July 23, 2004

It's about ideas, not words

I understand that George Lakoff will be interviewed this evening on NOW with Bill Moyers, as part of a pre-convention broadcast.

From Moyers' website:

"This Monday when the lights go on in Boston at the Democratic convention, speakers will be center stage and working hard to deliver messages that connect with voters. Analysts say that for two decades conservatives have done a much better job than progressives to frame and talk about their values and some say the convention could be a make or break moment in the election. Do words really have the power to win not just hearts and minds, but votes? David Brancaccio gets a few words on the subject from world-renowned linguist George Lakoff. Dr. Lakoff is a founder of the Rockridge Institute, a new political think tank set up to reframe the terms of political debate to make a progressive vision more persuasive and influential. Lakoff is a professor at UC Berkeley and is the author of 8 books, including the influential MORAL POLITICS: HOW LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES THINK and most recently DON'T THINK OF AN ELEPHANT! WHAT EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VALUES AND THE FRAMING WARS, which is due out next month."

First James Fallows, now Bill Moyers -- at least via ex-Marketplace host David Brancaccio. Good for George.

But there's something funny about that blurb. George's point about how political arguments are framed is not about words, it's about ideas. When he writes that

...there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways. ... these political worldviews can be understood as opposing models of an ideal family -- a strict father family and a nurturant parent family. These family models come with moral systems, which in turn provide the deep framing of all political issues.

he's not talking about vocabulary. He's claiming that there are (at least) two systematically different perspectives on the family, and that the major difference in American politics today is a metaphorical transformation of that opposition.

He could be right or wrong -- or a bit of both -- but he's right or wrong about the nature and role of ideas, not about the nature and role of words.

I think there's a lexical ambiguity that contributes to this confusion. Lakoff talks about "frames", by which he means something like "basic cognitive structures which guide the perception and representation of reality". (The frame terminology is not an original contribution -- it's especially associated with work in sociology by Erving Goffman and others -- though George has his own take on the concept).

So when Lakoff talks about how political debates are "framed", he means (I think) to talk about what frames (in the sense of conceptual structures) underlie them. But the verb to frame has an ordinary meaning "to put into words", and whoever wrote Moyers' blurb seem to have translated George's shtick about how conservatives have done a better job of "framing" their arguments into the rather different idea that "words really have the power to win not just hearts and minds, but votes"

Of course specific words and phrases evoke (aspects of) specific frames. But to say that George is telling us about the role of words in political discourse is like saying that an architectural critic is telling us about the role of building materials in urban culture. There's a layer or two left out.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 23, 2004 09:00 AM