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  • Thursday, November 18, 2004


    This is your brain on words...

    I've been seeing some critiques recently of George Lakoff and the whole cognitive linguistic approach to talking politics and issues. (Linguistics critique here and some political critique here.) I have to grant that some of these criticisms are valid. However I think there's more to "framing" issues than semantics; it's also about communication skills. Some people see this language manipulation as shallow, lacking in substance because it also evokes emotional responses. Finding a way to communicate effectively, truthfully and with resonance is an integral part of my view of politics. I figure if these methods are used to create images close to and congruent with the values of progressives, this is not a bad thing. So what is the difference between Republican "talking points" saturation and progressives reclaiming a space in the "values" discussion. I don't know. Are there dangers of using these methods, the danger of empowering some populist fascist leader? Yup, but I still hope that these methods can bring an ability to speak clearly from the heart a comprehensive progressive vision that can be easily understood. Guess I'm still an idealist despite my cynicism. From Frame Wars:

    Lakoff says that we engage frames in the simplest acts of thinking or talking. "Framing is the most ordinary everyday thing," he says. "Every word we use comes with a frame, and the conventional frames are there in your brain." Take a more political example: the word "war." In the same way that the size of an SUV resonates safety, the word "war" evokes not only battles, but also sacrifice, martial glory, and an ultimate victory. It's not simply a figurative or a poetic connection – it attaches to the way people see reality and determines how they act. Every use of the word "war" ratifies this frame.

    This is why the phrase "war on terror" has been so devastatingly effective. It's so engrained that it gathers conservatives and so effective at explaining the world that people who aren't conservatives find it appealing. The phrase can be strangely soothing. Clarity oozes from it. It subtly encodes a frame in which an intangible, terror, can be targeted and conquered, partly by recycling a Cold War frame in which we waged war on another intangible, Communism. And we won! The phrase offers the promise that we can win this one, too, because it invokes a history of military victories and strength. America, after all, wins its wars.

    ....How can you "think in terms of a metaphor," especially when the entire tradition of Western philosophy says you can't? According to the classical conception, a metaphor works by imagination, not logic, and it's simply a renaming when, for instance, you call an argument a "war of words." For Lakoff, metaphors are deeper. They underpin all language, all culture, and all thought, and in his books he's argued, to paraphrase William James, that it's metaphors all the way down. The statement, "argument is war," isn't just a more colorful renaming; we treat as real its consequences, for instance, that arguments have winners and losers, that shouting is tolerated, that defections, betrayals, and subterfuge are expected. And while some metaphorical underpinnings are common across cultures – for instance, the conception of the future as physically in front of us – others are culturally specific. Only in Dyirbal, an Australian aboriginal language, is there a category containing words that have something to do with women, fire, and dangerous things (the title, by the way, of Lakoff's most popular linguistics book).

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