July 17, 2005

The NYT updates the framing wars

Nine months after the blogospheric buzz, the NYT magazine comes to term with Matt Bai's article "The Framing Wars". Well, that's not fair. The article does recycle much of the usual material, including its title, the question of whether success in political discourse is about words or about ideas, the obligatory passage about Frank Luntz, and so on; but it's mostly about the current state of framing uptake on the Democratic-party side of American politics.

Bai leads with a nice image:

After last November's defeat, Democrats were like aviation investigators sifting through twisted metal in a cornfield, struggling to posit theories about the disaster all around them.

There's an update on George's current lifestyle:

When I first met Lakoff in April, at a U.C.L.A. forum where he was appearing with Arianna Huffington and the populist author Thomas Frank, he told me that he had been receiving an average of eight speaking invitations a day and that his e-mail account and his voice mailbox had been full for months. ''I have a lot of trouble with this life,'' Lakoff confided wearily as we boarded a rental-car shuttle in Oakland the following morning. He is a short and portly man with a professorial beard, and his rumpled suits are a size too big. ''People say, 'Why do you go speak to all these little groups?' It's because I love them. I wish I could do them all.'' Not that most of Lakoff's engagements are small. Recently, in what has become a fairly typical week for him, Lakoff sold out auditoriums in Denver and Seattle.

There's an interesting description of one of framing's successes -- the SS debate:

Bush had tried to recast his proposed ''private accounts'' as ''personal accounts'' after it became clear to both sides that privatization, as a concept, frightened voters. But as they did on the filibuster, Democrats had managed to trap the president in his own linguistic box. ''We branded them with privatization, and they can't sell that brand anywhere,'' Pelosi bragged when I spoke with her in May. ''It's down to, like, 29 percent or something. At the beginning of this debate, voters were saying that the president was a president who had new ideas. Now he's a guy who wants to cut my benefits.''

and an even more interesting suggestion that these successes are more about party discipline than about public reactions to language:

In the end, the success of the Social Security effort ... may have had something to do with language or metaphor, but it probably had more to do with the elusive virtue of party discipline. Pelosi explained it to me this way: for years, the party's leaders had tried to get restless Democrats to stay ''on message,'' to stop freelancing their own rogue proposals and to continue reading from the designated talking points even after it got excruciatingly boring to do so. Consultants like Garin and Margolis had been saying the same thing, but Democratic congressmen, skeptical of the in-crowd of D.C. strategists, had begun to tune them out. ''Listening to people inside Washington did not produce any victories,'' Pelosi said.

But now there were people from outside Washington -- experts from the worlds of academia and Silicon Valley -- who were making the same case. What the framing experts had been telling Democrats on the Hill, aside from all this arcane stuff about narratives and neural science, was that they needed to stay unified and repeat the same few words and phrases over and over again. And these ''outsiders'' had what Reid and Pelosi and their legion of highly paid consultants did not: the patina of scientific credibility. Culturally, this made perfect sense. If you wanted Republican lawmakers to buy into a program, you brought in a guy like Frank Luntz, an unapologetically partisan pollster who dressed like the head of the College Republicans. If you wanted Democrats to pay attention, who better to do the job than an egghead from Berkeley with an armful of impenetrable journal studies on the workings of the brain?

You might say that Lakoff and the others managed to give the old concept of message discipline a new, more persuasive frame -- and that frame was called ''framing.'' ''The framing validates what we're trying to say to them,'' Pelosi said. ''You have a Berkeley professor saying, 'This is how the mind works; this is how people perceive language; this is how you have to be organized in your presentation.' It gives me much more leverage with my members.''

There are some factual errors, such as Bai's description of Lakoff's history with Chomsky:

It began nearly 40 years ago, when, as a graduate student, Lakoff rebelled against his mentor, Noam Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century.

When I first met George, in 1965, he was already a faculty member at Harvard, and still considered himself on the same linguistic team as Chomsky, so to speak. I don't think that his level of enthusiasm for the enterprise of Chomskian linguistics had diminished since his time as a graduate student at Indiana (a period which technically ended with his PhD in 1966, after he began work at Harvard). Their disagreements -- part of the so-called "linguistics wars" -- developed into acrimonious argument several years later, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As far as I know, Chomsky had never been Lakoff's "mentor" in any meaningful sense of that term, unlike the relationship that Chomsky had with other "generative semanticists" such as Haj Ross and James McCawley, who had been Chomsky's students at MIT and who joined Lakoff in "rebelling", as Bai puts it.

