Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the “war on terror” and other conservative catchphrases

I don’t remember if I’ve talked about George Lakoff of this blog before or not, but it’s certainly better late than never. I guess thinking the same the, NewsCenter posted another conversation with him yesterday, “Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the “war on terror” and other conservative catchphrases. (They interviewed him in October 2003 also.)

I highly recommend that you read both of those posts. Becoming familiar with his work is without doubt one of the most influential things that happened in my life of the past year. It’s really fantastic work, “Framing”, “‘nurturant parent’ model versus the conservative ’strict father’ model” [articulated in Lakoff's "Moral Politics," and briefly discussed here].

Here are some of the better quotes from yesterday’s article:

…I wrote a chapter on what unites progressives — a moral system, certain political principles, and what I call policy directions as opposed to policies. A policy direction is something like “Let’s have a sustainable environment” and “Working people shouldn’t be living in poverty” and “Everybody should have health care.” The problem is that the Democrats have wanted to talk about programs rather than policy directions, and programs call up distinctions, which tend to separate people. For example, Kerry should be talking about health care for everyone, and just put a white paper with the details of the program on his website. The values, principles, and general directions are what people care about and what brings them together. It’s pointless to argue about the policy-wonk details, because they’re going to change anyway.

In another chapter I tell progressives how to talk to conservatives. This is not rocket science: you should show respect, know your values, always reframe, and say what you believe. The important thing is not to accept their framing of the issues, nor just negate their framing — that just reinforces it. Simply confronting them with facts won’t help. Frames trump facts. The facts alone will not set you free. You have to reframe the issues before the facts can become meaningful and powerful.

The New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act — these too are all products of progressive, liberal values. They represent advances of the nurturant parent model versus the conservative “strict father” model. These movements are also seen as stemming from traditional American values, part of our shared heritage. So, when you start looking at what this country is rightfully proud of, it’s the extension of progressive values. And it’s time to say that loud and clear.

The important thing is not to accept their framing of the issues, nor just negate their framing — that just reinforces it. Simply confronting them with facts won’t help. Frames trump facts. The facts alone will not set you free. You have to reframe the issues before the facts can become meaningful and powerful.

Conservatives have branded liberals, and the liberals let them get away with it: the “liberal elite,” the “latte liberals,” the “limousine liberals.” The funny thing is that conservatives are the elite. The whole idea of conservative doctrine is that some people are better than others, that some people deserve more. To conservatives, if you’re poor it’s because you deserve it, you’re not disciplined enough to get ahead. Conservative doctrine requires that there be an elite: the people who thrive in the free market have more money, and they should. Progressives say, “No, that’s not fair. Maybe some should have more money, but no one should live in poverty. Everybody who works deserves to have a reasonable standard of living for their work.” These are ideas that are progressive or liberal ideas, and progressives aren’t getting them out there enough.

What progressives are promoting is not elite at all. Progressives ought to be talking about the conservative elite. They shouldn’t be complaining about “tax cuts for the rich,” they should be complaining about “tax cuts for the conservative elite,” because that’s who’s getting them.

You’ve said that progressives should never use the phrase “war on terror” — why?

There are two reasons for that. Let’s start with “terror.” Terror is a general state, and it’s internal to a person. Terror is not the person we’re fighting, the “terrorist.” The word terror activates your fear, and fear activates the strict father model, which is what conservatives want. The “war on terror” is not about stopping you from being afraid, it’s about making you afraid.

Next, “war.” How many terrorists are there — hundreds? Sure. Thousands? Maybe. Tens of thousands? Probably not. The point is, terrorists are actual people, and relatively small numbers of individuals, considering the size of our country and other countries. It’s not a nation-state problem. War is a nation-state problem.

Really, it’s all great stuff. Check it out.