Don’t Think of George Lakoff

Leave your neuroscience out of my rhetoric

It is not hard to understand the appeal of George Lakoff’s pamphlet Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff provides a couple of sensible frameworks to hang the entirety of conservative and progressive agendas on to help make sense of them as complete projects. He makes a sincere effort to make the conservative agenda legible to progressives who are baffled by it. He makes the concept of metaphorical framing accessible to non-linguists. The bulk of the book is spent explaining the purpose of framing and to demonstrate in quite specific terms how conservatives do it and how progressives can learn to do it. He is especially keen on demonstrating how to talk about progressive values in the same kind of terms, freedom and liberty, that conservatives use to spread their message, in order to better reach swing voters. His plainly earnest desire is that progressives exert greater rhetorical pressure on culture in order to make explicit aspects of the progressive agenda that are sadly latent rather than active, so that progressives can be more effective in elections and in governing. It is also short, which in this day and age is also an important feature for a piece of writing.

The core idea Lakoff is trying to explain to progressive voters and politicians is the power of metaphorical framing. A frame is an extended metaphor that supplies the language for talking about values and policy directions. For Lakoff, conservatives use the language of and think in terms of a strict-father, and he explains how that metaphor plays out in their policy world. He counterposes that with the nurturant family metaphor that animates progressive values and policies. Lakoff explains how conservatives use framing to create and exploit identities in a hyperpartisan landscape and why so many voters plainly vote against their best interests. Lakoff makes framing sound really science-y with talk 0f neural patterns, repeating frequently that thoughts themselves have literal physical pathways, and how conservative and liberal brains are different (we’ve all seen those headlines — Lakoff is a bit more sophisticated about it, but not much). It is also plainly insufficient.

Lakoff has a long history of insisting that metaphor and thought are guided by lived in experience (cf Philosophy in the Flesh) and he emphasizes the physicality of thought. He repeatedly offers up the notion that the physical neural patterns of conservatives and progressives are different and that it is hard to think outside of the physical patterns of thought. It is way too easy to read this as more meaningful than it is. “Conservative brains are different” is tautological with “Conservatives think differently.” There is no meaningful difference between those statements. Lakoff himself makes this mistake, wildly overstating how omnipresent and preternatually effective Fox News is beyond their sphere with statements like “Conservative message dominates everyday discourse” which is, um, not even close to true. When his focus on the brain and neural pathways, Lakoff misses the cultural machinery, the collective memory and exercise of conceptual frameworks, that shapes how people think. Where did you get that strict father metaphor from? It is not a free floating idea that is just in there in everyone’s brains from birth. Someone gave it to you. It got there because of how you grew up, were educated, and the media you consume. Thoughts are linguistic before they are physical. You cannot think without words. You cannot have words without language. You do not have language communities without culture. Culture, a massive collection of the seeds of any form of metaphor, is what explains the effectiveness of framing. One does not need to be a neuroscientist to analyze effective rhetorical practice and its cultural antecedents, though you might need to be a neuroscientist to miss them.

Neural pathways aside, Lakoff nails Fox News (which I’m going to use metonymically, part for the whole, to represent the conservative media empire and extended blogosphere because it’s a lot faster to type), describing its primary activity as seeding the minds of the people consuming the media and constantly shaping what and how people see the world to perpetuate an ideology, which can, I agree, usefully be understood through the lens of the strict-father frame (which is a less judgy way of saying, um, patriarchy, I guess). We diverge when Lakoff wishes that progressive media, whoever that may be, would offer a similarly potent and consistent language and more effectively seed and stoke progressive ideology, substituting the nurturant frame and the policy prescriptions that result from that way of thinking. In a FAQ buried at the back of the book, Lakoff attempts to distinguish between framing, which is sensible, indeed, inevitable rhetorical practice and propaganda. For Lakoff, propaganda is cynically using framing to promote a known false idea for political purposes. It is unclear to me why Lakoff does not view the activities of Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and Fox News as propaganda, other than generosity of spirit, but I certainly am not interested in progressives adopting that kind of behavior.

