Thursday, May 11, 2006

Book Review: Don't Think Of An Elephant

George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist at Berkeley, believes he knows why conservatives have been so successful in recent years and how progressives like himself can beat them at their own game.

In this book, Lakoff examines the ways conservatives in America use language to create "frames," phrases fully loaded with significance from the American collective cognitive unconscious. He shows how he believes this misappropriation of language creates the context for discussion amongst candidates, parties, and in the media, rather than the real issues. He asserts that progressives and others committed to full public discourse must learn when it is used, and how to use it themselves to level the playing field.

Admittedly simplistic, Lakoff distills the fundamental distinction between Republicans and progressives to their differing familial views of the world, the former adhering to a "strict father" model of family while the "nurturant parent" construct guides the latter's policies.

The world is a dangerous place, according to the strict father model, in which each person is a winner or a loser in the universal arena. Children are born bad and achieving a place in the winners circle requires the presence of a strong father who will discipline them as needed. Obedience from children is critical to their development of the discipline necessary to be winners and, thus, physical punishment is an appropriate means of securing that obedience. A "good" child is obedient, does what is "right" (as defined by the strict father) and grows up to be a prosperous adult, rewarded monetarily for these virtues. Anyone who has money, therefore, deserves to have money because he is good and disciplined whereas those who are poor are poor because they are undisciplined, "spoiled" children. Welfare and other social programs only inhibit the undisciplined child from learning goodness while stealing rightful earnings from the good, disciplined people. "Spare the rod, spoil the child" is the anthem of the right wing.

Contrasting this "frame" is the nurturant model, which is gender neutral. People guided by this model believe that both parents play an equal role in shaping the child, who is born good and can be made better with the caring of her parents. Empathy and responsibility are the guiding values of the nurturant parents who see their moral duty as parents to raise happy, fulfilled children. Opportunity, prosperity, freedom, communication and trust are the essential values of the progressives.

Using these models to understand voting patterns, it makes sense why poor people vote Republican against their economic interests. If a poor person accepts the strict father model, the language that comes from that "frame" will ring true. The idea of a father having to go to the UN for permission to defend his family (i.e. nation) is an outrage; the goodness of the father (Bush) who only wants to teach discipline to the undisciplined children of the world (Iraq, Iran, etc.) is a given; rich people deserve their wealth because they are good, disciplined people who "sacrificed" for their earnings; two men getting married threatens the authority of the strict father; the world is bad, inhabited by pure evil (communism, fascism, terrorists, liberals, illegals, etc.), and only the strong, strict father can protect all us children from it. "Father knows best".

With this, cliches become easy substitutes for meaningful dialogue. I Support The Troops, (although your butt is sitting on a couch supporting nothing but the Cheetos factory), means you support war, you believe your father is good and honest, you believe your siblings fighting the war are noble and that you are part of a family that is pure goodness. Anyone who disagrees is disloyal to the family and should be outcast.

When rational people respond with facts and facts and more facts, it does not matter because the frame of the strict father is firmly in place. Since progressives care about empathy and want understanding, they go into lengthy explanations of facts that rarely, if ever, change the strict father frame. Remember John Kerry in the debates? Articulate, spoke English (unlike the Chimperor), clear on facts, but it did not matter. America liked Bush because he didn't use big words - strict fathers don't use big words. America liked Bush because he spoke in pithy, stupid cliches - strict fathers do not owe us children an explanation for why they do things. "Father knows best." A person trying to convince me of something and obtain my consent for it is not "strong". Think John Wayne.

This book is a must read for anyone who cares about taking America back from Goebbels' brownshirts.


The Rockridge Institute, headed by Lakoff, has more on these and other issues.


At 10:42 AM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

Hey - I like Cheetos!

I always assumed that people supported the pseudoconservatives because they were just stupid, but maybe the book has a point.

At 10:52 AM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Yeah, stupidity, mean-spiritedness and good old-fashioned greed were always my default explanations, but the book made some really good points.

At 10:58 AM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

I have felt all along, it's all about framing the discussion, and being smart about where to fight your battles.

Sometimes you have to embrace the pithy words.

All of us "support our troops", so don't debate that, embrace those words, but frame the debate. So if we both "support our troops", what actions are we proposing to truly "support them, or protect them"?

At 11:11 AM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Actually, none of us supports our troops. That is a hollow phrase that should not be used at all.

Support implies affirmative conduct toward the object of support. Putting a sticker on a car means nothing.

Imagine this scenario - a deadbeat dad is brought before a judge for failure to financially support his kids. According to the "I Support The Troops" nonsense, the father should have a complete defense by arguing, "judge, I support my kids. All over my car, I put cute, bright yellow stickers that say my kid is an honor student at his school. And I tell other people that I think my kid is doing wonderful, noble things."

