Janus_coinI had the opportunity earlier this month to hear the American academic George Lakoff talk, at a TUC event on the future of welfare. Lakoff, who’s at the University of Berkeley in California, has studied how we shape and understand our political views, and he’s probably best known here for his short book Don’t Think of An Elephant. (The minute you start trying not to think about it, you’re thinking about it, which I’ll come back to later).

He’s not a typical academic: almost the first thing he told us was that neither of his parents went to high school (secondary school).

Anyway, the most important thing to know about his work is that it’s based on neuroscience and that once you have heard him explain it, this changes the way you think about political language and political discourse.

Every thought is physical

There are several building blocks to his work.

  • The first is that “Every thought you have is physical”, meaning that it is produced by neural circuitry.And what this means is that an individual can’t understand anything that doesn’t fit the neural circuits of their brain.
  • The second is that all politics is moral. (And the role of political language is to make the moral basis of politics explicit).
  • The third is that morality is in one part of the brain, and detail is in another part of the brain.
  • The fourth is that there is no middle ground. There are conservatives and progressives, and – at both ends of the spectrum there are people with some elements of ‘conflicting’ thought (e.g. progressives with a subset of conservative views, and vice versa.) But the notion of the ‘middle ground’ in politics is plain wrong.
  • The fifth is that there are ‘mutual inhibitors’ in the brain; if you turn on a receptor to a particular thought, you turn off the receptors that might entertain an opposing thought. The more receptors get used, the stronger they get. And vice versa. And when you try to negate a ‘frame’ that’s used by an opponent, all you do is strengthen the frame.

Family metaphors

In short, then, progressives and conservatives think in different ways about what is right. This insight isn’t unique to George Lakoff; it’s also the argument made by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind. In the States, this translates into different mental models of the family, a discourse that runs through American political language (Founding Fathers, Daughters of the Revolution, sending sons and daughters to war, homeland security). For conservatives, that family is a strict family, for progressives it is a nurturing family.

The history he told about the rise of the conservative hegemony – in terms of framing – in the US is that it started in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson humiliated the Republican right-winger, Barry Goldwater, in the Presidential election (Johnson got 62% of the vote, Goldwater 37%). Richard Nixon, Goldwater’s successor as Republican candidate, decided to do something about this. So the Vietnam war protestors were re-positioned as “communists”; feminists were positioned as being against “traditional family values”; the civil rights movement was (irony of ironies) positioned as being against law and order. He created a version of conservative populism in which the “liberal elite” were the enemy. The result: generations of (white) working class voters who voted their instincts instead of their pocket books – and, of course, got flat or declining household incomes for 30 years.

Framing the discourse

So, as Lakoff observes, in the US the conservatives have been using frames for more 40 years. And they work hard at it: they’re not stupid, they just happen to have a moral framework which makes little sense to progressives. And people like Frank Luntz are highly skilled at the business of framing discourses to suit a conservative worldview. Progressives don’t tend to work at this, partly because they have an ‘enlightenment’ view of the world in which people respond to reason.

So, by way of a more recent example, George W. Bush on the idea of “tax relief” – actually a huge government handout to the rich. He started talking about it early in his Presidency and kept talking about it every day until it had become the dominant story about tax. “Relief”, as Lakoff observed, is a feeling you get when you take away the pain. In contrast, although Ed Miliband does seem to get the idea, he doesn’t yet get the “dripping tap” part of it. Lakoff pointed out that his June speech had a number of good frames in it. And each was mentioned once.

Switching the debate

For political discourse, there are some simple but sharp lessons. The most important one is that “Facts and figures mean nothing unless you frame them. It is important to say why every number matters”. And you win debates, as every high school debater knows, by switching the content of the debate into your “frame”.

Lakoff ran through a few examples from current discourse. Carbon tax sounds like an imposition, but a citizen rebate is a good thing. “Living wage” is OK, but “fair wage” is better. “Contribution” is a good word (and especially things “earned by contribution”) but “entitlement is a terrible word. Never use it.”

And one clear success story: equal marriage (not gay marriage). It happened that Lakoff had advised the equal marriage campaign in the States, and he ran through the main principles of the way the campaign was framed:

  • “Equal marriage”, not gay marriage
  • Love, not sex
  • Taking responsibility
  • Making commitment

“And then”, he added, “we said to the conservatives, now come out against it.”

Frames and filter bubbles

While a lot of this makes sense, it does open up some difficult issues. The fact that Lakoff was speaking against the backdrop of the US government shutdown speaks to some of these. While the US political system has its own distinctive peculiarities the shutdown is what happens when frames over-ride evidence, and, indeed, frame-based politics capture political parties.

If one of the problems of politics in a net-based age is the rise of “filter bubble“, frames exacerbate that. And while Lakoff would argue that the frame is not a substitute for proper discussion of political and public outcomes (and the moral basis for these), in the hands of more unscrupulous operators it turns politics into a battle of soundbites in which the mark of success is how well your whistle can round up your supporters: the politics not so much of the dog whistle as the sheepdog trial.

It turned out, by the way, that the TUC’s conference on “welfare” was misnamed. Ruth Lister, now a Labour peer, asked if Lakoff agreed that we should instead be talking about “social” and “security”. “You’re right on that”, he shot back.

The image at the top of this post is from Wikimedia, and is used with thanks.