Winning Elections May Not Exactly Be Brain Surgery, but Progressives Are Paying a Lot of Attention to These Days to a Brain-Framing Expert

Not for nothing is it called neuro-linguistic programming (“NLP” to the cognoscenti). And while he isn’t necessarily viewed as one of NLP’s gurus, one of the leading postmodern brain-oriented linguists came to Texas the other day to remind us just how practical some of the suppositions of the brain-as-spokesperson inquiry have become.

George Lakoff has been a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley since 1972. He is a genuine academic political wonk. The Democratic Party has viewed him as one of its favorite brainiacs ever since party chairman Howard Dean christened him “one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement.” Since the 1980s, Lakoff has been hard at work seeking to remake much of the theory about language. In the 21st Century, he has also been striving to redo much of American politics.

Press reports from Austin said Lakoff was a bit giddy that Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards had just cautioned (on national TV, no less), “Don’t use ‘war on terror.’ It’s a bad metaphor.” Lakoff has been saying as much for several years. And Lakoff is very much the metaphor expert. Ever since his book (with Mark Johnson), Metaphors We Live By, published in 1980, Lakoff has been arguing that metaphors are more than just something we think up and give expression to. His belief is that metaphors are something vital that we must begin to think with before we can say much of anything at all.

Such a thought was bound to get him in trouble with his original mentor, MIT’s famed and controversial linguist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has argued—loudly and at length—that language skills are innate, that they are something best studied logically, not something learned. Lakoff and others who have joined him in the so-called “linguistics wars” have argued that language, since it is learned, is best studied empirically, not logically.

To understand why Lakoff would think that “war on terrior” is a bad metaphor, you must first understand a little bit about his theory of mind. “The embodied mind,” as he calls it. He dispenses with any “dualism” problem in thinking separately about mind and matter (or mind and body) by insisting that you can’t have one without the other. The most abstract kinds of higher mind thinking, he says, depend in finality on the most basic of low-level body facilities, such as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Such a viewpoint does more than elevate the importance of metaphors when it comes to thinking and speaking. It also pretty much suggests that many traditional viewpoints about human reason should be tossed onto the trash heap of once-thought-to-be-solid-ideas turned mushy.

“We are neural beings,” Lakoff has said, “Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything—only what our embodied brains permit.”

So much for steely-minded reason, equally assessible to one and all.

From that foundational viewpoint, it is only a hop, skip and jump to Lakos’ assertion that everything but purely physical reality must be described using metaphor. Why don’t we realize this? Because we just don’t see what’s happening, says Lakoff. The reason for that, he says, is that most of the metaphors underlying the “archeology” of a concept or phrase or word are so ancient as to be invisible.

The concept of “intellectual debate” provides an easy example of how a metaphor shapes language and meaning, he says.

When talking about this subject, Lakoff notes that we think and say such things as:
He won the argument.
Your claims are indefensible.
He shot down all my arguments.
His criticisms were right on target.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

It is quickly obvious that an important metaphor underlying the idea of “intellectual debate” is this one: argument is war.

But metaphors are often not that black and white. The more abstract a concept or idea is, the less likely it is that the underlying metaphors (Lakoff calls them “deep metaphors”) are obvious. Usually, like the human body itself, the underpinings of a “surface metaphor” are complicated and messy.

In an era when TV’s extreme truncation of time and attention spans have made sound bites so important for spinmeisters like ad writers, preachers and, yes, politicians, it was only a matter of time before Lakoff got around to applying his theories of language to the languaging of political ideas. He has established a progressive think-tank called the Rockridge Institute to help progressives counter the highly effective use of metaphors by conservatives. He’s written two books on “framing” ideas politically: Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. And he consults widely, which explained that recent trip to Austin, where Democrats have shown signs of mounting a post-Gov.-George-W.-Bush comeback in Texas.

Any political discussion with Lakoff quickly turns into a discussion of ideas like these:

The use of the language frames created by metaphors is largely unconscious. This is why independent journalists and progressive political thinkers themselves have used GOP-spawned metaphors like “war on terrior,” “tax relief,” and “illegals” without realizing that their doing so undermines their own views.

