Amanda’s article on Lakoff reminded me of two things I’ve been meaning to say about framing.

In being popularized, the concept of framing has basically been reduced to the search for magical words. It’s become synonymous with spin. Molly Ivins sums it up this way:

Now, here’s the Catch-22 we get with this administration: It is using the exact language of the [energy] bill’s critics — stealing it wholesale and using it to promote its bill. It’s our friend Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who specializes in "framing" issues (framing means the same thing as spinning, and in the non-political world it is known as lying), at work again.

If all you knew about framing is what you’d read in the popular press — or Lakoff’s shallow, repetitive recent book — I can see why you’d hold that view. But there’s more to it than that. The cognitive scientific work that resulted in the notion of "framing" is best explained in this book, and is not, contra Marc Cooper, "neuroscientific hooey." The strange admixture of philosophy, neuroscience, and linguistics that Lakoff has championed is certainly not the dominant view in those areas of study, but it’s well-respected and extensively fleshed out, though you wouldn’t know it from listening to the current debate over framing.

Lakoff’s key insight is that understanding is inherently metaphorical. There is nothing — certainly nothing in the complex realms of society and politics — that we understand "literally." Rather, we process these phenomena in terms of other, simpler, more primal experiences (spatial and tactile sensations, basic family relations). What we think of as a "literal truth" is just a metaphor fossilized from common use. This isn’t simply a matter of habit — it’s built into our brains. Our neural pathways are shaped by formative experiences, and those pathways determine how we process more complex phenomena later on in life. (See public dialogue on foreign policy for particularly naked and ubiquitous use of metaphors based on personal relationships.)

A "frame" is not just a buzzword. It’s a foundational metaphor, a complex web of associations, memories, and feelings, instantiated at the neural level. Changing these frames is a difficult, extended, and intensely personal undertaking, not something a politician can do casually, with well-chosen terminology.

Rather, smart framing has to do with what frames are evoked by the language we use. As a concept, framing is entirely truth-neutral. It is not synonymous with spin, and certainly not with lying. Rather, it’s best thought of as an underlying theory that can explain why certain spin works. It can explain why some lies are so compelling and effective.

Which brings my second point. Let me be blunt: Just because Lakoff has identified and clarified the concept of framing doesn’t mean he’s particularly good at it. On this subject, Marc Cooper is quite correct. Everything I’ve seen of Lakoff’s attempts to actual do framing, rather than explain it, has struck me as clumsy and occasionally almost comically naive. In an age dominated by fears of terrorism, Lakoff wants progressives to be non-judgmental nurturant parents? WTF?

It’s futile for the greens to be chasing after Lakoff, begging him for help. He doesn’t know any better than they do what will work. Calling global warming a "heat-trapping blanket" is not worth one good goddamn. People understand, vaguely, that something very big and bad is happening. The problem is the oldest one in the book, which is motivating people to make some short-term changes in behavior for results that they will never live to see.

Greens need to do some polling. They need to send people door-to-door, talking, listening, persuading, and they need open channels whereby the insights gained thereby can be disseminated. They need to do practical work building institutions, alliances, and political power. And yes, they do need to pitch their messages in ways that connect with the values and aspirations of a wider range of people.

But funneling $350,000 into Lakoff’s pockets in search of linguistic pixie dust is a mug’s game.