April 14, 2005

Linguistic sorcerers

Joshua Green's piece in the May 2005 issue of Atlantic Monthly highlights Democrats' recent interest in linguist George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which advances the idea that Republicans have been doing a better job than they at promoting their causes by using language to influence public perceptions. A good example is the term "tax relief", which frames the entire concept of taxation as a burden imposed from without, rather than as a reasonable expectation citizens have of themselves under a social contract. One would think it would be unsurprising at this late date to point out how willing people are to buy into manipulations of language, and you'd think both parties would be very practiced at this sort of thing by now. But on reflection, Democrats do seem remarkably ham-handed at it.

Contrast Reagan's "Mistakes were made", which deflected responsibility in a subtle enough way that his supporters could defend it, with Clinton's "it depends what 'is' is", which even supporters had to admit was an embarrassment. Another, lighter linguistic WTF moment, thanks to a Democrat: the recent statement by State Sen. Ellen Karcher (D, New Jersey), who said of the tomato: "Botanically it's a fruit, legally it's a vegetable".

Regardless, Green's view is that the real problem the Democrats have is with ideas, not language, and that's a question one could fairly debate. But Green doesn't. Rather than asking any substantive questions about the possible role of "framing" versus substance in forming public opinion, he himself plays the "framing" game. Republican Frank Lutz (who created terminology like "tax relief") is a pollster, strategist, wordsmith, "message-meister". In contrast, a "Masonic cabal" of "superstitious Democrats" imagines Republicans as having "linguisic sorcerers", and now seeks to employ similar "mysterious alchemical skills" in order to move the masses.

I think Lakoff's point is a bit overblown. But on the other hand, Green's piece is precisely the sort of crafted, carefully framed language that Lakoff is worried about. It's designed to reinforce a point of view in the reader's mind without making any real argument or presenting any real evidence. Is Lakoff's book the only game in town for drawing attention to this strategy and blunting its effect, or can we do better? Where do we linguists apply for our robes and magic wands? What spell or potion will get people to question rather than simply to accept and follow?

Posted by Philip Resnik at April 14, 2005 11:32 AM