There are a few very strange choices in Bai's article. For example, the Designated Detractor role is assigned to Kenneth Baer, and backed up with a spectacularly inappropriate ritual quote:

Lakoff's detractors say that it is he who resembles the traveling elixir salesman, peddling comforting answers at a time when desperate Democrats should be admitting some hard truths about their failure to generate new ideas. ''Every election defeat has a charlatan, some guy who shows up and says, 'Hey, I marketed the lava lamp, and I can market Democratic politics,''' says Kenneth Baer, a former White House speechwriter who wrote an early article attacking Lakoff's ideas in The Washington Monthly. ''At its most basic, it represents the Democratic desire to find a messiah.''

George "marketed the lava lamp"? What is that all about? My client is innocent, your honor: when the lava lamp was marketed, he was busy mimeographing handouts about ordering constraints among syntactic transformations.

Finally, I'm surprised that there's so little sensitivity to a relevant piece of word-sense ambiguity here. The founding fathers framed the Constitution, and are conventionally called " The Framers". That metaphor is based on the idea of framing a building, setting its essential structure in place. Why does (almost) everyone now seem to take it for granted that "framing" an issue is how you tell people about it, rather than how you decide to think about it? Is everyone caught instead in the idea of framing as wrapping a (purely decorative and presentational) frame around a picture? This was my first reaction to the MSM discussion of framing, and nothing much seems to have changed, in this respect, since July of 2004. Thinking about The Framers might help re-frame framing.

Though Bai's stuff on current uptake is interesting, the article's treatment of the framing ideas themselves is weak or worse. If you're interested, you can find better stuff in earlier magazine articles, and still better stuff in the (admittedly sprawling) blogospheric discussion:

Magazine links:

Michael Erard, "Frame Wars", in The Texas Observer (11/5/2004)
Marc Cooper, "Thinking of Jackasses", in The Atlantic Monthly (4/2005)
Joshua Green, "It Isn't the Message, Stupid", in The Atlantic Monthly (5/2005)

Blog links:

Language Log:
9/3/2003 "Linguistic punditocracy: the Rockridge Institute",
"W the debater",
"It's about ideas, not words",
9/4/2004 "Frames and messages",
"More on Lakoff on framing",
"Lakoff hits the big time, blogwise",
"Good theory, bad practice -- or contrariwise?",
4/14/2005 "Linguistic sorcerers".

Chris at Mixing Memory:
9/09/2004 "Framing the convention",
"Karl Rove the Feminist Bankteller",
"Lakoff in the Blogosphere",
"Understanding Frames with an Eye Toward Using Them Better",
"Lakoff's View of Metaphors",
"Lakoff is Everywhere!"

Coturnix at Science and Politics:
9/17/2004 "'Framing' is spreading through the Blogosphere"
9/20/2004 "Kos discovers Lakoff"
9/21/2004 "Nurturant is not Coddly!"

Justin at Semantic Compositions:
"Maybe try thinking of a donkey",
"What George Lakoff knows about the mind",
"How not to test a hypothesis",
10/5/2004 "Excellent, excellent",
"Relax? I can't relax!",
"Elephants in George's pajamas",
11/15/2004 "A reply to my critics".

[Update: Arnold Zwicky has corrected my false belief that Paul Postal was a grad student with Chomsky at MIT:

you're right about george lakoff, but not about paul postal. neither george nor paul was a student at MIT; paul's ph.d., on mohawk morphophonology, is from yale (with floyd lounsbury as his adviser, if i remember correctly). paul did teach at MIT. but he was a "student" of chomsky's only in the way that, say, bob stockwell and chuck fillmore and emmon bach were chomsky's students.

That's teach me to put down "facts" without checking. It's embarrassing to do something like this in the context of correcting someone else's error. As always, the Language Log customer service representatives stand ready to refund your subscription fees in case of less than full satisfaction.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 17, 2005 08:50 AM