Saturday, March 12, 2005

Knowing our values and framing the debate

Much has been written about Frank Luntz recently, particularly in terms of his entanglements in the social security debate. In fact, there is a whole website dedicated to decoding "luntzspeak" and pointing out instances where conservative politicians have deployed the advice offered up in Luntz's memo. Yet many articles compare Luntz and his mastery of language with George Lakoff, a University of California Berkeley linguist who is said to have done for the left what Luntz has done for the right. Even though Lakoff's new book, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, focuses more broadly on progressive politics (it briefly mentions environmental issues), I couldn't help but read it and keep some of the kernels of wisdom in mind for our intervention. Here are parallels that might be useful in guiding our project (page numbers in parentheses):

  • Conservatives and progressives have different world views. The conservative world view parallels the work of Dobson-- the strict father idea. The progressive world view is the nuturant parent world view, with values such as empathy, responsibility, freedom, opportunity, prosperity, fairness, 2-way communication, cooperation, and community-building (11-13)
  • Conservatives are not stupid. They have found ways to activate frames through media, think tanks, etc and understand how people think (17)
  • Polls are used quite differently by conservatives and progressives. The GOP takes them into consideration but acts on their idealistic beliefs. Liberals use polls as evidence that they need to move to the center (20). This is quite interesting in light of the way that polls were used in the Luntz memo
  • Lakoff does mention Luntz on global warming specificially. He believes that this is an example of Orwellian language that proves the weakness of the conservative position (in this case, that the science on global warming is conclusive). This includes use of words like healthy, clean and safe (22)
  • hypocognition= the lack of ideas you need, the lack of a relatively simple fixed frame that can be evoked by a word or two (24). This is precisely the problem our project hopes to fix for concerned citizens looking for a way to clarify the global warming debate.
  • Lakoff also uses the example of alternative energy subsidies to show how progressives can expand their policy proposals to appeal to a large number of people. Instead of simply framing alternative energy as an energy or sustainability issue, Lakoff suggests that it could also be described as a jobs issue, a health issue, a foreign policy issue, a development issue, etc (31)
  • Finally, Lakoff explains why framing ideas is not the same as propaganda. He says that framing is natural and normal as a means of comprehending complex issues. This is fine as a clarifying function-- it is only harmful when spin occurs (the manipulative use of a frame) (100).

Don't Think of an Elephant, is of course, a guide for progressives, but there are many valuable lessons within the book. In the end, the guide falls back on four important guidelines: show respect, respond by reframing, think and talk at the level of values, and say what you believe (119). These concepts don't just apply to progressives. If anyone, regardless of political affiliation, committed to similar guidelines, policy debates would be much clearer and easier for public engagement.

This discussion was helpful for me, because Damien and I have talked through ways to avoid further distorting the debate with our project, and ways to avoid partisan conflict. After thinking through our project in terms of framing the debate, as Lakoff suggests, I'm convinced that our goal is not to spin the issues for global warming advocates (as Luntz did for the Bush administration). Instead, we are attempting to make a clarifying move that will aid effective communication for concerned citizens.

- Carly


At 7:30 PM, Anonymous Damien said...

Ironically, I wrote something about this a couple of weeks ago when our class mentioned stuff about the problems of characterizing Luntz as distortion and our project as clarification:

It's easy to dismiss rhetorical choices as "pure sophistry"--but when a language change clarifies or makes more precise one's meaning, such a choice (or frame) has added legitimacy; as opposed to when one uses language to obfuscate or confuse matters.


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