TD Blog Interview with George Lakoff

George Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, a senior fellow at the progressive think-tank Rockridge Institute, and is the author of “Whose Freedom: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea” and a number of other books including a multitude of articles in major scholarly journals and edited volumes, as well as books such as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values, Frame the Debate. Dr. Lakoff’s current work discusses the concept of “framing”, both deep frames representing an underlying value structure; for conservatives, the deep frames revolve around strict father morality, and for progressives, the deep frames revolve around a nurturant family morality, and “surface frames”, which, in Dr. Lakoff’s analysis, are the ideas associated with individual words and expressions and which make political sense only given the deep frames. The concept of freedom is one such case. On July 25, 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Lakoff by telephone. What follows are my interview notes, as corrected where appropriate by Dr. Lakoff.
The Talking Dog: My customary first question is “where were you on 9-11”? I ask that because I happened to be at my then desk at my then job, across the street from the WTC.
George Lakoff: I was at home. I woke up late that day. Someone working in our garden called out “Turn on your t.v. the Towers are down!” My wife and I watched the television; I said “Oh my God! ” and “What Bush will do with this?” I could anticipate what was coming! My wife had the same thought, that the Right would use this to gain overwhelming power.
The Talking Dog: Why, if you can tell me, has the 9-11 imagery been seized upon so potently as a right wing talking point, particularly, why it seems to mesh so well with what you conclude is the framing of the underlying moral world-view basis of right wing (the “deep frame” of “strict father morality”) as opposed the underlying moral world-view basis of progressive thought (the “deep frame” of “nurturant family morality and empathy”)? I should note that an attorney I interviewed who, like myself, was in downtown New York that day (he actually suffered burns to his eyes from the ash, and was covered in ash after the tower collapsed) suggested that people who DID NOT experience it personally actually have a harder time dealing with it than people who did. Do you have a view on that as a cognitive science matter?
George Lakoff: I actually have a paper out on the subject of the 9-11 imagery. There is a difference between imagery of someone who watches from afar, and the reality of someone who was actually there. The way the picture was shown, the buildings were hit, like a person being hit. The image would permit one to identify with the building– as if it were you. This has to do with mirror neurons: in our brains, there is a system of neurons that fire when you are either doing something physically or seeing another do the same thing. Seeing the plane hit the tower over and over on tv is as if you were seeing someone in shot, over and over again. The twin towers, of course, were symbols of strength– again, symbols that could represent personal strength of the person watching. Now, as to the effect of the repeated images, part one involves evoking fear, and of course, a need for protection. Part two involves conservatives who have bought into strict father morality to invoke their need for protection. Progressives, interestingly, don’t have that, though their moral system does. The progressive underlying values (empathy and responsibility) imply that protection is actually the most important thing you can provide for your family. And this is followed through in the political realm with protections for consumers, for workers, for the environment and social safety nets, though less so in the area of military and police protection. This is a big mistake: it is a natural fit– after all, nurture and care require strength. And yet, progressives have ceded strength and security to conservatives, who of course, have exploited it.
The Talking Dog: You’ve posited that the right wing has been very successful at building the infrastructure (think tanks, radio hosts, best selling authors, etc.) to get its ideas (which you boil down to attributes of “strict father morality”) out there for decades, and particularly the framing and naming of these ideas, while progressives… less so, if at all. Have you seen any significant progress (besides the Rockridge Institute!) in this area, say, in the last 3 or 4 years, or are progressives still, by and large, abandoning the field to the other side?
George Lakoff: The Center for American Progress has been developed, and it was supposed to be like the Heritage Foundation or like the American Enterprise Institute– but instead, it is the complete opposite. Right wing think tanks start with a concept– a consensus of core ideas– and then apply them everywhere. Progressives start with experts in individual fields, all separate, who never come together, and don’t respond to anything in any coherent way. They, of course, share principles, but these are primarily unconscious. CAP gets very, very good people. But the set-up is backwards. This is true, by the way, of virtually every progressive institution. All issues are separated into silos, and the silos then compete with each other. The results are fragmented. For the right, by contrast, an understanding of general conservative thought leads to unity.
I do see some areas of improvement — for example, in funding, great strides have been made by the the Democracy Alliance, funding the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and so on. But then, by contrast, there is virtually no funding in two very critical areas: (1) long term framing and issue silos– the deep frames I am talking about, which require infrastructure; the Democratic party vaguely speaks to long term values, but this is not integrated in the way that the right wing is; and (2) we are doing little or nothing in the child rearing area, compared to the vast funding on the right for Dobson and others.
