Framing for “radicals”
A view I often encounter is that Lakoff’s Frame Semantics is not politically “radical” enough. Take this review of Lakoff’s book, Whose Freedom? (from CounterPunch), which argues that Lakoff ignores “any facts or analyses that suggest the problems of an unjust and unsustainable world may be rooted in fundamental systems, such as corporate capitalism and the imperialism of powerful nation-states”.
CounterPunch’s reviewer, Robert Jensen, seems (to me) hostile towards Lakoff throughout, and I see indications that he hasn’t read Lakoff’s book very thoroughly (for example, he claims incorrectly that Lakoff “makes no mention” of the distinction “between negative freedom [...] and positive freedom”).
But, putting that aside, what is Jensen’s main problem with Lakoff’s approach? Jensen first makes some good points about the US Democratic party, but Lakoff’s book is not really about the Democrats (except for the illustrative examples cited). Jensen then returns to the same criticism that he started his review with:
Though this critique may seem harsh, it is a friendly one. I agree with many of the policy prescriptions that Lakoff labels as “progressive,” though I would want to push his analysis to the left and move past the predictable and uninspiring liberal ideology. I would highlight the more fundamental issues around illegitimate systems and structures of power, primarily the corporation in capitalism and the nation-state in the imperial era. (Outside the Frame, Robert Jensen)
So: “structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, the “nation-state” – these are the “fundamental” issues/systems for Jensen (and for many others who use the same terminology). Jensen writes that Lakoff’s approach is “shallow” for (allegedly) not addressing these fundamentals.
It would be easy to dismiss Jensen’s Counterpunch review as a mixture of ignorance and animosity towards Lakoff, but Jensen is a journalism professor for chrissakes, and he expresses a viewpoint which I’ve encountered with many other “radical leftist” folk who use a similar lexicon of political “fundamentals” (and with whom I probably share a lot of common ground).
So, what’s going on here?
Well, firstly, it’s worth pointing out that these “fundamentals” (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, “nation-state”) are abstract nouns. They seem useful abstractions to me, but they refer to unimaginably huge aggregations of unimaginably complex, countless human “realities”.
I’m often not sure what’s going on in my own head second by second – so don’t expect me to know what “imperialism” refers to – beyond some crude model in my brain, some metaphorical framing. (But don’t worry – whatever it is, I’m opposed to it). We tend to reify these terms.
(Note for “true radicals”: Please don’t misunderstand me here. In drawing attention to the cognitive “dangers” of such high-level abstract nouns/labels, I’m not “playing down” the very real, massive-scale bloodshed and human suffering that those who use these terms are themselves trying to draw attention to.)
And that’s where Lakoff’s work comes in. For a start, we gain a better understanding of our own internal mapping of this stuff. We become more adept at distinguishing the “map” from the “territory”. We see how our views (and those of people who oppose us), on a range of diverse topics (eg economics, international conflict, various social issues, etc), fit together from an internal “moral logic”. One example Lakoff provides to illustrate this is the question: Why, in the US, do conservative positions on, say, abortion correlate with support for capital punishment or opposition to social programmes for reducing child mortality – ie publicly-funded prenatal and postnatal care programmes for impoverished mothers? (America apparently has the highest rate of infant mortality in the industrialised world). There’s no obvious, commonsense explanation – and no other field of research has seriously attempted to provide answers (especially not empirically-based ones).
Frame Semantics, metaphorical framing, the cognitive-linguistic mapping of “political” views (whatever you want to call it) gives us rich insights into how our “moral” and “political” concepts form and function at the “deeper” levels of what the researchers call the “cognitive unconscious“. To me, there’s a beautiful irony in Robert Jensen’s evaluation of this approach as “shallow”.
Lakoff’s book in fact deals with types of framing directly relevant to Jensen’s “fundamental” issues (“structures of power”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc). Take the section on ‘Economic Freedom’ in which Lakoff writes at length on frames which form the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’ – ie the metaphorical rationale “behind” what Jensen calls the “structures of power” and “corporate capitalism”.
For example, this myth unites the following ideas in a complex moral frame:
- “Free markets are natural and moral”
- “Competition naturally maximises efficiency”
- “Private industry is more efficient than government”
- “Regulation reduces market efficiency”
- “Everybody with sufficient discipline can succeed”
- “Market discipline is natural; regulation is unnatural”
Lakoff shows how these moral-economic frames tend to accompany other ‘conservative’ positions on seemingly unrelated matters (eg foreign policy, war, “domestic” issues such as welfare, etc) in a systemic way. Unlike the rhetoric-heavy “radical” churnalism which is so often found on the pages of CounterPunch, it’s based to a large extent on empirical work, eg research in conceptual metaphor – a truly “radical” field (in the sense of new, original, groundbreaking and “getting to the roots” of things).
Perhaps if Lakoff hadn’t done this pioneering work – perhaps if he’d just stuck to repeating reified terms (“structures of power”, “Power-elites”, “corporate capitalism”, “imperialism”, etc), and citing evidence proving that these abstract nouns refer to the major destructive “forces” on the planet (not difficult to do, really) – then perhaps smart, deeply radical guys like Robert Jensen would welcome him with open arms: One Of Us.
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