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Don't Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff

Framing 101

Here's the scenario:
You go home to (insert a red state here) and at the dinner table the issue of (insert wedge issue here) comes up and turns a pleasant reunion into (insert name of a cataclysmic natural disaster here). Voices are raised, tears are shed, children are written out of wills, and there is little understanding, if any, of what exactly happened.

Then you pick up a book called, Don't Think of an Elephant by Berkeley based professor and cognitive linguist George Lakoff and you have an epiphany. You may have been born into a family of dogmatic conservatives but this book, subtitled, "The Essential Guide for Progressives", will help you to understand the political thought behind their positions so that you can have an actual debate. Or at least give it a good college try.

In Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff describes the use of "frames", the mental structures that shape the way we see the world. He proposes that the language we use triggers frames, deep in our unconscious, that shape how others react to what we say. Lakoff believes we need to speak differently, in order to get people to think differently.

The two main frames discussed in this handbook are the conservative "strict father" versus the progressive "nurturant parent" paradigms. If Americans vote based on values, than there is something deeply appealing about George Bush which progressives, as of the last election, are still struggling to understand. George Bush is the strict father who does not need to ask the United Nations for a "permission slip" to invade Iraq. According to Lakoff, the John Wayne-style "Bubbaisms" Bush uses are finely-tuned words meant to evoke the folksiness of rural populists. Furthermore, in Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff shows how Republican think-tanks coin and promote Orwellian "do one thing and say another" programs such as No Child Left Behind, the Clear Skies Initiative, and Healthy Forests.

The nurturant parent frame, on the other hand, invokes progressive values of empathy and responsibility. Lakoff contends that the nurturant family is a gender-neutral frame that seeks to protect the rights of citizens and the quality of life and the environment. Lakoff believes that by re-framing debate progressives can sway swing voters. In order to re-frame "gay marriage", it becomes "same-sex marriage". "Smaller Government" becomes "Effective Government". "Family Values" becomes "Mutual Responsibility". Or, in short, maligned "wishy-washy" and "elitist" liberals become progressives.

So you are back at the dinner table with Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Joe and Aunt Bertha and Mom and Dad. Lakoff has given you a series of speaking points in Chapter Ten, "How to Respond to Conservatives". You are attempting to activate their subconscious nurturant values. You are trying to, "avoid the language of weakness". Perhaps you get passed over for the gravy and you are trying to remember as Lakoff writes, "most conservatives are personally nice people." Theoretically it made perfect sense, but in practice it feels a bit like trying to explain to a fish how to ride a bicycle.

Yet, even if re-framing is difficult, it is worthwhile. Social change is a slow and arduous process, and while at times Lakoff appears to be invoking a Liberal Berkeley Professor frame, that doesn't make him wrong. Don't Think of an Elephant adds new techniques to the progressive arsenal and points out places of weakness in conservative frames. And for all of us with conservatives at our dinner tables, let's hope there will be more guides from Mr. Lakoff that seek to improve cross-party dialogue for the betterment of all Americans.

Don't Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff
September 2004
Chelsea Green Publishing
Softcover, $10
ISBN 1-931498-71-1