Lakoff in Guardian
Feb 5, 2014 – Just a brief post to: a) point to a smart Guardian piece on George Lakoff’s ideas, and b) express my frustration (ranty prose ahead) at the level of ignorance/idiocy on the topic of framing that I see in feedback on newspaper comments sections, Twitter etc.
I’ve found Twitter useful for searches. For example, a search on “lakoff” brought up tweets linking to Zoe Williams’s new Guardian article (well worth taking the time to read). Unfortunately, the same search brings up an assortment of not-so-knowledgeable reactions to the article, and to Lakoff’s ideas in general.
It’s the same with the “post a response” sections underneath online newspaper articles. Tom Hodgkinson (editor of The Idler) recently put it this way:
“At the foot of the article sat a collection of ‘comments’ by the usual collection of morons. Anyone who believes in the democratization of journalism should check out the dimwits who gather ‘below the line’. The Telegraph ones seemed even more big-headed and stupid than the Guardian ones, if that’s possible.” *
Zoe Williams’s article states that Lakoff prescribes “the abandonment of argument by evidence in favour of argument by moral cause”, which is understandable within the context of Lakoff’s cognitive-linguistics work on how we think (eg in political frames). But to someone who isn’t familiar with Lakoff’s academic books, and the emphasis he places on empirical research, the notion of abandoning “argument by evidence” (and the notion that “facts” “weaken” political beliefs) probably confirms their ignorance-derived suspicions that framing subverts “reason” in a bad way. Indeed, the first response to Williams’s article was this:
Interestingly, the Guardian article attracted less than 50 comments – low compared to the number Zoe William’s articles usually get. That’s probably because it was hidden away in the ‘Philosophy’ section of the Guardian site, rather than in the more-publicised ‘Comment is Free’ area – a strange decision by whoever was responsible (it’s happened before with Lakoff-themed pieces) given that the article seems more topical and comment-worthy than much of the frivolous space-filler published in CiF. Williams’s article was also posted (pirated? stolen?) at the “independent” media sites, AlterNet and The Raw Story, where, in both cases, it attracted several hundred comments (many of them as stupid and/or ignorant as the ones you get at online corporate media). I hope those sites pay Zoe something for her work, or at least asked her permission to publish.
Moving back to Twitter. One of my “lakoff” searches brought up the following:
It turns out that both of these Tweeters write for the Guardian and New Left Project (and one of them follows me on Twitter). So I can’t quickly dismiss such remarks as ignorant Twitterish. But I find it a tad frustrating: you don’t have to read the complete Lakoff oeuvre to see that he doesn’t “ignore” those things mentioned in the tweet. Probably just one of his books is sufficient to show that. To dig deeper, there’s a rich treatment of the “libertarian-authoritarian axis” in his work on moral politics. The academic work on conceptual metaphor, prototype and narrative will likely give you more new insights into the “difference between sales pitch and product” than you’ll find in 99.9% of political commentary (including the “radical left” variety).
As for “ignoring” “big money”, the irony is that Lakoff’s political books (Whose Freedom, Don’t Think of an Elephant, etc) seem motivated by his concern precisely at the way “big money” – via the giant, massively-funded rightwing messaging machine, acting through the mass media – has managed to shape our thinking for decades, at the level of what we think of as “common sense”. This is a constantly recurring theme in Lakoff’s books, together with his treatment of “free market” ideology and what he calls the ‘Economic Liberty Myth’.
Note: If you were perplexed by the notion of making evidence and facts less prominent in political argument, I’d recommend the following passages from Lakoff’s Thinking Points, to give a flavour of what he is saying:
We think and reason using frames and metaphors. The consequence is that arguing simply in terms of facts—how many people have no health insurance, how many degrees Earth has warmed in the last decade, how long it’s been since the last raise in the minimum wage—will likely fall on deaf ears. That’s not to say the facts aren’t important. They are extremely important. But they make sense only given a context. […]
We were not brought up to think in terms of frames and metaphors and moral worldviews. We were brought up to believe that there is only one common sense and that it is the same for everyone. Not true. Our common sense is determined by the frames we unconsciously acquire […] The discovery of frames requires a reevaluation of rationalism, a 350-year-old theory of mind that arose during the Enlightenment. We say this with great admiration for the rationalist tradition. It is rationalism, after all, that provided the foundation for our democratic system. […] But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
We know that we think using mechanisms like frames and metaphors. Yet rationalism claims that all thought is literal, that it can directly fit the world; this rules out any effects of framing, metaphors, and worldviews. We know that people with different worldviews think differently and may reach completely different conclusions given the same facts. But rationalism claims that we all have the same universal reason. Some aspects of reason are universal, but many others are not—they differ from person to person based on their worldview and deep frames.
We know that people reason using the logic of frames and metaphors, which falls outside of classical logic. But rationalism assumes that thought is logical and fits classical logic.
If you believed in rationalism, you would believe that the facts will set you free, that you just need to give people hard information, independent of any framing, and they will reason their way to the right conclusion. We know this is false, that if the facts don’t fit the frames people have, they will keep the frames (which are, after all, physically in their brains) and ignore, forget, or explain away the facts.
If you were a rationalist policy maker, you would believe that frames, metaphors, and moral worldviews played no role in characterizing problems or solutions to problems. You would believe that all problems and solutions were objective and in no way worldview dependent. You would believe that solutions were rational, and that the tools to be used in arriving at them included classical logic, probability theory, game theory, cost-benefit analysis, and other aspects of the theory of rational action.
Rationalism pervades the progressive world. It is one of the reasons progressives have lately been losing to conservatives. Rationalist-based political campaigns miss the symbolic, metaphorical, moral, emotional, and frame-based aspects of political campaigns.
* From Hodgkinson’s Register, mailed on 29/10/13.