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Language framing: The left is losing the language game

Don’t think of an elephant. The elephant isn’t there. The elephant isn’t real so don’t think about it. Don’t listen to the people who tell you about what the elephant is doing. The elephant isn’t doing that, or anything else for that matter, because there is no elephant. Don’t think of an elephant.

We’re obviously thinking about elephants now. That’s because the word elephant was just used seven times. Even when denying the existence of an elephant, the word, that is, the written descriptor of the idea of an elephant, is still being employed. The elephant wins.

The elephant continues to win. Whoever controls the words controls the ways in which ideas are framed. Anyone can disagree with your beliefs, but so long as they use the same framework of words you use to describe your beliefs, even in adamant opposition to them, you win.

America is not in the throes of a culture war. It is locked into a language game, and the Republican Party knows it better than anyone. Conservative strategists have purposefully worked to control the dialogue through terminology, and it has proven exceptionally effective. Increasingly, facts don’t matter. Their description does.

The Power of the Frame

Human beings do not behave rationally. Research conducted by Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman displays that people are consistently irrational, reliant on mental shortcuts to quicken reasoning. This means that everyone is susceptible to frames that simplify and distort ideas.

“Frames are mental structures that you use every day to understand just about anything,” Professor George Lakoff explains. Everything we do and perceive is understood through developed conceptual frameworks, which affect our conclusions, beliefs, and behaviors.

Lakoff is a Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California. His research on language framing centers on the understanding that the ways people say things are often more important than what is actually being said. The words used to explain an idea do more to influence people’s perceptions than the idea itself.

A recent study shows that framing has a massive effect on our political views. Participants in the study were presented with brief passages about crime in a hypothetical city named Addison. The wording of the passages differed between half of the participants. One half read a passage that described the crime problem as a “beast preying” on Addison, while the other half was given a passage that framed crime as a “virus infecting” the city.

These differing metaphors strongly affected the views of the participants. Those who were shown the “beast” frame were more likely to support harsher, punitive measures against crime, whereas those who read the “virus” frame tended to support reformative action.

Most notable is the participants’ lack of awareness of the framing’s effect on them. When asked to explain their reasoning, no one mentioned the metaphor, pointing instead to statistics that remained unchanged between the two passages.

Once you understand just how covertly powerful a frame is, it becomes clear that the effects of their purposeful usage cannot be underestimated or ignored. The Republican Party has already recognized the power of language framing, and has been using it to great effect.

The Conservative Frame Game

“One of the cleverest things that conservatives have done is to take the symbols of patriotism and claim them for their own,” Lakoff says in a video from 2008. “They’ve claimed the flag, they’ve claimed notions like freedom, democracy, all the good words.”

In 1970, soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. came out with a memo outlining a strategy for promoting conservative thought. It called for the creation of professorships in major universities to teach right-wing modes of thinking. Such positions were to be sponsored by wealthy conservatives, who would also be encouraged to set up research institutes to sponsor conservative scholarship. The memo suggested conservative media be consolidated to better broadcast right-wing ideas.

The memo led to a 30-year investment of $2-3 billion and the creation of 43 conservative think tanks. The result has been a unification of conservative ideology and a strengthened understanding of the ways in which language can be used to convince people of ideas.

Lakoff considers the term, “tax relief.” It feels innocuous at first, but when examined it’s a purposefully loaded frame. The word “relief” indicates a release from a form of suffering or discomfort. Anyone who relieves someone of suffering is most often imagined as behaving benevolently.

Taxes are then implicitly framed as negative, a source of discomfort without benefit, something one should want to be relieved from. The conservative promise of “tax relief” then becomes appealing. Taxes are a form of suffering, who wouldn’t want relief? Who wouldn’t promise that?

These loaded terms are everywhere. Ask yourself: why are social support programs referred to as “entitlements” and not “rights”? One implies an undeserved and inconvenient demand, the other a fundamental and reasonable necessity.

  Why are laws designed to curb pollution and the degradation of natural resources known as environmental “restrictions”? Why not “protections”? The word “restrictions” tells us that environmental laws limit our growth in some way. The word “protections” tells us that we benefit from the environment’s continued health.