The Talking Dog: Isn’t that somewhat ironic given the “nurturant family” deep frame?
George Lakoff: It certainly is. On the right you have Focus on the Family, various fathering programs, Dr. Laura, the right wing has a whole well-developed concept of child rearing, and the right has been using it for thirty years. The Republicans have a better understanding of this than Democrats do because they understand the need for infrastructure.
The Talking Dog: By my observation, Republicans tend to come out of business, whereas Democrats tend to come out of academia and the law… could this account for this?
George Lakoff: Well, it might account for it, but whatever the reason is, there is no question that the Republican “businessmen” understand what they are doing, including long term infrastructure development, that progressives have simply not caught on.
The Talking Dog: You’ve observed that one of the first Democrats to pick up the term “tax relief” as if it were neutral was none other than Joe Lieberman. He, of course, is facing a strong challenge heavily backed by progressive activists especially on the internet. By voting record, of course, Lieberman is “mainstream” as a Democrat, though not always. Are you aware of other right wing talking points that Joe Lieberman has adopted, and is it fair to say that this sort of “frame adaptation” by a Democrat (albeit not a recognized “progressive”) may be more significant in the great scheme of things than his voting record?
George Lakoff: I haven’t studied Mr. Lieberman’s language in all that great detail. I do know he frequently talks about school vouchers as if it were a neutral term. It is not a neutral term: it is part of a slippery slope process to destroy the public school system and replace it with a private and religious school system. While this might be because of Lieberman’s support of religious education, the destruction of public education is, of course, outrageous.
Now, what’s interesting about Lieberman is that he is what I call a “biconceptual”. He is, on some issues, a nurturant frame progressive, while in others, he wholly adopts the strict father morality. What he is not is a moderate– he is anything but. He is an extremist in both areas– the exact opposite of a moderate.
The Talking Dog: In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake on the part of Al Gore, more or less running on what seemed to be the ultimate empathy/nurturant family frame platform, to select Lieberman, famous for standing for strict-father scold “morality” vis a vis President Clinton?
George Lakoff: Gore picked Lieberman to win Florida and mobilize the Jewish vote. You see how well that worked out! The answer to your question is yes, it was a major mistake. Lieberman adds by way of middle of the road consensus credentials. All he did was water down Gore’s progressivism. Worse, his extremism on some issues has helped the right– like the whole Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Rather than approach centrist voters on their terms, their tack has been to move to the right, which is a mistake.
The Talking Dog: How would you reframe the “war on terror”, and in particular, WHAT WOULD YOU CALL IT, for one thing? Am I correct that in your view the fastest way to frame the Iraq war is to frame it as THE IRAQ OCCUPATION, to wit, when flight-suit-wearing Presisdent Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech on the carrier Lincoln, we had, in fact, already won “the war”, and left us with “the occupation”?
George Lakoff: There is no question that the occupation is and has been a disaster. Our troops were not trained for it. While a civil war was not predicted, it should have been, and the situation is now impossible for our troops, who have been regularly cut down ever since while being placed in the midst of it. It was the grossest of irresponsibility to think that we could have a quickie war and occupation– a gross irresponsibility, to our troops, to the Iraqis and everybody else.
We also have to get a handle on definitions. You can’t have a “war on terror”. Terror is an emotion– it is not an army who fights to control territory– the definition of a party that you have a “war” against. That’s not what terrorism is about… (Israel’s current war with Hezbollah may be a bit different, as Hezbollah does appear to control territory, making it a more classic war- though still very different.)
Terrorism is more like organized crime. Indeed, immediately after 9-11, Colin Powell suggested that the 9-11 attacks be treated as a crime, and responded to as a crime, albeit a huge one. When we’ve been most successful against terrorism, it’s been when we’ve treated it like organized crime — combating it with spies, infiltrators, and with international police and intelligence cooperation. This is not an issue of war… it is more like busting a syndicate.
The Talking Dog: At least one of my interview subjects has suggested his problem with the term “war on terror” is that it doesn’t describe the enemy we must overcome– he would prefer “war against Islamist extremists”…
George Lakoff: Well, it again misuses the term “war”… at least presently, this is not a war about holding territory (though for a short time, to a limited extent, that was involved, at least in Afghanistan). No, this is something else.
But the biggest problem is that in the course of his metaphorical war, Bush has taken on very real war powers as President.
