[This is a chapter from Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff’s book “Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values And Vision”.]
Understanding frame analysis means becoming aware of one’s own mind and the minds of others. This is a big task. 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, and one person’s common sense is another’s evil political ideology. The truths that have been discovered about the mind are not easy to fathom, especially when false views of the mind get in the way.
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. Rationalism says it is reason that makes us human, and all human beings are equally rational. That is why we can govern ourselves and do not have to rely upon a king or a pope to govern us. And since we are equally rational, the best form of government is a democracy. So far, so good.
But rationalism also comes with several false theories of mind.
• We know from cognitive science research that most thought is unconscious, but rationalism claims [and then proceeds under the premise] that all thought is conscious.
• 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.
Rationalism says that people vote on the basis of their material self-interest, that they are conscious of why they voted, that they can tell a pollster what their most important concerns are, and that they will vote for the candidate who best addresses those concerns.
But we know that this is false. The rationalist theory of voters isn’t true. Yet progressive pollsters still act as if it is. And progressive candidates take their advice. They run on a laundry list of programs recommended by their pollsters and act as if the discovery had never been made.
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. The facts must be framed in a way to make sense in order to be accepted as a basis for further reasoning.
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.
You would further believe in the classical theory of categories, and you would divide up the policy-making world by categories, creating issue “silos.” Thus, there would be educational policies, separate from health policies, separate from environmental policies, and so on.
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. Real rationality recognizes these politically crucial aspects of our mental life. We advocate getting real about rationality itself, recognizing how it really works. If you think political campaigns are about laundry lists of policies that have no further symbolic value, then you miss the heart of American politics.
If progressives say nothing when disaster occurs from conservative policies, then conservatives will get to frame the disasters — and they will certainly not frame them as failures of conservative philosophy. They may twist the nature of causation and blame the disaster on progressives.
Failing that, there are other ways out. Consider, for instance, the various responses to crises that have come from the Bush administration: It was a failure of intelligence. It was an honest mistake. There were tactical errors. No one could have guessed it would happen. Everyone has made sacrifices and done the best anyone could expect of them. There were a few bad apples, and we’re taking care of them. They could admit incompetence and replace the incompetent persons with people who look more competent. Or they could even argue that they were not conservative enough, reframing the disaster for still more conservative ends. When there is a loud, powerful, and effective chorus of progressive voices heard, conservatives can’t use their effective reframing machine to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That is why we cannot be silent.
When conservative philosophy causes disaster, progressives must make that clear, shout it from the rooftops, organize speakers everywhere to say it out loud, and repeat it until it registers in the brains of the public and becomes an issue, a matter of ongoing public debate. When there are victims, conservative villains, and progressive heroes, it should be made clear who is who.
REFRAMING: WORDS TO RECLAIM
Conservatives have worked hard to redefine our words — that is, change the frame associated with a word so that it fits the conservative worldview. In so doing, they have changed the meaning of some of our most important concepts and have stolen our language.
Most notably, they have redefined the word “liberal”. They have turned it upside down. What once was — and still should be — a badge of pride is now a label to run from. Consider the differences between the conservative tag on “liberal” and the real meaning that we should hold near and dear to our hearts.
Conservatives: Tax-and-spend liberals want to take your hard-earned money and give it to lazy no-accounts. Latte-sipping liberals are elitists who look down their noses at you. Hollywood liberals have no family values. The liberal media twist the facts. Leftist liberals want to end the free market. Antiwar liberals are unpatriotic wimps [ho can’t defend our country. Secular liberals want to end religion.
Liberals: Liberty-loving liberals founded our country and enshrined its freedoms. Dedicated, fair-minded liberals ended slavery and brought women the vote. Hardworking liberals fought the goon squads and won workers’ rights: the eight-hour day, the weekend, health plans, and pensions. Courageous liberals risked their lives to win civil rights. Caring liberals have made the vulnerable elderly secure with Social Security and healthy with Medicare. Forward-looking liberals have extended education to everyone. Liberals who love the land have been preserving our environment so you can enjoy it. Nobody loves liberty and life more than a liberal. When conservatives say you’re on your own, we liberals know, we’re all in this together.
“Liberal” is not the only example of the right’s framing larceny. Here are other examples of words worth reclaiming — and how conservatives and progressives view them.
EXPRESSING OUR VALUES
To get out of the rationalist trap, progressives must understand their deepest implicit values and make them explicit. But this is a bit tricky.
Progressive candidates have been having a problem telling the public what they stand for. They have difficulties expressing their values and their political principles. Yet progressives do stand for something (usually a lot) and do have values and political principles. Why can’t they just say what they are? If you can’t tell me what you stand for, it sounds like you don’t stand for anything. What is going on here? How can intelligent, articulate people in public life stand for something without being able to say what they stand for?
The answer is simple from a cognitive science point of view. Our conceptual systems are unconscious. We usually cannot directly access unconscious systems of ideas. The result is that progressives tend to “feel” when a proposed policy sounds like the right — or wrong — thing to do. But many Progressives cannot say exactly why they feel as they do, exactly what moral principles make it the right — or wrong — thing to do.
So progressives tend to find it difficult to provide morally based arguments for positions that they think are right. I hope, through this handbook, to begin to make the implicit reasons explicit — to fill in the gaps in progressive forms of argument — and to help progressives express the moral values and principles they really believe in.
FRAME OR LOSE
Lately, one school of thought making the rounds among progressives is that it may be best not to engage in articulating our values and principles, and not to do much of anything to put forth a progressive vision. The thinking, in a nutshell, is that things are going so wrong for conservatives that they are likely to self-destruct.
This is a terrible mistake. One thing we know about how brains change is that they can change more radically under conditions of trauma than under ordinary conditions. The questions are: What will the direction of the change be? How will the trauma or other disaster be framed? And who will get to frame it?