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September 23, 2004

Lakoff framing and reciprocity

Siris wonders if the liberal fascination with framing is misplaced. He writes:

What I wonder is why Lakoff always focuses on taxation. There's an equally good set of frames in the case of welfare -- e.g., the fact that we talk about 'health care' rather than 'emergency medical subsidies' or, for that matter, about 'welfare' rather than about 'poor law' and 'the dole', and about 'welfare recipients' rather than 'charity cases'. Since Lakoff is a la mode for liberals these days, perhaps they would do well to keep in mind that conservatives can turn the matter around just as easily as liberals can. If people really want to make political discourse a war for names, it's a game that can be played by anyone. My own view is that this is all playing with fire -- and you know what you risk when you play with fire.

This is part of what I think might be a serious flaw in our political reasoning, namely, a failure to think long-term. [...]

Conservatives have been winning the framing game by acclamation for decades. Lakoff is simply arguing that liberals need to devote more effort to packaging their ideas into attractive rhetorical/metaphorical soundbites. He got tired of watching conservatives win media debates by saying "I'm for tax relief." and "My opponent supports the death tax." It's a clever way to defang your opponent before they say a word. Nobody wants to be against relief, nobody wants to be seen as a wannabe death profiteer. Or, to use another example, "partial birth abortion" isn't a piece of genuine medical jargon, it's a smart marketing buzzword. Conservative propagandists coined it. The medical term for the procedure is "dilation and extraction." People won't go to marches against D&E's, but they'll turn out en masse to assail "parital birth abortion."

Lakoff realizes that frames set the terms of a debate. Liberals need vigorous counter-framing to highlight our beliefs and values. Framing doesn't have to be deceptive or simplistic. I happen to believe that taxes are more like the dues of an exclusive club than like a disease from which one deserves relief. Two old but good examples of liberal framing are "pro-choice" and "Planned Parenthood." "Pro-choice" is a brilliant frame because it is both more compelling and accurate than "pro-abortion." Likewise, "Planned Parenthood" was a brilliant name for a reproductive health organization because it highlighted the real mission of this organization--not just to provide birth control and abortion, but to help people acheive maximum wellbeing and autonomy in their reproductive lives.

Ironically, I think "welfare" was a great liberal frame back in the day. Eventually, even the best frames become dead metaphors. Nowadays, "welfare" is losing its original positive connotation and even becoming perjorative (eg "welfare bum". "welfare queen"). That's why we have to keep thinking up new frames.


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Kerry's doing his bit to reframe "relief" (courtesy of Slate):

"He gave you relief," Kerry says, "kind of like the sort of relief you get when someone comes into your home and relieves you of your TV set. You know, we've been relieved of 1.6 million jobs. Half a million kids have been relieved of child care." He concludes, "And I think it's time we relieve George Bush of his responsibilities."

Yes, that's nicely done. Now, all we need to do is reframe "class warfare" so Kerry can point out that the rich have been relieving themselves all over America ever since Bush became President.

Ahh! Sadly, I suspect that Kerry won't be able to, um, go there, so to speak.

But it'd be nice to live in times when a Democratic candidate could.

And for those who wonder where all of this sort of nonsense in politics started see Newt Gengrich's 1990 classic "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control".

Gengrich understood that many voters know little about issues and candidates and can be easily manipulated by propaganda. Sadly this is what American democracy has come to. Facts and reason mean nothing. Elections are now simply a propaganda war competing for the ill informed vote.

People complain about negative campaigning, but the fact is, negative campaigning works. Slime early and often. Guess who said this: "By the time we get through with John Kerry, they won't know which side he fought on."

Who will win the race to the bottom? Stay tuned.

I agree. I forgot to think of Planned Parenthood. It is a really good frame!

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