George Lakoff is not the solution to our problems
I keep thinking I’m done talking about framing (done framing framing?), but like the man said, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
More below the fold, for those who are not sick of the subject.I’ve read a number of people now saying that I’ve “dismissed framing altogether,” or something of the sort. But that was not my intention. So, once more, for the record:
The theory of which “frames” and “framing” are a part is not primarily a theory about political speech. It is much broader and deeper than that. It is a theory about how the human mind works, and the roles language, concepts, and metaphors play therein.
Distinct from the theory itself is the question of practical application: how to use one’s knowledge of frames to one’s advantage, or as it is usually shortened, how to frame. There is no single, unitary skill with regard to frames. Framing in the political realm is different than framing in the business world, or in academia, or in a social setting, or in an intimate relationship, etc. Knowledge of how the mind works is certainly helpful in all these areas, but each requires its own unique skill set and context-specific knowledge base. Over at Worldchanging, Alex quotes me — under my “some people” pseudonym — saying “all you need to be ‘great at framing’ is some empathy and a willingness to listen.” This was a bit overboard, but what I was getting at is: we all frame, all the time, whenever we speak, whether we do it intentionally and thoughtfully or not. Many of us are quite good at it in some contexts, through nothing more than an empathetic understanding of other people and a facility with language.
Framing in a political context is a particular, specialized skill — as Alex rightly says, more art than science. There’s no reason to believe that because Lakoff developed the theory of framing, he’s good at applying it in the political realm. Indeed, what I’ve seen of his specific attempts — progressives as “nurturant parents,” taxes as “membership fees” — strikes me as almost poignantly naive, the work of a bred-to-the-bone Berkeley liberal of the old school. I’ve seen it done better in a number of places, Alex’s own attempts being one example among many.
Therefore, it is rather silly of the Green Group to spend $350,000 on a series of papers by Lakoff (or rather, by Lakoff’s young assistants). Having an outside figure feed them a bunch of framing language, and then debuting that language publicly, is going to come off as awkward and desperate — if it comes off at all. If you question my skepticism, recall the House Democrats’ “New Partnership for America’s Future,” developed through extensive consultation with (and probably considerable cash payments to) Lakoff. Remember that? No? You probably don’t — nobody does — but that’s for the best, because it sucked.
All of this is not to bash Lakoff. He’s a brilliant guy whose work I read and enjoyed long before he was reborn as a political consultant. But he is not a messiah. He doesn’t even seem to be particularly good at framing, at least as the game is played in politics.