No one sane would ever accept that, but somehow they accept the idea that I can support our troops by doing nothing but my usual daily routine. The only people who support the troops are those who enlist and go to Iraq. Everyone else is full of b.s.

At 11:39 AM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Reign of Reason said...

II - so true.

I cannot stand looking at the ribbons on the Hummer's here in PHX. "Yeah - you support the troops by guzzling 10 gallons of gas a day to go to/from work" ...

I'll have to pick up this read.

At 12:31 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Chris said...

"I support the troops" is, as II pointed out, pretty meaningless. But that doesn't bother me nearly as much as people saying, "I accept full responsibility." Mr. Bush "accepted full responsibility" for the deaths of the American troops in a speech once. But somehow I doubt that he's actually gone to 2,500+ parents and explained their child's death in Iraq. I doubt he's taken on the task of raising the children left behind. I doubt he's made any house payments for a dead servicemember's family. Saying "I accept responsibility" or "I support the troops" is quite simply meaningless unless you DO something about it.

I have several (two) intelligent friends who STILL support Mr. Bush. I wonder what their fathers were like...?

At 2:20 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Reign of Reason said...

Chris -- what are the reasons they give for supporting him?

I honestly find it difficult to label them "intelligent" (no offense intended) given the current state of affairs both at home and abroad.

At 4:51 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

II, my point is that "if" the public has bought the bogus line of "supporting the troops", no matter how empty it may be, you have to be smart to embrace that empty phrase such that you can frame the real discussion.

Trying to fight the concept of "supporting the troops as being hollow" by itself is a dead end, lose/lose proposition at this point.

At 6:42 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

I was being a ding-dong Mr. Sleep. What you said made perfect sense and I get your point. :-)

At 8:43 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Chris said...

RoR - The reason I heard most often before the election was "Bush is better than the alternative. What have the Democrats offered?" followed by "We're in the middle of a war, we can't change leaders now." Now what I'm hearing is "Bush is our President, we need to follow his lead" and "We shouldn't distract our leaders in time of war." This is often followed by a list of statistics stating how Mr. Clinton did such-and-such worse than Mr. Bush.

I'm not even going to begin to list the errors in that logic. But I will say that I find it terribly disheartening that I can't get them to open their minds enough to admit that life in the US is at least a little worse, a little scarier, a little more annoying that it used to be. I am ensaddened.

At 9:47 PM, May 11, 2006 , Blogger Stalin the Shark said...

Somewhat off topic, but worth noting for its sheer beauty: the chimp just hit 29% in the Wall Street Journal poll.

Not too many people are buying the crap any more, it seems. Buh-bye, chimpie.

:-), StS

At 2:57 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger jarhead john said...

Having done a tour in Iraq, I think I "support our troops" wholeheartedly. In addition, on Chris' comment, if I got my butt shot off over there, I certainly wouldn't want the President to show up at my wife's house to "console" her. I would prefer that the politicians stay as far away from my home as is humanly possible.

In regards to the post, I have to admit that I lost interest right after you mentioned that the author was from berzerkley.

In addition, I guess those of us that embrace traditional morals and small government are all mean spirited, stupid, and greedy? Methinks you have a career in the MSM ahead of you.

At 8:39 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Actually Jarhead, obedient lapdogs like yourself are better suited for the MSM. Spare me that crap about limited government and morals - no one is buying that nonsense anymore and no matter how many times you say it, Hookergate, Abramoff and a skyrocketing deficit won't disappear.

At 8:53 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...

This guy stole my book idea! I've marveled for years at how the Right Wing is so adept at word usage, and, conversely, how strained Left Wing explanations can get.

It takes a strong mind to be able to resist the seductive language of the Ring Wing American.

At 8:54 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...


Traditional Morals? What are traditional morals?

Love of Country? Ok.
Love of Family? Ok.
Marriage? Ok.
Respecting and honoring the laws of the land? Ok.
Support the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and the separation of powers between the 3 Branches of Government? Ok.
Honesty? Ok.
Hard work? Ok.
Expecting public servants to serve the public? Ok.
Look after those that put their lives on the line for the Country? Ok.
Spend only what you have? Ok.
Evaluate people by actions? Ok.
The Golden Rule? Ok.

This is a good enough list to start with. If you agree at least on this list, then that would mean you fight against those who didn't honor these values/morals.

Ok. Given this, who has fought the hardest for Veterans benefits?

Who has made a mockery of the Constitution and Bill of Rights?

Who has dragged their heels in taking aggressive steps to make sure our fighting men and women have had adequate protective body armor, and vehicle armor?

