flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
[personal profile] flwyd
Any progressive activist and anyone involved in the Democratic Party who has not read Don't Think of an Elephant! should put it very near the top of their to-do list, above any political action that's longer-term than "this week." It's short and practical, so it can be read in a day or you can read an essay-chapter each day and be done in two weeks. Many of the key insights also appear in articles on the author's blog, so you can start there.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley. I first encountered his work in Metaphors We Live By, a fairly academic book which argued that metaphors aren't just manners of speech, they actually provide structure to how we think and form a framework through which we perceive the world. This led him to research on frames, "mental structures that shape the way we see the world" and investigations on how liberals and conservatives think and the frames they use. He published Don't Think of an Elephant in 2004 as an accessible and practical guide for progressives to understand how people make political choices, why conservatives are much better at framing than progressives are, and what the left needs to do in order to activate progressive frames in the minds of voters. The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! is a 2014 edition which adds chapters and updates many of the essays to cover political developments during the second Bush term and the Obama presidency.

Frames help us make sense of the information we receive. For instance, the frame "Countries are rational actors" provides us tools for interpreting international relations and actions of governments. Given that frame, a speech by a particular politician or an attack by an army is evaluated as though it's a single person (the country) following a considered strategy. An alternate frame, say "Countries are herds of animals," would lead to a different conceptualization of the same presented facts, like an assumption of acting on instinct and a focus on the power dynamics within a government.

Frames are wired into our brains: the more often the language associated with a frame gets activated, the stronger the neural linkages become. When information is presented which doesn't jive with the frames in our brain, cognitive dissonance results. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, so we tend to resolve the situation by rejecting the information or selectively reinterpreting it so that it can form a narrative supported by the frame.

The most important insight in the book is that people don't vote based on a list of policies and they don't necessarily even vote for their rational self-interest. They vote for candidates whose message activates the frames that drive their values. People aren't swayed by facts, they're swayed by narratives that resonate.

Lakoff identifies the major frames for political values as the "strict father model" and the "nurturant parent model." The former leads to values like law-and-order policing, military power, and "tough love" economic policies. The latter leads to values like restorative justice, soft power diplomacy, and opportunity-focused economics. Everyone has both frames in their brain to some degree, and political ideology reflects the frame which is stronger, or is present in more aspects of their life. He also talks about "biconceptuals," folks that have a balance of both models, the cognitive version of "swing voters."

The family models do a great deal to explain why positions which seem to be logically unrelated are so correlated in the political sphere. Why do so many folks both oppose gay marriage and support use of military force to achieve foreign policy objectives? Corporal punishment (or the threat thereof) is how order is established in a strict-father family, and gay marriage violates the whole premise of a strict-father family, because there's either no father (two women) or no single father figure (two men). Why do so many folks oppose firearm ownership and support public education? In a nurturative-parent family, providing opportunity to kids has a very high value (free public school provides opportunity even to kids whose parents don't have any resources) and guns represent violence, which is anathema to the protection and nurture values.

Conservative elites, starting with Barry Goldwater and the Powell Memo, have spent several decades carefully experimenting with ways to frame their policy goals so that they will resonate with the values frames of American voters. Progressives and liberals, on the other hand, have not had an organized approach to framing and tend to run on a set of specific policies, not on a set of values. Since the left haven't developed language to activate frames, they tend to use the frames provided by conservatives. This is self-defeating, because repeating the conservative framing of an issue activates the same neural pathways, even if the idea is negated (hence the title of the book). For instance, conservatives developed the phrase "tax relief," which activates a metaphor of taxes as a burden. If a liberal says "I'm against tax relief," it reinforces the idea that taxes are burdensome and the voter is left wondering why the politician is in favor of burdens. If the liberal instead recast the issue in their own frame–"I think the wealthy should contribute their fair share"–it would activate the frame that tax is a shared investment in society.

Lakoff advocates for progressives to rethink how they present their ideas. He urges the left to shift from talking about facts and policies to talking about values, principles, and policy directions. He instructs people to affirm the progressive world view rather than use the negated language of the conservative world view. He tells politicians to stop focusing on policy polls and start presenting a coherent narrative. And he recommends the left invest–intellectually and financially–in creating organizations (think tanks and so on) devoted to finding ways to frame progressive values in ways that resonate with American voters. This is a long-term investment: the right has spent over four decades building their current ideological power position and the left can't suddenly adjust the neural circuitry of the public next month or even this year. But the longer progressives wait, the more they'll lose ground and the harder it will be to make progress.

The book's final chapter, "How to Respond to Conservatives," has some solid tactical advice, including showing respect, remaining calm, and positively reframing the issue. It ends with the crystalized guidelines: "Show respect; Respond by reframing; Think and talk at the level of values; Say what you believe." His approach is good for spreading the progressive world view, but I think there is occasion to use the frames of the "other side." When you're working on a specific policy measure like climate change or health care, it's important to have allies on both sides of the spectrum–this eases passage of an initiative and makes it less likely it will be repealed when the legislative balance of power shifts. Shifting a Republican member of congress from a strict-father model to a nurturative-parent model is a long game indeed, but convincing the same representative that climate change is a threat to national security or that it will create an undue burden on business might get an important piece of legislation passed. This is also communication that can be more focused: a letter to a legislator can be tailored to resonate with the specific framing a person has demonstrated whereas a letter to the editor tries to activate the framing of thousands of different people.

My goal in reading this book was to improve my ability to communicate with people who don't share my worldview, and it definitely helped. I'm someone who's immersed in facts and tend to overcommunicate details. This is important when figuring out how to create software or working with scientists to learn how the world works. But it's a hopeless technique for reaching non-experts, and by necessity most politicians, and certainly most voters, are not experts on a vast majority of subjects. I intend to do work to verbalize my own values and organize them into a coherent story, one which I hope can inspire folks who are already on my side, resonate with folks who aren't there yet, and help folks with a strict-father model empathize with the nurturative values.
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