Lakoff, progressives, and framing arguments

published: 2006-02-10 16:06:03 UTC

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff illustrates how the US conservatives have dominated every debate in US politics by framing the arguments they represent. Lakoff argues that by controlling the way arguments are perceived, the debate can be swayed your way. The language used evokes a frame of reference in your head. By saying to someone “Don’t think of an Elephant!” the mind immediately invokes the elephant, the grey tough skin, the large ears and trunk. The word elephant is associated with that frame. But importantly, even if we negate that frame, we evoke the frame.

Lakoffs first example is a short and tangible one:

Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV. He stood before the nation and said, "I am not a crook." And everybody thought about him as a crook. This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are arguing against the other side, Do not use their language.

The book is interesting because it gives a plausible insight into how Republican think-tanks have controlled debate, by drawing Democratic politicians into their world-view. By forcing them to use Republican language, even when negating or giving their own version of a frame, the simple of the language frames and reinforces the Republican world-view. Most pertinently for a Brit, it sets out to explain why the majority of US can agree that the war in Iraq is to do with terrorism and worryingly 9/11, even though the justification to go to war was a fabrication and that the moderate Saddam Hussein and fundamental Bin Laden despise each other. Lakoff suggests that the language of Bush invoked language which framed ideas already in peoples head.

I’ll let you discover the numeral examples yourself, but my own example illustrates this context:

Contrast "Iraq has no weapons of mass-destruction" with "Iraq is defenceless".

Mass-destruction and weapons invokes a different image to defenceless. Yet both say the same thing.

The book, although politically written, highlights why many people can support positions which are not in their interest or aren’t specifically true. The issue of framing is not only important in politics. In the recent Skepdic newsletter, Prof Robert Carroll surveys area in which rational enquiry has been trapped into arguing within the wrong frame. This includes a personal favorite - Intelligent Design (framed by arguing the theory of evolution). Read the newsletter by clicking here.