George Lakoff is a prominent cognitive scientist whose central insight (which is not to say that the idea originates with him) is that we can learn about the structure of our thoughts by looking carefully at the words we use to express them. For example, we think of time as a line, as you can see through phrases like “time line”, “looking forward”, “further in the past”, etc. Similarly, we thinking is thought of as a kind of seeing: “do you see what I mean?”, “pulled the wool over your eyes”, “as you can see from the book”, “his talk was unclear”, “that sentence is opaque”, etc.
Lakoff used these techniques to write a series of books describing the structures of various ideas (Metaphors We Live By, Philosophy in the Flesh, Where Mathematics Comes From, etc.) but after the Republican Revolution of 1994, he turned the technique on politics, resulting in his 1996 classic Moral Politics, which tries to explicate the cognitive models of Democrats and Republicans.
After the election of Bush2, Lakoff began talking about how Republicans were better at “framing”, or using language to get people to agree with them, than Democrats. Lakoff that the process goes both ways: language causes your mind to think of certain concepts which create certain pathways in your brain. Thus Republicans, he said, through massive repetition of certain phrases, were literally changing the brains of the electorate to be more favorable to them. (“If this sounds a bit scary,” he writes, “it should. This is a scary time.”)
Around the 2004 election, Lakoff skyrocketed to fame among Democrats, who were convinced by his argument that fighting Republicans required not just giving into Republican frames, but reframing the debate themselves. He rushed out the slender book Don’t Think of an Elephant, a cobbled-together guide on his basic ideas and how progressives could use them. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.
Now Lakoff is back with a more studied work, Whose Freedom?, which tries to focus in more detail on the differing views of one particular concept: freedom. Lakoff starts the book by noting that in his 2004 speech at the Republican convention, Bush used “freedom”, “free”, or “liberty” once every forty-three words. Most progressives think of this simply as a stunt — using feel-good symbols like flag and words like freedom to distract from the real issues. But Lakoff argues something much deeper is going on: Bush is trying to change the meaning of freedom itself.
So what is he trying to change it to? Right away, the book begins to fall apart. Lakoff’s definition of freedom is so broad (it encompasses democracy, opportunity, equality, fairness, education, health, the press, the market, religion, the military, academia, and privacy) as to be fundamentally meaningless: “Every progressive issue is ultimately about freedom,” he concludes. And yet freedom is kept on as the book’s organizing principle: instead of chapters about economics, religion, and foreign policy, we have the chapters “Economic Freedom”, “Religion and Freedom”, and “Foreign Policy and Freedom”.
This would be harmless if it was simply a rhetorical affectation, but Lakoff still seems to think is fundamentally about freedom. As a result, the chapters are not only weighed down with meaningless and silly attempts to connect the topic to freedom (“Life is a progressive issue, since progressive Christians are committed to promoting freedom, freedom from oppression and pain and freedom to realize one’s dreams.” — actual quote) but their actual substance is stripped bare, because it’s not discussed in its own right, but merely as an aid to the book’s discussion of freedom.
Thus instead of deriving his key theory of how family metaphors create political views, by showing how he discovered this and how it explains a lot about the world, he quickly asserts it and then tries to apply the idea to the empty void of “freedom”. The result is a book that is fundamentally vacuous — its main idea has no substance and its supporting ideas have no explanation.
And for a linguist, Lakoff has a surprisingly tin ear for language. His suggestions (like using the term “freedom judges” to respond to “activist judges”) are so bad that I assume they must not be meant to be taken literally (“judges that will fight for freedom” is more akin to what Lakoff means).
It’s unclear how the book got into this sorry state, but the good news is there’s hope. Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute has been putting out thoughtful and valuable guides on how to think and talk about various issues and they plan to publish their major work, the Progressive Manual, this summer. Let us hope that book does what this could not.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of Lakoff’s book fedexed to me before the July 4 publication date.
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June 23, 2006
“George Lakoff is a prominent cognitive scientist whose central insight (which is not to say that the idea originates with him) is that we can learn about the structure of our thoughts by looking carefully at the words we use to express them. “
That says a lot right there.
posted by Dan
on June 23, 2006 #
“Thus instead of deriving his key theory of how family metaphors create political views, by showing how he discovered this and how it explains a lot about the world, he quickly asserts it and then tries to apply the idea to the empty void of “freedom”. The result is a book that is fundamentally vacuous — its main idea has no substance and its supporting ideas have no explanation.”