In all of these frames, the elephant wins. If you say you’re against tax relief, you’re implicitly accepting the idea that taxes are a form of suffering. If you support entitlement programs, you’re also admitting that they’re unnecessary demands. Even though the environment is vital to our health as a population, how can you possibly get people excited about restrictions?

Even when denying the elephant, you acknowledge and speak about the elephant.

Using the frames laid out by conservative media and scholarship gives them immediate control of the terms of the debate.

In March of 2016, Lakoff wrote an article called “Understanding Trump” that detailed the ways in which Trump “uses your brain against you” and sent it to every member of the Clinton campaign.

Lakoff was concerned that the media-frenzy surrounding Trump was causing us to think of elephants all the time. News outlets repeated trump’s false claims and tweets, and his frames were thus spread further, taking deeper root in mass consciousness.

In his article, Lakoff advised the Clinton campaign repeatedly reiterate its own position, and to stop repeating Trump’s statements.

The Clinton campaign instead attempted to use Trump’s words against him in a series of ads splicing his public scandals together. This was an error. It spread Trump’s frames for him, giving more people a chance to think of the elephant.

Progressives are losing the language game because they’re not playing it. The left has forfeited control of the dialogue’s framework by allowing conservatives to set the terms. That must change.

Understanding the American Family

One of the most effective ways of convincing someone to support an idea is by framing it in terms of their value system. Conservatives and progressives have differing moral frameworks to serve the same metaphor: the country as a larger American family.

Lakoff argues that if you understand the country as a family, and the conservative and progressive positions as articulations of differing models of family, the reasoning behind the left and right’s respective values becomes clearer.

The model of a progressive family is such that there are two parents who share responsibility for raising their children. They are expected to communicate clearly and directly with their children to foster a shared sense of understanding. Their children’s fulfillment is valued, and parents work to provide their kids with opportunities to help them decide what kind of life they want to live.

The model of a conservative family is significantly different. The conservative model values strict parenting, where the parent is the moral authority of the family. The parent is assumed to be right and is not to be questioned. The task of parents is not to encourage children to do what feels good, but what the parents say is right. When a child disobeys a parent, the parent is responsible for punishing the child painfully enough to discourage them from disobeying again. The child develops discipline to resist doing what feels good and instead doing what the parent says is right, a discipline that’s viewed as vital for living a prosperous and meaningful life.

When viewed through this metaphor, the policy positions and governing philosophies of the left and right begin to make a great deal of sense. For example, in matters of law enforcement the right favors the harsh punishment of criminals to teach discipline and discourage disobedience, whereas the left pushes for communicative measures to develop a shared understanding that prevents further breaches.

The metaphor extends to most all modes of conservative and liberal thought. The right tends to value loyalty to an in-group, respect for authority, and purity. The left prefers fairness, reciprocity, and a reduction of harm.

Understanding these conceptual frameworks helps you communicate more pragmatically and strategically to those you wish to convince. You could get a conservative to support environmental protections by framing the protection of natural resources and landscapes in terms of preserving the nation’s purity. Similarly, you could get a liberal to support increased military spending by emphasizing its employment benefits for poor and disadvantaged citizens.

Get in the Game

Lakoff argues that one of the left’s biggest problems is that it’s divided. Democrats have not taken a concerted effort to build and broadcast frames that clearly and intuitively communicate their values and convince others of their ideas.

Negating a frame does nothing but reinforce its existence. What liberals need to do is develop a practical language that appeals to a wide and varied audience, one that simply frames the basic values of empathy, sustainability, a reduction of collective harm.

These notions, when framed strategically, appeal to almost everyone. The specific beliefs existent along the political spectrum of the left don’t matter, so long as everyone can agree on and conceptualize the basic ideological tenets. Developing a shared language unifies a group, no matter how varied, towards the same aims. Possessing your own frames to articulate your ideas gives you leverage in the language game.

The Democratic Party must invest and strategize to develop such frames, to properly broadcast and communicate its message, on its own terms, and to combat and undermine conservative frames, not by negating them, but by undercutting their foothold in American consciousness.

You either play the language game or you lose the language game. Considering what’s at stake, the left can’t afford to sit it out.

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