The Talking Dog: You would acknowledge that reframing of the basic issues that have been harped upon by the reactionary right to win elections has taken decades and billions of dollars, and the result has been fast, catchy code words like “tort reform” or “tax relief” or “death tax” and others, and the ideas, images and repetitions (not to mention bookings on talk shows and best selling books). Obviously, there will not be time for the infrastructure and groundwork of reframing between now and November, or in my opinion, between now and November of 2008. As such, do you suggest any ways to play against the right wing frame (on such issues as, say, the deficit or national security), and if not, what is the best “field first aid” that you have, and we’ll address those issues? Is there a short way to get to “the vision thing” without identifying dozens of issues? Or… how can Dems get voters to “identify” with THEM? Are there any Dems out there (any level) that are doing well in terms of the “values, identification, trust” criteria you have identified that voters seek?
George Lakoff: The right has hired a lot of intellectuals. They have set up a communications network, with a lot of outlets, leadership training groups and so forth, and they have worked out the deep frames and the general values behind them. Once that is in place, it is much easier to make up the surface frames, because they will resonate with the deep frames.
Democrats are trying to do this (and progressives in general) by making up the surface frames without the critical deep frames.
As to how to respond, there are short, intermediate and long term things that can be done. In the short term, in the next couple of months, we could set up an echo chamber, and have progressives and progressive candidates just repeat basic values and elements of deep frames to get them out there. If progressive candidates were to unite around a small set of deep frames, they would be a lot better off than focusing on individual issues. Now…. why don’t they? Well, people in individual districts come in and talk about SPECIFIC ISSUES. What’s interesting, of course, is that there are underlying ideas that unite the issues that could be talked about in terms of deep frames and values. They could be talked about this way, but the preference is to talk directly to the issues… It’s laziness, and it is something we are not getting done.
The Talking Dog: Do you believe that the media’s wholesale adoption of the right-wing’s frames and language is a result of a lack of sophistication, a complete default of progressives in providing challenges to it, or something more sinister (the words “Fox News” come to mind), or a combination thereof?
George Lakoff: Several things are going on. Media people are human beings– when they hear words over and over, their own brains change. They use conventional language. When they hear a term enough, they ASSUME that the language is neutral, and that ideas are objective. THIS IS FALSE. Language and ideas are tied to frames.
We are in the 21st century – an era of mass communications – using an 18th century theory of the human mind – a theory without worldviews, deep frames, linguistic frames, metaphors, frame-based inferences, and so on. Even if we had a sophisticated enough media to pick up on this, we’d still have a problem because the audience must also be sophisticated about the nature of mind. So we have a big problem in this area. The response must be to create the appropriate genres to explore these issues, and to develop the appropriate framing and issue presentations in the media in progressive terms.
The Talking Dog: Would we be well-advised to consult the wit and wisdom of Frank Luntz in advance to see what talking points will be coming at us? And on that note, you’ve pointed out that on most frames, right-wingers are “sincere”– that is, they truly believe in strict-father morality, personal discipline and such (why for example Arnold Schwarzennegger is an ideal candidate, having literally played a character ready made for this role). They are not sincere in their framing on issues where they are peculiarly weak, such as the environment, where they revert to Orwellian terms like “clean skies initiative” to permit greater pollution, or “healthy forest initiatives” to permit more clear-cutting, and your suggestion is that on these areas in particular, the terms and the policies can be more vigorously debated as literally a question of dishonesty. Can you comment on this?
George Lakoff: When I teach a class on this, I always tell my students they should read Luntz, and indeed, all progressives would be well-advised to read and understand what the other side is doing. I point out the difference between honest arguments that are consistent with their worldview and outright lies. Luntz seamlessly weaves them together. He uses various techniques, among them, lying with language. Luntz is a mixed bag. Progressives definitely need to read the other side.
As to the issues where they resort to outright lying, they are not only not sincere on those issues, they are actually WEAK on those issues, such as the environment.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything related to the subjects we discussed that I should have asked you but didn’t, or otherwise, that you believe that my readers and the public need to know (besides “buy and read the book “Whose Freedom“, which I heartily recommend!)?
George Lakoff: What we have found out in studying biconceptuals– those who can simultaneously hold conservative and progressive views in different areas– is critical. Many of these people have what we would consider progressive views, yet self-identify as conservatives.
There are areas where we can reach out to these people, Conservatives love the land, for example, but they should not be approached in environmental language (like “sustainability”). There are many people in this category who self-identify as “Christians”, but they are progressive Christians and not conservative Christians– they believe in helping the poor, for example, and they want to live in progressive communities. As business people, they are honest business people, and make it a point to engage in ethical business practices.
But these people don’t see themselves as progressives in those areas. Progressives need to see these people– perhaps a third of the country– and reach out them.
The Talking Dog: On behalf of myself and my readers, thank you to Professor Lakoff for that informative and eye-opening interview.