George Lakoff recommends…

George Lakoff was in Wisconsin for the past few days lecturing at several different events. While I didn’t hear him say anything that wasn’t in at least one of his books and don’t agree with everything he teaches, the question-and-answer periods gave me a much deeper understanding of his theory and his message.

I will write more about what he said and what it made me think in later blog posts. But most people attended these lectures for the ‘so what:’ So what should progressives say?  I’ll start there.

I can summarize his take-away advice in four steps.

1.            Pay attention to your own deep values. Understand the moral foundation of your own political beliefs.  Reach your own understanding of why you want good public schools. Why do you care about the fact that CEOs take home 457 times the income of the average American worker? Why can’t you just be happy for the CEOs?

2.            When you engage in any political speech, make sure to express your values among the first things you say. All human beings are continuously processing their thoughts through moral filters; we cannot stop it. Our brains instantaneously categorize everything we encounter –including the things others say to us—as good or bad, so we need to bring the deep values into our conversation explicitly and promptly.

These first two steps are not our current habits, so they won’t come easy. Our most deeply held values–the things that truly motivate us–are the things we take for granted. Because we take them for granted, we often wrongly assume these values are as alive for the listener as they are for us. But they might not be. Expressing our active values awakens them within the listener’s frame of reference.

3.            When you are promoting your own ideas, never even utter phrases or words that have been solidly defined in the listener’s mind in ways that are incompatible with your message. (Lakoff calls these moral frames.) One of many examples: job creator and job creation have been so effectively defined by pro-business conservatives that even the mention of those two words as a single phrase awakens  assumptions incompatible with a progressive message. In the frame activated by the phrase job creation, big companies with lots of jobs are more valuable than smaller ones.  The frame activated by saying “job creator”–regardless of what you say about it—awakens assumptions that businesses exist to serve our community by giving us jobs, and that Americans need to deploy our shared public resources to support these patriots who want nothing more than to strengthen our economy. All this is relentlessly reflexive and almost always subconscious.

Calling up incompatible assumptions doesn’t just weaken your persuasiveness. Lakoff stresses that it helps to strengthen the opposing idea. Don’t speak the phrase even when you argue against it. Think of Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook.” Don’t speak the phrase thinking you will use their words to help them see the value in your ideas. Look at what the phrase “tax relief for the middle class” implies about the patriotic act of contributing to our community’s well-being.

The more often people hear the phrase “job creation” in any context, Lakoff argues, the more deeply embedded will be the underlying big-business-does-what’s-best-for-us assumption. So do not even utter the phrase unless you want to strengthen the power of  big business in American political life. (Lakoff made only one exception: skillful political satire along the lines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seems to be effective in undermining the strength of the frames they ridicule.)

4.            Find and define ‘uncontested concepts’ that awaken and strengthen our own values. Progressive values rest on many moral frames that have a truly shared core meaning for most Americans: freedom, love of community, love of country, clean air, safe streets, opportunity, hard work, responsibility, peace, justice.

To stick with the example, job creation as now defined in American culture doesn’t work for progressives because they do not, in fact, value pampering global corporations to bribe them into putting environment-destroying mines in our communities that will transfer the value of America’s resources to the bank accounts of the mining company’s foreign investors and offer low-wage employment for 3-5 years until the mine plays out.

Instead, progressives value the employees whose hard work creates the wealth that keeps our nation strong. Each American child deserves to grow up in a safe community  and to be successfully educated to be a good citizen and contributing member of society. When that child grows up and is ready to join the work force, we value opportunities for his or her employment in solid, secure, productive, and sustainable jobs that pay enough to buy a home and start a family.

You get the idea: you cannot use words and phrases defined by corporatists to communicate a vibrant message about what’s good for American wage-earners.

Lakoff concentrated on ‘freedom’ as the most likely candidate for a moral frame that progressives could define solidly in a way that evokes progressive, populist values.

For example, when partisans discuss American abortion laws, they use either right to life or choice. Lakoff recommended that progressives drop the word choice, which brings to mind a moral frame no more compelling than shopping. He recommends we substitute freedom to control our bodies, or reproductive freedom, or freedom from laws controlling our bodies. (An aside of my own: Did you notice that I wrote “…discuss American abortion laws,” rather than “…discuss abortion”? Do you see how that subtly shifted your frame of reference from one about a woman’s personal conduct to one about the power of the State? Do you see how that set the stage to evoke a freedom frame?)

Freedom from control by the wealthy and powerful is, in fact, a core value for progressives and a widely shared value that is likely to resonate at some level with every American who  is not wealthy and powerful, and even some of those who are.

My reaction:

YES!!! I’ve been recommending that we speak explicitly about values for years, and have wasted enough breath to float the Hindenburg trying to convince people it’s counterproductive to throw facts and logic at people before you’ve attempted to understand or shape the reasons why they should care, before  you sense they have a moral framework available to them in which those facts have meaning.

Seriously, I would sacrifice twenty years off the end of my life if doing so would transform American political dialogue into a values-based discourse. It would heal our nation and put us back on the track to a shining era of peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Lakoff even missed some of the benefits of speaking explicitly and sincerely about our values. The practice increases the listener’s  trust in the speaker. When we express our values out loud,  the listener can almost always recognize some value that he or she shares.  Even if the listener shares none of your values, he or she will have a more accurate understanding of your motives and a greater appreciation for your sincerity, two things that always contribute to constructive dialogue.

Speaking about values right up front also helps the dialogue focus on mutually desired goals, rather than becoming a dispute focused exclusively on conflicting policy alternatives. I am sure you have seen or participated in a contentious, possibly hostile, political debate over the equivalent of whether to take the Interstate or the back roads, in which the participants never even notice they both want to get to Chicago. Those sorts of conversations rip at the fabric of American democracy; they impair our collective ability to self-govern.

Finally, speaking explicitly about values makes political conversation more fun. Values are, by definition, positive things. Dreams, ideals, goals. Cherished hopes for the future. Reasons for deep gratitude in the present. Putting those things on the table at the start of any conversation calms people down and sets a constructive, positive tone for everything that follows.

None of this is magic; there’s a lot more work to do beyond learning a few messaging tricks. But please tell me that it’s as self-evident to you as it is to me that identifying and clearly expressing progressive values is better than beginning every conversation or speech by sharing Scott Walker’s latest outrageous lie about his job creation record.


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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One Response to George Lakoff recommends…

  1. Well said, Karen – and one of the key points Lakoff does make (which he did not have time to focus on), is the concept that you must establish credibility and trust with your audience, and therefore be genuine. People will flat out not believe you if you are not genuine. As you heard, we are establishing a communications system in Wisconsin based around Lakoff’s work. More info to get involved here:

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