Frames define what is viewed as “common sense.” “Common sense” frames differ widely in people. But in getting their party’s common sense frames accepted by the media and in common discourse as the predominant frames, conservatives have been literally changing common sense, and progressives have been letting them get away with it, Lakoff says.

Repetition “embeds” frames in the brain. President Bush’s habit of repeating himself in speeches and press conferences is not accidental. His handlers are acutely aware that repeating surface frames causes the brain to latch onto and activate deeper frames. And that repeating the surface frames over and over strengthens neural connections in listeners. Says Lakoff, “The activation of conservative deep frames—the conservative moral system and the political and economic principles that follow from that—then inhibits the progressive moral system and principles.”

You don’t change deep frames overnight. That’s because brains ususally don’t change swiftly. It takes time to influence deep frames, so persistence, repetition and a good, persuasive, connected-to-real-life narrative underlying all your frames are essential.

The brain can harbor inconsistent frames or larger worldviews. This is one way of describing “swing voters,” or what Lakeoff calls “biconceptuals.” Voters in the middle have both conservative worldviews (which Lakoff says are based on a “strict father” deep frame that promotes the idea of knowing right from wrong and having a strong morality and calls for individuals to be personal responsible and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps) and progressive worldviews (based on a “nurturant parent” deep frame which encourages the viewing of problems in systemic, collective ways and encourages people to be nurturers of those around them by strengthening their competence and endurance and abilities of empathy and responsibility). As they speak to their base, Lakoff urges that progressives also remember to speak to the biconceptuals.

Facts alone will not win arguments or elections. The brain warms up to facts only if it has a frame to receive them. Says Lakoff, “The consequence is that arguing simply in terms of facts—how many people have no health insurance, how many degrees Earth has warmed in the last decade, how long it’s been since the last raise in the minimum wage—will likely fall on deaf ears.”

You can’t defuse the impact of the other side’s frames by negating them. In fact, in doing so, you run a serious risk of reinforcing them. Think of Richard Nixon’s famous line “I am not a crook.” Or Senator Joe Lieberman’s “I am not George Bush.” Or Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman.” Sometimes, though, you can turn your opponents’ frames against them. When the GOP rolled out its Contract with America in the 1990s, some Democrats scored points by urging that voters read the fine print.

So what does Lakoff want progressives to do? Start taking back metaphors or frames that they once had a monopoly on. Words and concepts and frames and metaphors like liberal, conservative, patriotism, rule of law, national security, family values and life.

For example, he says conservatives have managed to put this spin on patriotism: “Patriots do not question the president or his war policies. To do so undermines our nation and its troops. Revealing secret, even illegal, government programs is treasonous. The Constitution should be amended to criminalize political dissent in the form of flag desecration.”

To counter this, at every opportunity, progressives need to hammer home this framing of patriotism: “The greatest testament to one’s love of country is when one works to improve it. This includes principled dissent against policies one disagrees with and against leaders who promote those policies. Times of war are no exception. Our first loyalty is to the principles of our democracy that are embedded in our Constitution, not to any political leader.”

You can see why the short, stocky, grey-bearded Dr. Lakoff was a hit on his Austin visit. Progressives in Texas and elsewhere have awakened to the fact that they are often their own worst enemies because of how they talk. And George Lakoff has a fascinating take on what they’ve been doing wrong and how to fix it.

He also has a fascinating take on why Barack Obama has proven so captivating both to progressives and biconceptuals. Lakof said (as quoted by The Dallas Morning News), “[Obama's] a progressive and he never uses the word. He talks about American values. He always starts by giving the conservative argument and then he says, ‘But traditional American values require us to do something different.’”

He thinks that is great brain framing for your base and for biconceptuals!

Click on the titles below to order Lakoff’s books:
Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea
Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think
Metaphors We Live By
Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind
More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor
Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being
Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

For a review of Lakoff’s Whose Freedom and Geoffrey Nunberg’s Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, go here: Linguists on George W. Bush

For general inform on Lakoff, his writings, ideas and career: George Lakoff

For information on Lakoff’s progressive think-tank: Rockridge Institute

For article on Lakoff’s Austin appearance: Democrats refine their vocabulary

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