Don't Think of an Elephant — A Donkey Kicks Back

Random Lengths News | September 10, 2004
Don’t Think of An Elephant—A Donkey Kicks Back

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

For most political consultants, the framing of issues is an art. But for UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, it is a science. Whenever he teaches Cognitive Science 101, he introduces framing with a simple exercise—he tells his students, “Don’t think of an elephant!” And every time the result is the same.

“I’ve never found a student who is able to do this,” he writes in his new book, Don't Think Of An Elephant!—Know Your Values And Frame The Debate.

“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame,” he explains, “The word is defined relative to that frame. When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”

“So what?” you might ask. So this, Lakoff explains: Conservatives have spent the last 40 years developing and promoting their own set of issue frames, frames so powerful with endless repetition that they make it extremely difficult to effectively disagree. Liberals end up saying, “Don’t think of an elephant!” because they haven’t devoted similar resources to developing their own set of frames. And every time they say that…people think of elephants, not donkeys.

A second key fact about frames is this—when facts conflict with a frame, people throw out the facts and keep the frame. Frames live physically in our synapses, Lakoff explains. If you want the facts to sink in, you have to give people a different frame—a frame in which they will fit.

A key element to conservatives’ success is their constant harping on values. It’s not that conservatives have a monopoly on values—it’s that they use their values aggressively to frame their arguments. In his 1996 book, Moral Politics, Lakoff demonstrated how two competing family models were responsible for different moral systems shaping liberal and conservative positions across a wide range of issues. His current book applies that insight and integrates it into a comprehensive argument for how liberals can emulate conservatives’ success, relying on their own set of values instead.

Conservatives, Lakoff explains, rely on a “Strict Father” model, according to which, “The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.” And that is the job of the disciplinarian Strict Father.

In contrast, liberals rely on a “Nurturant Parent” model, in which, “Both parents are equally responsible for raising the children. The assumption is that children are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place, and our job is to work on that. The parents’ job is to nurture their children and to raise their children to be nurturers of others.” Nuturance encompasses both empathy and responsibility, and responsibility also encompasses protection. So liberals aren’t neglectful of the world’s dangers—they just aren’t obsessed with them in the way that conservatives are.

We have all internalized some degree of both models, Lakoff explains. But conservatives devote a lot more energy to activating one model than liberals devote to activating the other.

In a relatively long first chapter, Lakoff summarizes the findings from Moral Politics, and presents a convincing overview of why and how they matter for both understanding and changing politics. He then moves on to several case study-style chapters—on the California Recall, same-sex marriage, terrorism, war and Bush’s deception in invading Iraq—where he really shows off the power of his approach.

A chapter on the California recall shows how GOP-favoring frames obscured multiple forms of Republican skullduggery, which made sense in another frame that Democrats failed to communicate— the Right-Wing Power Grab frame. A chapter on same-sex marriage focuses on the need “to fight definition with definition and sanctity with sanctity,” by defining marriage as “the sanctity of love and commitment.” A chapter on terrorism, written days after 9/11, is a tour de force explaining both the power and the tragic shortcomings of the Bush Administration’s Strict Father approach to fighting terrorists, while neglecting underlying causes that produce terrorists faster than they can be killed.

All this takes place in the first 80 pages, “Part I: Theory and Application.” The second part, “From Theory to Action,” half that long, is an exquisite tool kit for putting his insights to work, from the most general level to the specific.

Despite being short (124 pages) and simply written, Don’t Think of An Elephant! is so dense with insight it will repay countless re-readings in order to fully digest and incorporate everything Lakoff has to say. And despite being unabashedly pro-liberal, it has important lessons for everyone across the spectrum, including reporters. Lakoff writes, “it is the special duty of reporters to study framing and to learn to see through politically motivated frames, even if they have come to be accepted as everyday and commonplace.”

If frames control our thinking without our realizing it, then none of us is truly autonomous—and autonomy is a value that both liberals and conservatives share. For that reason, Lakoff’s book speaks to conservatives as well. A more conscious political debate, where both sides freely present their frames to the public, can only result in better debates, better decision-making, and a better democracy for all of us.

Is that a nurturant parent vision? Hell, yes, it is!

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