This is a criticism of Lakoff similar to that which many intelligent progressives make: his ideas are either so broad or so narrow as to be hollow. The grounding for the ideas in Whose Freedom? is to be found in Moral Politics: how Liberals and Conservatives Think. Clearly, Lakoff could not compress the 400+ page Moral Politics into this rather slim volume. Look closely at what Lakoff writes about how progressives still function within a rationalist theory of mind—and how it makes it difficult for them to understand what Lakoff calls “higher reason.”
posted by Bruce
on June 24, 2006 #
In case it wasn’t clear, I think Moral Politics is great. My complaint is only that this new book isn’t.
posted by Aaron Swartz
on June 24, 2006 #
Just finished reading Whose Freedom — I picked up a copy this weekend (it was featured in the new books section of Borders).
While I don’t think it’s the equal of Moral Politics, I didn’t think it was as bad as you panned it…
In fact, the chapter breaking down GWB’s inauguration speech is a treasure, and it really should have been an early chapter, as it seems to me to be the impetus for the book. That the right wing wraps everything into a “freedom” frame, but that the “freedom” they speak of is laced with “code words” and “key phrases” that not only tap their base, actually are successful in adjusting connotative realm for the concept.
My criticism of Lakoff here is that it seems that he’s “playing defense” again. Responding to the assaults isn’t as an effective strategy as “declaring the terms of battle”. While Lakoff is on the mark regarding framing and the rhetorical instruments employed, knowing and being aware is only an initial step. I think the “ball is being dropped” if further pursuit and emphasis fails to remedy the unbalance.
IMV, a more effective approach would be:
implore those favorable to progressive cause that possess resources to focus those resources in the same (or better, improved methods) creation, nurturing and support of progressive “think tanks” centered on the “big picture” instead of issue oriented
Lakoff and his organization need to work on their web presence, and offer tools to everyone seeking… …books with general theme is nice but more pragmatic and topical essays would be a much greater benefit.
building a true network of freedom proponents — at the back of the book there are a few web sites recommended, and the ones there seem to be pure party partisans as opposed to educating and informing…
posted by naum
on June 26, 2006 #
I think everyone on the planet is running away from the Republican party , yes alot of propagnda and illegal tapping of numerous American resources have given them the power to hold the American people powerless, the only people backing the Republicans are getting paid to do so in my opinon.
posted by Jessica
on June 29, 2006 #
naum: using the same tactics as the Republicans will only allow “us” to be on par with “them”. And remember that “they” have other tactics that aren’t really at “our” disposal: smear campaigns, attack dogs, sock puppetry, …
To truly defeat “them”, not just be on par, “we” will also need totally different methods. One way forward, I think, is shown by the success of Godwin’s Law. And remember this: in my opinion, it’s a fact!
posted by bi
on July 4, 2006 #
“using the same tactics as the Republicans will only allow ‘us’ to be on par with ‘them’.”
Exactly, bi; it’ll allow us to succeed occasionally. :-)
posted by misuba
on July 5, 2006 #
misuba: won’t it be better to, um, win frequently? Besides, as I already pointed out, “we” can’t use all the tactics that “they” are using.
posted by bi
on July 7, 2006 #
Your critique is also fundamentally flawed.
GWB is trying to indoctrinate the US people of what freedom is with his rethoric. He’s trying to mold the impression in people’s minds, and connect it to a “perceived threat”.
Freedom may be something innately subjective and based on one’s experience. It is not something easily “taught”, but when you instigate fear of losing something “vital” like freedom, the emotional irrationality easily overshadows the real concept.
That seems to be Lakoff’s main message, and does not seem far from the truth, even if he fails in proving the details.
posted by A-Dollar-a-day
on July 14, 2006 #
For the benefit of readers, the Who’s Freedom? book has a chapter on how to talk to partial- conservatives, how to activate the progressive aspects of their personality. Lakoff also stresses that his book is a guide, not a campaign manual. His 2 recent paperbacks - Thinking Points and Don’t Think of An Elephant - are more geared to that end.
We must learn to express themselves in terms of progressive- friendly frames and to help to build them. Politicians can’t do it alone, otherwise they are talking to a public in words and phrases they will not accept. They must have our help to develop the language - and as you found out, it is tough mental work. The conservative right has a 30 year headstart and 40 ‘think’ tanks churning out their messages.
I’ve read five of his books, including his first. None of them have indexes and I have no idea why. It is annoying, but not so much as seeing neocom talking-points dominate a political landscape instead of reason.
posted by J. Althaus
on January 20, 2007 #
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