Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff, Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction,Vermont., 2014 (pb.).
George Lakoff is a widely respected neuroscientist and political analyst whose books like “Moral Politics” and “Whose Freedoms?” have recently begun to redefine the progressive agenda and its place in the public discourse. The historical premise behind Lakoff’s interest in communicating values and ideas is the nearly half-century long conservative, corporatist and right-wing media domination of the debate over values. Lakoff argues that conservatives have won this debate by “reframing” arguments so that language comes to the aid of ideas under cover of a camouflaged “meaning”. For example, destroying social programs and reducing the size of government is accomplished under the guise of “tax relief”. Of course, everybody seems in favor of “tax relief”, though not everybody would be in favor of reducing teacher’s salaries and increasing class size in public schools; nor would most people favor destroying public education. However, conservatives, having reframed the debate of public education under the guise of “tax relief”, they’ve had enormous success ruining teacher unions and public schools, and in advancing the cause of private schools as “voucher” programs, another “reframe” in favor of “choice.”
This magnificently succinct and clearly argued book makes the point that frames are neither spin nor propaganda, but rather “real ideas” expressed in ways the human brain is suited to understand. “To change the frame is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.” Moreover, Lakoff shows how rich conservatives, corporations, and “think tanks” on the Right have seized the communications channels in order to deliver their reframed message. They have managed to get the public to have government, all the while advancing the cause of private profit at the expense of public services. “Progressives need to understand what an effective communication system is and develop one. Reframing without a system of communication accomplishes nothing. Reframing is about honesty and integrity.
One important lesson Lakoff examines comes directly from neuroscience. FACTS MATTER VERY LITTLE in winning an argument. Strangely, confirmation bias and group-think tend to obscure fact-based argument. For Lakoff, at stake is democracy itself, and a progressive value system that makes a lot of common sense, but gets trounced by Right-Wing conservative forces in the media, in law offices on K Street, and in Congress. Do you ever wonder why farmers from Kansas vote against their own self-interest? Framing is the answer.
Metaphorically, the battle is between moral systems. One moral system, a conservative one, emphasizes the “Strict Father” model of values. The other, a progressive one, emphasizes the “Nurturing Parents” model.
If you are interested in a progressive future for this country; if you are a person who treasures community, sharing, love, and commitment to the environment and social well-being, the Lakoff’s books is a very valuable resource. And every person in the Trump Resistance should read this book. We’ve been HAD by the Right. It’s time we got back into the game.