Who has lied to the American people?

Who's spending is bankrupting the Nation?

Who cares more about their lobbying check?

Who is lines the pockets of War Profiteers?

Drawing the conclusion that anybody from Brezerkly has nothing of value? Yes, that is mean spirited and stupid of you.

Your issue is not small government, your issue is small mindedness.

At 10:34 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Noisette said...

Brilliant analysis. Have you read "What's the Matter with Kansas?" - complimentary take on why people vote against their own economic self-interest. But I think your author is on to something more- the "strict father" paradigm makes a lot of sense. Ditto the view held by the right-leaning working poor that the rich deserve to be rich because they're "good." It's sort of a perversion of the American dream that anyone can "get rich" in this country regardless of birth or circumstance. I heard a report the other day saying that there's actually LESS class mobility in the US than in most countries in Western Europe. But as long as Americans keep drinking the koolaid, the GOP will have strong support.

At 10:46 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...


Thanks for stopping by. Bombs Over Baghdad's blog (TheStateOf)has a post today about "prosperity preachers" who preach that God rewards "good" people with financial success and, thus, those who are rich must be good. That also plays a huge part of the brainwashing notwithstanding Jesus' unambiguous statement that "itis easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24)

At 11:46 AM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Stalin the Shark said...

Do repug legislators debate morals and values before, during or after getting blown by hookers paid for by lobbyists?

At 1:30 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...


"During", since they can only last for 10 seconds or so, hat is all the time they have to talk about morals, or amorals :)

Hey II, since ajar-head :) was kind to visit here, you should go pay him a visit.

Ajar-head, kinda has a ring to it.

At 1:46 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

BOB (Bombs Over Baghdad), my apologies.

I've coined another phrase for a lass on ajarheads site.

BOB, very similar to SOB, but gender specific. Thought about COB, but settled with BOB.

II, I spoke too soon. Just saw there is a serious infiltration over at Ajar's site.

At 2:41 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger jarhead john said...

How typical of you to assume that since I don't profess my love for the lefty mantra, I simply MUST be a huge Bush supporter, or head over heels in love with the current government. sleepy head seems to be just as rabid as most liberals; can't quite avoid making it personal can you?

Sorry for the delay in response, Okinawa is in a slightly different time zone.

At 2:51 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...

JJ, you must of woke up, logged in and said "Holy Sheet".

The point is you traditional valueists, love to cast stones at "tree huggers", but it you silence that make you complicit with Bushco.

At 3:15 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Stalin the Shark said...

Feh. This jarhead person is the same douche that banned me from his blog for asking which corrupt repug of several he most identified with; so really, it's not that he's offended at all of the mean leftos, it's that he's got a bit of the thin skin going on.

:-), StS

At 3:15 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger jarhead john said...

Huh? Try using the English language mrsheep. You might actually make a point that way, but I doubt it.

At 3:27 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger mrsleep said...


You say something? Surely you have more wit than that.

Thought not. However your response just reinforced my point.

While it might make Lincoln turn over in his grave to have Hillary in office, it would be worth it knowing she was your commander in chief.

At 3:40 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger jarhead john said...

While just plain silly, your response was at least witty. How proud you must be.

Have as yet to see any real comments about the book, and the "evils" of instilling discipline in our children.

Oh well, boredom has set in. I say good day.

At 3:59 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Nowhere did the book say it is evil to instill values in your children. Indeed, the book makes the point that the difference in views between progressives and Republicans has to do with how the values are instilled and what values are instilled, as opposed to making a value judgment about either one.

It is you who used the word "evil" to describe your value system.

At 4:03 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Noisette said...

JJ- WOW, did you miss the point. Obviously this book is not a new "Mr. Spock on parenting." The "strict father" idea is a METAPHOR- a metaphor for a significant portion of this country's allegiance to Bush come hell or high water (literally). No one disagrees that strict parenting and discipline are important in child-rearing. Last time I checked, though, this nation was not filled with disobedient, lazy children that need a "strict father" in the form of Bush to upbraid them. Unfortunately, the good-vs-evil, "father knows best," the rich are the "good kids" angle works for the GOP, and in order to be successful, the Dems have to reframe the debate rather than trying to bring logic and facts and rational thought to the table (god forbid).
The book (as I understand it from II's review) is actually crediting the GOP with coming up with a "frame" that appeals to people, no matter how distorting and ultimately damaging it might be. I think the criticism is leveled at the American people who choose this simplistic world view over nuanced reality.

At 4:06 PM, May 12, 2006 , Blogger Noisette said...

"Dr. Spock." Ha ha- I'm mixing up my pop culture references.

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