Home | Campaigns | About Us | Join Us | Store | Login

Sunday June 19th 2005, 10:22 pm
Filed under: General,politics,science,Truth
Written By:

George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, likes to kick off Conative Science 101 with an exercise:

“Don’t think of an elephant!”

And as his 144 page book of the same name begins, it explains that no student has ever succeeded in this. Words evoke frames: mental imprints of the thing the word represents. When you use words, you fire the neurons that store those frames in the mind of your listener.

In other words, when Lakoff says “elephant”, a mental image or sound or idea of some sort pops into the student’s mind. The elephant frame is evoked, and now that it’s there it might very well evoke other frames. “Elephant” might lead to “zoo” or “animal”, which might evoke a thousand other memories or ideas.

Evoking a frame is very powerful, and trying to negate a frame by using it is all but impossible. The first example Lakoff gives in Don’t Think of an Elephant is one of the best: In 1973, Nixon said “I am not a crook!” and immediately everyone thought of him as one.

The cover of Lakoff’s book claims it is “The Essential Guide for Progressives”, and in a way it just might be. It shows how conservatives have been utilizing the ideas it covers for decades, and how today their use of language is more powerful than ever. The first example Lakoff gives is that of “tax relief”, which not only evokes the frame that someone is afflicted, but also that there is a hero (Bush) who will rescue the innocent victims of the affliction. Meanwhile his behavior is the exact opposite: Bush takes from the poor and gives to the rich.

Social Security Reform. No Child Left Behind. The Clean Skies Initiative. All Orwellian double speak that hide the true agenda of the Bush administration.

But even as it hides the truth, the right’s use of language also reveals it. It shows their weaknesses (frames they avoid) and uncovers their strengths. We must understand these weaknesses, these strengths, and how to use framing to appeal to fundamental values that all progressives and even most conservatives share.

The book touches upon the bitter truth that those who oppose Bush and the Neocons and the destructive corporations they represent are factionalized and lack the strength of real unity. Bringing opposed groups together has been a hallmark of the Republican machinery for many years, spilling red paint into one state after another. They do it with values, and they evoke those values through framing.

But not all of the right’s values are unique to them, and neither are those of progressives. Lakoff spends much of the book discussing how the concept of family provides the metaphors for how we view societies and politics. It’s hard to grasp the true breadth of what “civilization” means, but it’s normal and quite human to understand it in terms of family relationships. Lakoff discusses two models of family: the strict father (conservative) and nurturant parent (progressive). He clearly demonstrates how conservatives have used framing to evoke values related to the strict father model, appealing even to those who are hurt by conservative policies.

By taking the power of language away from those for whom it is an Orwellian exercise and putting it into the hands of those who are interested in the common good of this planet and its people and its animals and its future, we can come together. We can frame the debate in progressive values, and we can spill some blue paint around.

Though you might not always agree with Lakoff (I didn’t), and you might sometimes wish he backed up his arguments with more hard science (for that you’ll have to read his other works, mainly Moral Politics), I guarantee that this small book will make you think, particularly about how you get the message out. Don’t use the language of your opponent, or you will evoke his frames and his values.

Sites like this are a vital part of the change we’re looking for. The blogosphere is changing everything. Together we can kill the Neocon agenda. Many thanks to Andrei for letting us all do our part here. This is a great place and it deserves to be more popular.

And if you want to read some of Lakoff’s essays that make up the book or learn more about it, check out The Rockridge Institute website.

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Well said! Among my favorite double speak examples of the current administration are the “Clean Air Act” and the “No Child Left Behind Act”. Where the CAA seems to be the path to removing any responsibility for clean air from those most responsible for destroying it. And the NCLB that makes sure that our government has complete oversight regarding our children and unfettered access to them for military recruiting. Thanks for posting on DS, as I have felt I have been shouting alone in my room for so long, it is with great relief that we can shout together in harmony and make song.

Comment by Danny Boyle 06.20.05 @ 9:55 am


First – thanks for the thanks. I am glad to see so many new voices coming onto Driving Socrates. I think we are at an exciting time, and agree with you that places like this have a key role in being the change we wish to see in the world – as they say.

Secondly – I loved this – I will be looking over the essays and entertaining a purchase of the book. I think you really touched on a central challenge we have before us. That of reclaiming the use of language. I think much of the progressive movements – in the US in particular – are fettered with a postmodern flatland where all words and ideas are equal and nothing ever suggests something is intolerable besides intolerance. So in this light, I had a few elephants of my own to offer:

-couch potatoes
-rise up

And my favorite right now…


Keep up the great blogs – your voice is both welcomed and appreciated and admired. Peace and Good Things – Andrei

Comment by andrei 06.20.05 @ 1:39 pm

Good to hear your voice on Neocon Doublespeak – this kind of information is truly the nuts and bolts of how we will dismantle these lies. Thanks.

Comment by tao 06.20.05 @ 8:07 pm

Hi, Eric – Thanks for this excellent blog. It really got me thinking about the part I play in perpetuating neoconservative frames. The dilemma I think that radicals face in a postmodern era is how to go beyond what Andrei identified as the problem – that of going beyond the postmodern flatland and using the tools of postmodernism, which is, after all our age, to fight oppression. Or is that a matter of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde)? – Sue

Comment by Sue 06.21.05 @ 9:27 am

Leave a comment
Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>