. Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the
language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them.
The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives
firmly on the defensive.
Lakoff sums up what I only sensed in the conservative way of seeing things -
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. 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. The only way to do that is through
painful discipline - physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. 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. 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. ...
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.
Oh wow! Have I heard this over and over again! And
the counter "frame" to this?
There's actually a whole other way to think about it. 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. 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. 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.
Well, if I said that to my conservative friends they'd shoot me. I guess I'll test that
theory. A little danger is always exciting.
Anyway, the whole interview is pretty cool.
I got tired of cursing the newspaper every morning. I got tired of seeing what was going wrong
and not being able to do anything about it.
... Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a
conceptual framework. If you have something like "revolt," that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes
it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That's a
If you then add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical meaning saying
that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good
thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like "voter revolt" - something that most
people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.
Here's another example of how powerful framing is. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's acceptance speech,
he said, "When the people win, politics as usual loses." What's that about? Well, he knows that he's going to face a Democratic
legislature, so what he has done is frame himself and also Republican politicians as the people, while framing Democratic
politicians as politics as usual - in advance. The Democratic legislators won't know what hit them. They're automatically
framed as enemies of the people.
... 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. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation
is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.
... Right now the Democrat Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription
drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral
perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don't just vote on the issues, and Democrats
don't understand that. Look at Schwarzenegger, who says nothing about the issues. The Democrats ask, How could anyone vote
for this guy? They did because he put forth an identity. Voters knew who he is.
"Joan" - on her web log Body and Soul (http://bodyandsoul.typepad.com/) - had a few comments:
Our president, the mammoth snack
Republicans and Democrats see the world in very different ways. Republicans want to be
cavemen: Every man goes out into the world with his club and his spear, ready to take on the wooly mammoths. Every woman needs
to find a guy with a big spear to take care of her.
The problem with that view is that it never worked, even in the days of of the cavemen. It
takes a lot of spears to kill a wooly mammoth. One guy with one spear is a wooly mammoth snack. If we hadn't learned to work
together, the wooly mammoths would be using computers, and we'd be extinct.
Today we've got problems that are a lot more complicated than knocking off mammoths, and we
don't need leaders who run out pretending to be brave, waving their wobbly little spears, and yelling, "Bring on the mammoths."
People like that can get us all killed.
We need mature men and women who know how to co-operate, how to bring the community together
so we're all contributing. We need leaders who can get others to work with us, because when you have real, dangerous, complicated
problems, the more people you have on your side, the better off you are. The Democrats have always been the party of the community,
the party that does its best to make use of everyone's talents, rather than sending each man off with his own puny little
tools to face big problems. And in a dangerous time, that is exactly what we need.
These points were made here last week October 26, 2003 Other Mail by Rick and Bonnie. And the week before, here: October 19, 2003 Other Mail. And back in August here, by Bill Nichols - August 17, 2003 Guest Commentary. And George Lakoff had a bit to say about this on Alternet: The Frame Around Arnold URL:
Joan has a basic problem with the "Strong Daddy" "Nurturing Mommy" model Rick, Bonnie and George
... the frame is dishonest; it sets up a dichotomy - father and mother - but doesn't carry through. ... The whole idea
of government as either mother or father is offensive. What does such a metaphor make us -- the kiddies?
... if you set up a frame that has clear gender implications, leaving Democrats with the feminine role, Democrats
lose, because, fair or not, most Americans still don't think of women as leaders.
Ouch. And -- damn it -- true. The problem is, giving in to that prejudice has long-term implications. I already feel
left out of the Democratic Party sometimes, thanks, I don't need them trying to play more masculine than the Republicans to
make me feel like I'm not welcome at all. If the Democrats frame things that way, they're going to lose a woman who has voted
for Democrats in every election since 1972 (with gratitude to the Democrats for lowering the voting age to 18 that year, otherwise
I would have had to wait until 1976, and would never have had the privilege of voting against Richard Nixon).
It occurred to me, though, that we can't entirely take gender out of the picture. The Republicans have used it so skillfully
- posing themselves as the strong, sensible, masculine party - that there's really no way to completely knock down the metaphor.
We can argue that the world needs feminine skills. We can argue that functioning families really consist of men and women
who are mature enough to work for a common goal, not daddy pushing mommy around. But it's hard to fight stereotypes at the
same time you're trying to win an election.
Republicans have framed themselves as strong and masculine. So maybe we can play with that, tweak it a bit, without giving
in to the implications of the frame.
We've all had a lot of fun with Bush's fraudulent, sock-based masculinity. But it's not just a joke. Looking at the Republicans,
what I see over and over again is a play-acting, pre-adolescent version of masculinity. Little boys think that what makes
daddy a man is that he's big. He can beat anybody up. His weapon's longer than your weapon. His god's bigger than yours. And
so when little boys pretend to be men, the emphasis is on bigger and stronger. And girls don't have a place in their world,
because...well...girls are smaller, and most of them aren't as strong as boys, so what could they be good for? The Republican
version of masculinity is the pre-adolescent kind that hasn't yet figured out why it might be nice to have girls around.
Republicans are funny, in the same way that little boys who want to be men, but can't acknowledge that girls will someday
have a role in their lives are funny. Funny in a pathetic kind of way. But nobody wants those little boys running the world.
Heather Wokusch had an interesting piece up recently at CommonDreams about the connection between fear of sex
and love of violence in the Bush administration. That's the little boy pretending to be a man issue peeking out again. Sex
is icky. Fighting is what real men do. When you frame them as little boys who obviously don't like sex, it gives a whole new
slant to some of this administration's combination of pettiness and prudery.
Basically if you frame the issue as the daddy party vs. the mommy party (you can call it "nurturing," but everyone
still hears "mommy"), the mommy party loses. People want the party of "masculine" strength. But real masculinity is more complicated
and includes women. (Well, heterosexual masculinity anyway. There's an obvious flaw in my metaphor here, and I don't want
to feed anti-gay stereotypes while trying to fight anti-female ones, but I don't see a way around it at the moment; another
reason why I need to keep thinking about this). The frame I'm aiming for contrasts phony, immature masculinity vs. real, sexual,
smart masculinity that prefers life with women and a community rather than being out in the field with a spear and a mammoth.
So, the issues are on the table. We have discussed this here. The question is now, if all of the
above is so, what do those who wish a change in government do now?
In late May I posted an "open forum" with some preliminary ideas -
Now what? That's a challenge.
Reaction? -- Send a comment to me via the "Contact" page.
November 2, 2003