“[T]he Bush administration has managed to convince 40 precent of the American people about [it] just by asserting it.” Lakoff spends no time on this sentence but it encapsulates everything about how far beyond framing the conservative cultural machine has come. When people believe something almost as soon as that utterance is asserted, then they did not need convincing. Framing makes ideology palatable by making abstract ideas and nerdy details digestible. The culture machinery that makes the assertion by one party (the Bush administration is not the operative party here, Fox News is) sufficient for them to believe it has no need to make something palatable, that work is long since done. Lakoff assumes that most people are operating in a neutral ideological environment deciding between relatively balanced points of view and that framing tips the balance for swing voters. But Fox News has obliterated the existence of a neutral ideological environment, especially for its core viewers. The conservative media establishment exists as a coherent, almost hermetically sealed universe. What began as a business opportunity to take advantage of the reaction to the perceived dominance of liberalism in the American academic landscape, is now a full fledged propaganda machine. Spending 40 years creating fallow cultural soil for progressive ideas is not even close to the right prescription for what America needs right now and it certainly should not replicate the conservative model.

According to Lakoff, the progressive model of distributed cultural ideas focused on actionable policy ideas is frustratingly lacking in unity and apparently lacks the rudimentary ability to craft meaningful and resonant frames for their long term project. However, if you view rhetorical strategies as having ethical content, then the lack of a coherent ideological program isn’t an unfortunate accident of progressive underestimation of the Fox News-o-sphere; it stands as a counterpoint to it. It is not a failure because it doesn’t produce the same kind of followers as the conservative media, who like I don’t know, Donald Trump, believe something because Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly said it. Fox News offers a series of consistent talking points across multiple platforms with remarkable consistency because of the strict father frame, because they are acting in the interests of the patriarchy. Progressives should not adopt that messaging model because that model is a betrayal of their values and the policies they pursue. Or we pursue. Or whatever.

Lakoff’s model sets up two poles: the strict father frame conservatives and the nurturant frame progressives, and the inbetweens, the folks Lakoff wants progressives to reach better by using their framing more effectively. He calls these tweeners “biconceptuals,” a word that is so silly that I can’t even type it without rolling my eyes, because they have both sets of frames in their brains. As a rough description of the modern American electoral landscape goes, this is fine, a different lens to use when thinking about Republicans, Democrats, and swing voters. Lakoff frequently insists that, more than anything Don’t Think of an Elephant should be seen as a guide for how to reach, ahem, biconceptuals (some editor must have spent hours trying to talk Lakoff out of that neologism). As a description of the ideological complexity of cultural patterns and political desires in real people in the United States, this model is grossly inadequate. Lakoff gives waaaaay to much credit to Fox News as a center of conservative thought. The single greatest political science problem in the United States today is the lack of a political home for the center-right (Hillary made a play for them, as any progressive will tell you, but it didn’t quite work and that was not about framing). Even if you buy the strict father frame (really can’t use the word patriarchy, George?), you cannot explain the difference between David Brat, Paul Ryan, and John McCain within this model and that matters desperately for the future of the Republican Party, which doesn’t represent just a particular type of conservative. In this sense, Lakoff is repeating the mistake he wants progressives to correct: he is accepting Fox News’ terms of the cultural debate (as a biconceptual, *snort*, I absolutely do not). Second, the Democratic Party contains many progressive people, but it is not at all the center of the progressive movement. Again, if you want to make progressive policies the law of the land, then it is quite necessary to grasp why the Democratic messaging machine isn’t as good as Fox News, which Lakoff tries to do, and why that matters, which Lakoff fails to even recognize as a necessity. So while Lakoff identifies rhetorical strategies that emanate from a conceptual framework but he does not dig deeper into the meaning or ethical function of those rhetorical strategies. Yes, progressives should use their own language, but they should also use their own rhetoric and cultural practice. The distributed power structures that progressives want to embed in society are different, and from my perspective, more ethical and in keeping with a functioning democracy, than the Fox News version of conservative messaging, however effective it appears to be. Ultimately, Don’t Think of an Elephant fails for me because Lakoff doesn’t even recognize the need to explore these ethical considerations or to address the connection between culture and rhetorical strategies, even though I broadly agree with Lakoff’s politics and articulation of progressive values. And hey, at least we are talking about rhetorical strategies at all. It’s a place to start.