Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 24, 2012 10:24 am 
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George Lakoff: Language, Logic, and Politics


George Lakoff is an MIT-educated Berkeley professor of cognitive linguistics with a leftist-progressive bent. On the one hand, it is unfortunate that Lakoff's cogent arguments may be seen as one more example of the left beating up on itself, which it does so much and the right does not (beat up on itself, that is: it's great at beating up on the left). But what Lakoff has to say is so practical that it's essential for leftists or progressives in America to listen to him and act accordingly.

Language trumps "logic"

What Lakoff says is that the way the left thinks and frames its arguments is self-destructive. The prime example he has used lately is the left's adoption of the term "Obamacare" for the "Affordable Care Act," which turns the focus on Obama and his failed policies and is the kiss of death. "Obamacare" is the creation of the right. Lakoff sees political thinking rightly in terms of how the mind works. Judgments (and votes) are framed not logically but morally, and people have in their brains two moral universes, which can function concurrently. Thus the American public can be in favor of most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, while simultaneously condemning it as an invasion of personal freedoms. The right understands propaganda and advertising; the left relies on "logical argument" principles that were fine in the time of Descartes when logic was beginning to win out over religion but now are outmoded. The right has invented phrases like "Death Panels" to literally bestow the kiss of death on the Affordable Care Act. The left and the Obama administration never created any set of simple counter slogans. They "promoted" the Act uselessly in terms of 24 points, which nobody could remember, so the promotion of the Act rather than its individual measures has faltered. The left keeps on wasting time refuting the arguments or attacks of the right on all kinds of progressive policies, which simply promotes these attacks by mentioning them and using the language of the opposition, like "Obamacare."


The private depends on the public

Given that all people think morally rather than logically, the pivotal moral point that would give progressive positions the lead if it were remembered and repeated is "the private depends on the public," Lakoff points out. This is easy enough to understand. The corporations can't function without roads and railways, which are maintained at public expense. People are aware that the general public has paid to bail out the banks and left out of work masses foundering, but they fail to see how false and hypocritical the right's critique of government is. But they forget to point out that education, research, and legal protections -- and for that matter, affordable health care, insofar as Americans have it -- are also essential to private profit and the sound economy that will create a strong market.

The fundamental contrast in moral principles between left and right is in the meaning of "democracy." To the right, "democracy" means protecting self-interest. To the left, it means cooperation for the good of the many. The way the right tricks the public is in making it think its interests are those of the "1%." The Occupy movement points out that the one percent's interests are directly opposed to the "99%." Of course these are not the exact percentages, but at least in this respect the left has framed something that can be readily understood and can convince the public to see a progressive point of view as valid. Thus logically Lakoff has described "OWS," the Occupy movement (he might "frame" the movement better there) in a December 2011 "memo" to "OWS" as "primarily a moral movement." And with this 99% vs. 1% slogan it has framed itself as essential and right, unless you are a member of the tiny oligarchy of the super-rich, or are deluded into thinking that your interests are the same as its interests. Indeed the Occupy movement has reframed the debate for the presidential campaign in terms of unfairness, so Obama is daring to speak of the way the public is exploited by the few.


Lakoff's focus on thinking and language as related to politics is valuable. He is not always on target in political analysis. For example, in this "memo," he says "I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed." Again, by the way, he ought to have said "the Occupy movement," not "the occupation movement," and though this may seem a small point, the whole point is that language matters and is a matter of a vast accumulation of small points. While Lakoff is right that the Occupy movement isn't and shouldn't be about a set of specific policy demands, it is not true that the movement will fail because of the "failure" of specific demands to be met. Occupy should be seen as a nationwide and global movement to re-empower the people ("the 99%"), as opposed to the oligarchy of the rich, the corporations, or government, above and beyond any specific projects or demands. But it can and does make specific demands, and they do not "fail" but simply will take a long time to succeed. The solidarity of the Occupy movement should give its supporters faith that it will prevail, above and beyond any individual demands. But it must focus on individual local or national or global demands.

On the other hand Lakoff makes sense when he stresses "OWS's" use of "the Public" (or just "the public") as the body that should have priority in the political world, and this supports the principle that "the private depends on the public" and that while the "private" is not inherently evil, and includes small businesses as well as large corporations, its interests should not trump those of "the public," the people, the 99%.

Mastering language

I might add my own point in this discussion, which is that one reason why the left and the public aren't winning the battle for hearts and minds is that people don't know how to think and that cognitively the ability to handle language adeptly and fluently is degenerating. Americans often seem not to know very well how to speak and write. This in itself, apart from the right's skillful twisting of terms, severely impairs the public's ability to understand, analyze or express anything written or said. It makes a difference whether people know how to frame a question, form a sentence, use pronouns, and handle sophisticated terminology (which may only mean high school or freshman college level). It may sound old fashioned, but Americans, partly through a decline in education, do not master the use of language in public discourse. When radio or TV discourse is full of garbled sentences and confused terms, it's obvious those wielding their clumsy sentences for public consumption don't know how to think, because, as Lakoff emphasizes, language frames thought. A badly framed sentence is a sign of a confused thought.

Egypt and Arabic

Egypt since the January 25 revolution is a place where language is used clearly, despite the country's poor literacy rate (66%, 97th in the world). Everywhere there are clear, emphatic slogans, shouted by men held on the shoulders of demonstrators, on placards, written on walls. This might be the material of demagoguery, but there is an artisanal quality about it that is democratic and free. The Arabs have a rich oral tradition. Their culture includes expressing oneself emphatically, and believe me, they do, men and women. One has only to watch Al Jazeera Arabic for a few hours to experience the eloquence of the man and woman on the street, and ladies in hijab can be just as outspoken as anybody else. "THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME" is pretty clear, isn't it? So is "We are all Khalid Said," another rallying cry against the Mubarak government's repression. It may help that while Egyptians have a tradition of wit and vivid colloquial language, they also belong to an international community that requires all Arabs to learn a standard literary language to be able to communicate in public debate in government, in the press, and among nations. It works well, since on Al Jazeera it makes possible live panel discussions between people from countries as wide apart as Morocco, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon with instant understanding and no need of a translator. Needless to say there is plenty of room for deceit in the Middle East, but Arabs do have a tradition of mastering a clear common language.


Perhaps what Lakoff is asking for is more propagandists on the left. He is asking progressives to use marketing methods effectively, as the right does, to have a promotional program -- which, for instance, they didn't for Affordable Health Care. But he is also asking the left to acquire tools for deflecting propaganda, which can be countered not only by counter-slogans, by re-framing issues, but also by deft use of language, to stimulate different moral centers of the brain, the ones focused on the value of public good rather than that of private self-interest.

George Lakoff is right to advise the Occupy movement to emphasize the "positive and moral." He provides guidelines it's good to be aware of and calls for an awareness of language that is essential for the left to martial its forces in the 99%. Of course there are a lot more problems than language, and the Egyptian people's clear framing of their desires hasn't been enough to liberate them from the control of a military oligarchy called SCAF, The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But this awareness of language and how it frames thought and emotion may help progressives to combat the right, whose clarity and sureness about what they think and whose canniness about marketing strategy for their candidates and projects have put them ahead repeatedly up to now, especially in the wake of two ideologically soft and over-compromising democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, who drifted toward the center and made it possible for the whole USA to move dramatically toward the right.


For more details see Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling: "Why Conservatives Sell Their Wildly Destructive Ideology Better Than Democrats" on AlterNet. They have authored The Little Blue Book, "A compact handbook on partisan political discourse, with a blueprint for how liberals can switch from playing defense against conservatives to launching a stronger offense." Also available as an e-book.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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