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.