Lakoff and the language of politics

I forgot to blog about this amazing talk i went to last week. I’ve been desperately wanting to take a class with George Lakoff after reading only a part of Women Fire and Dangerous Things. Sadly, that has yet to happen. But when i found out he was talking in Berkeley about the language of (Republican) politics, i rushed through grading to make it to his talk. OMG. I am *so* glad i went. It has to be the most memorable and amazing talk i’ve been to in ages.

He opened by being adorable, noting that he’s a professor and teaches seminars – 15 people sitting around a table discussing not huge scary lecture halls, let alone churches full of an attentive paying audience. He notes that if this many people showed up to hear a linguistics professor talk, he has more confidence in November 2 than he thought.

He next talks about how the Republicans spend some billion dollars on think tanks each year – 43 think tanks, one created about each year, all started in 1970 by one of Nixon’s people. Large amounts of research go into linguistics and how we use language. They train Republicans to use language as a powerful tool. Democrats don’t do this.

He then talks about intro cog-sci. Don’t think of an elephant. Of course, you think of an elephant. You need to realize the frame to negate it. This can be powerful when framing the words of politics. Framing is key because it makes it harder to discuss things. Tax relief. Who can be against a concept so beneficial as tax relief? Well, taxes are put to good use. But by framing it through the pain of the people rather than the use value, Republicans have been able to make it hard to discuss. Are you for or against the President’s tax relief plan? Hard to get at the issues from that framing.

Progressives like to eschew values, saying that there aren’t progressive values. Bullshit. Furthermore, people vote their values, their connections and their identity, not what is best for them. This helps to explain why poor mid-Westerners vote in favor of Republicans who continue to make them poorer and poorer and poorer…. The Republicans know this. Democrats think that they need to be more moderate to win votes; Republicans aren’t that stupid.

Lakoff introduced a whole framework about how the nation can be viewed as a family and how there are two different models of families – the strict father family and the nurturing parent family. He then shared a compelling amount of information on this topic that is really hard to summarize, but Metaphor, Morality and Politics is Lakoff’s written version of this.

Anyhow, there was so much more, so much sublety. And of course, the talk definitely motivated me to buy his new book: Moral Politics.

I have to admit that it’s nice to be in yet-another-school where the linguistics department is getting hyper political and speaking to the public. And, just like at Chomsky’s talks, there were plenty of annoying attendees who decided to pester the speaker in a screaming, not discussing kind of way. One had to be hauled off after he refused to let Lakoff talk. Another had to be engaged by one of the audience members who took the bullet for the rest of us. Of course, Lakoff joked about this all: remember, Berkeley is the home of the Free Speech movement. ::laugh::

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5 thoughts on “Lakoff and the language of politics

  1. Mel

    That’s a really useful introduction. I followed the link to his paper and it’s really fascinating. You’ve inspired me to find more of his work. Thanks Danah.

  2. Hunt

    I’m a big fan of Lakoff’s basic policial message: liberals don’t do enough to get their message out, because conservatives have framed the discussion in such a way that liberals spend all of their time discussing the issues on conservatives’ terms. I only wish the cognitive science behind his extended analysis of the thinking of liberals and conservatives was more sound.

  3. the RaptorMage

    > explain why poor mid-Westerners vote

    That should be “Midwesterners”, unless you mean those of us in the middle portion of the West (unlikely from the “vote for Republicans” context).

    Thanks for the report. I’m sorry I missed Lakoff, and I’m glad you made the time for it!

  4. aldahlia

    Political Linguistics

    Metaphor, Morality, and Politics,Or,Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust
    by George Lakoff
    via zephoria.

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