Shouting ALOUD through a rhetorical frame

The central library of Mars?
The central library of John Carter's Mars?

Update: It appears that Mrs. Lulu has snuck into the blog again.  The following contains her observations of a delightful lecture at L.A.’s magnificent Central Library.

Last night, Lulu and I attended one of the LA Central Library’s free lectures in their wonderful ALOUD series:  George Lakoff, “The Public Mind:  A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, In Conversation with Ian Masters”

We were both particularly excited about this talk since we had studied Lakoff in graduate school.  For those of you who don’t know him, he’s a cognitive scientist and linguist  at UC Berkely, whose interdisciplinary work focuses on investigating the ways in which linguistic and cognitive structures (e.g., metaphors, prototypes, frames) shape perception and social life.

A central theme of last night’s discussion was the way in which the framing mechanisms of public discourse have been controlled by the Republicans […]to the disadvantage of the Democrats.  This situation becomes especially remarkable in light of the fact that the latest cognitive science research, according to Lakoff, demonstrates a neuro-physiological basis for empathy.  Our brains are hard wired to feel the pain and pleasure of others, so it turns out that democracy has a material ground in our natural care for each other.   So why aren’t we more progressive and democratic as a society?

Here Lakoff turns to our political language. For example, the term “pro-choice” sounds frivolous next to the deeply compassionate and moral “pro-life.”  And who among us can be against  “tax relief”? Wouldn’t a “public option,” in health care strip us of our right to make private decisions in consultation with our trusted and chosen doctors?  These examples point out how language subtly directs us to the right wing position.  One of Lakoff’s own entries into the political fray, of particular interest to our state’s current budget standoff, came up against the resistance of such framing.  He had tried to get a referendum balloted stating nine simple words:  “All legislative matters shall be decided by majority vote.”  No top Democrats would back the measure because they feared the increase in taxes that would result from the repeal of Prop 13.  Thus, the simple democracy of majority rule becomes too subversive a step for the Democrats of our “golden state.” Again, as Lakoff pointed out, this fear of taxes has been inculcated by a republican framing mechanism according to which we automatically associate taxes with hardship and unfair burden, rather than with paying for social goods and services that we need and want.

One reason liberals do not do as well in framing issues, according to Lakoff, is their belief in the Enlightenment view of reason as pure of emotions or politics; thus, liberals need only to lay out the facts without attempting to persuade or influence and the rational person will come to the proper conclusion on his/her own.  Lakoff’s suggestion is that we frame the language ourselves–e.g., the use of guns could be seen as an act of cowardice rather than macho bravery (this, in response  to an excellent question by interviewer, Ian Masters, based on his own Australian upbringing that taught him that it was manly to settle differences by fisticuffs, but never with a weapon).

The news was not all bad, however; in fact there was an upbeat mood to last night’s talk.   For example, Lakoff  frequently praised Obama as succeeding in articulating some of the truth in contradiction to the overarching right wing frame.  Even Obama’s personal style and image as a calm, intelligent, nurturing man is helping to dispel the dominant view of masculinity as violent, authoritarian and controlling.  This view and its correlative view of the patriarchal family has served in turn as a model for our vision of politics and government, again as part of the conservative frame that hinders social progress.

Although many of Lakoff’s ideas did not come across as entirely new and original (after all, many currents of 20th C thought and philosophy, from phenomenology, to structural linguistics, psychoanalytic Marxism and feminism have argued the connection between the so-called purity of reason, logic and empiricist perception and the linguistic and social constructs that unconsciously determine our views), his presentation was provocative, timely and very well received.  I have attended several of these lectures now, and have always been impressed by the quality of the audience’s questions and comments.  If you are unfamiliar with this excellent series, I urge you to check it out by listening to a podcast or attending one yourself.