George Lakoff at the Santa Monica Library: Framing isn’t Just for Pictures

img_0927-custom.JPGIf you have heard the term “framing” applied to politics, you can thank George Lakoff.  A professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UC Berkeley, Lakoff spoke at the Santa Monica Public Library Wednesday night, and showed the audience what framing is all about.

Several years ago, Lakoff found that Democrats were lagging way behind Republicans in communicating their message.  Lakoff determined that Republicans had mastered the art of framing issues using focus group-tested catch phrases (“war on terror,” “pro-life,” “death tax,” etc.) such that, merely by uttering the right code words, the Republicans had often already won the debate.  As a result of his findings, Lakoff published a groundbreaking book in 2004 entitled “Don’t Think of an Elephant!”  The book became a bestseller, and Democrats quickly adopted Lakoff as their language guru. 

Now Lakoff has a new book, “The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics With an 18th Century Brain.”  As Lakoff explained last night, although in a very complicated way, the 18th Century idea of rational thinking — as embodied in Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am” — is obsolete.  According to Lakoff, modern science has proven that reasoning is a highly emotional activity in which words and phrases trigger chemicals in our brains.

Lakoff says that the best political framing — and thus the most effective political arguments — appeal to our emotions and cause our brains to create metaphors that form our beliefs.  Thus, explains Lakoff, Barack Obama’s mentions of “hope” and “change” are intended to trigger metaphors of a caring government (which our brains associate with the early childhood notion of the nurturing parent) that protects us with regulation and social programs, while John McCain’s belligerency toward Iran causes our brains to conjur up the metaphor of government as (and the childhood association with) the strict father, who punishes people for wrongdoing.

Ironically, at the end of Lakoff’s discussion, a wild-looking man with long, grey matted hair stood up and started ranting about how “your President Jimmy Carter ruined my country Iran!”  He continued shouting at the top of his lungs as he made his way outside.  If I had understood Lakoff’s scientific discussion better, I could have explained how Lakoff had triggered the stress hormone Norepinephrine in the man’s brain, causing him to create these negative associations between a 1970s American president of the “nurturing parent” variety and the rise of a militant theocracy in Iran.

As it was, I synthesized the esoteric words of a linguistics professor and the rantings of a madman, and chalked up the result to just another eventful evening at the Santa Monica Public Library.

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