Saturday, February 26, 2005

Don't Think Of An Elephant, by George Lakoff

This book touts itself as ‘the essential guide for progressives’. Cognitive scientist (whatever that means) and professor of linguistics, George Lakoff, has been breaking down conservative politics for the past 20 years. He studies their methods and reports back with an action plan for progressives to successfully counter their arguments.

He strips progressive and conservative politics back to a metaphor of the family. Conservatives follow the stern father model (self-reliance, discipline etc.) while progressive exemplify the ‘nurturant parent’ model, which is obviously more caring and sharing.

To get their message across, conservatives ‘frame’ their issues. For example, if someone one told you NOT to think of an elephant, that’s all you would be able to think of. Thus conservatives say over and over things like ‘tax relief’, so it eventually sticks in your brain and you automatically think along these lines, instinctively believing that we are overtaxed and need to be relieved of the burden.

What progressives need to do is create their own powerful ‘frames’, because, the author starkly tells us, illustrating your point with irrefutable facts simply does not work. Facts, we are told, just bounce of frames.

To my way of thinking, ‘frames’ sounded like a fancy expression for ‘prejudices’. Or rather brainwashing. Anyhoo, Lakoff gives quite a few good tips on how to counter conservative arguments and win.

I get Lakoff’s point. And I think anyone with some good common sense would come to the same conclusion: a hectoring style when going after conservative opponents is not going to win any points. A new strategy is needed. Overloading people with correct ‘facts’ is not going to sway the masses.

Reading between the lines, I thought Lakoff was really saying we should stop trying to appeal to people’s rational side, and rather go for their emotional sides. As I was reading this political guide book I mused on what George Orwell would make of this (indeed, Lakoff makes quite a few references to Orwellian language.)

It is troubling to anyone who loves literature, and is genuinely concerned with language, to see this sort of new spin. More and more it seems that the population must be communicated to using metaphors and images, rather than words.

Despite having some reservations about this book and what it’s suggesting progressives do, I can’t help but agree in large part with the program that Lakoff outlines. Progressives have to get smarter about the language they use. It’s outrageous and ridiculous in the extreme that a die hard monarchist like David Flint should write a book called ‘Elites’, or whatever it was called, having a go at what he perceives are the elites in Australian culture. Same goes of course for John Howard and his fellow travellers.

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