Wednesday, March 9, 2016

(The ALL NEW) Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Be honest: didn't you just picture an elephant?
The ALL-NEW Don't Think of an Elephant:  Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (2014) is a timely read. Lakoff is a linguist and cognitive scientist who is also a committed political progressive. In this book, he applies his extensive learning in linguistics and in cognitive science to analyze how we think how this knowledge can help progressives better convince voters of their cause. Even for those not interested in politics, the book is instructive because it provides a quick, accessible overview of Lakoff’s work. In essence, Lakoff argues that we think through metaphors, that all of our thinking arises from our body and its nervous system. That is, we're embodied beings whose thinking is conditioned by our body and our physical surroundings. For learning and arguing, this means that we think in schemas (outlines, models, patterns), metaphors, and narratives.

In politics, Lakoff argues that progressives and conservatives have different fundamental models (or metaphors) by which they view the world. Lakoff describes this as the difference between a “strict father” family metaphor and a “nurturant family” metaphor. (I'll discuss the use of this governing dichotomy later in the review). From these fundamentally different worldviews flow political positions that allow seemingly diverse issues to coalesce around central worldviews. For instance, how anti-abortion attitudes are related to pro-gun attitudes in the conservative understanding of the world.

In Lakoff’s view, conservatives, following the strict father metaphor, adhere to very defined in strict hierarchies. As he writes:

Here is the hierarchy: God above man; man above nature; adults above children; Western culture above non-Western culture; our country above other countries. These are general conservative values. But the hierarchy goes on, and it explains the oppressive views of more radical conservatives: men above women, Christians above non-Christians, whites above nonwhites, straights above gays.Kindle Edition 357.  

In the nurturant parent model, progressives are much more empathic and more egalitarian. (Lakoff doesn’t address how progressives deal with hierarchies, as some extreme forms of progressivism tend toward the anarchic and radical egalitarianism.) As to those who might be considered “moderate” or  “middle-of-the-road" in their political opinions,  Lakoff argues that there is no third between his two defining models (or metaphors—Lakoff is unclear about which is the appropriate term to describe this dichotomy). Thus, those in the middle, whom he dubs “biconceptual”, are just that: they entertain both models at once, giving voice to one or the other at various times or regarding various topics. With repetition, however, one voice will often grow stronger than the other. Thus, one might be using a nurturant family metaphor at home yet adhere to the strict father metaphor in the workplace or in forming some political opinions.

In the more functional area political communication, Lakoff argues that progressives have been outfoxed by conservatives. Lakoff argues that conservatives have been driving home their message for decades through the generous funding of institutes, think tanks, and the media that allow them to define – or in Lakoff’s technical term “frame” – the public debate. Thus, we think of (or frame) “tax relief" as if taxes were simply a burden rather than the dues one pays for living in our civilized society. Lakoff also argues that conservatives appeal to values. Progressives keep thinking that facts and policies are what drive voters’ decisions, but Lakoff says that the progressives infatuation with facts does little to persuade. Progressives, he argues, need to promote their values. Lakoff describes these values as rooted in empathy:

Progressive/liberal morality begins with empathy, the ability to understand others and feel what they feel. That is presupposed in responsibility—responsibility for oneself, for protection, for the care of those who need care, and for the community. Kindle 1856.

Lakoff makes a strong argument that progressives need to increase their voice, address values, and refused to enter into the frames established by conservatives. Conservative masterminds, like Frank Luntz, have created a linguistic environment that puts progressives at a disadvantage from the beginning. Thus, the title of Lakoff book and one of the primary takeaways from it: when you tell someone not to think of an elephant, the first thing they will do is think of an elephant! Accordingly, if you frame an issue as one of, for instance, “tax relief", you’re immediately framing taxes as a burden instead of a cost of membership a vital community organization. After all, our tax dollars allow our governments to provide roads, airports, schools, communications systems, scientific research, law enforcement, national defense and so on. Here, Lakoff is certainly correct. The millions of dollars that the Mellon, Scaife, and Koch families have poured into universities, think tanks, and the media have significantly changed the terms of the national debate. Progressives need to get with it and start broadcasting their message in frames that work from their point of view.

On the issue of political communication and messaging, Lakoff makes a persuasive argument. The book intrigues me, and it frustrates me just a little bit on the following particulars.

  1. Lakoff uses the strict father versus nurturant family model (or metaphor) as definitive. I'd read some of Lakoff years ago and was put off by this metaphor, but now I want to explore it further. If this dichotomy is “only” a metaphor, it does provide a great deal of explanatory value. But Lakoff seems to be using this distinction as more than a metaphor, and this raises questions. For instance, is the strict father family model a cause or correlation to a conservative outlook? If it is causal, how does one escape it? For instance, I was born in the 1950s into what I would consider a traditional “father knows best" family. I would describe my father is somewhat strict but not abusive and not authoritarian. My parents had fairly traditional gender roles for that time.  I would describe my upbringing as fairly typical for a small-town, white, kid with college-educated parents. Some friends I grew up with had blue collar parents with less education, and an even more traditional strict father family upbringing, and yet me and some of these others are very much political progressives today. I emigrated from a young Republican to a Democrat (in Lakoff’s terms, a progressive). How did this happen? How did my fundamental metaphor change from that of a strict father family to a nurturant family metaphor? How did I and my wife come to practice a nurturant family model in raises our children? How does this change take place? How does this change in fundamental models relate to the larger cultural environment? Thus, while I think that Lakoff’s metaphor (if that's what it's limited to) is instructive and useful, it's thin on explanation. Lakoff’s model has to be compared to the conception of conservatism versus liberalism that Jon Haidt makes in his writings, or the more comprehensive theories of cultural and personal change found in Integral Theory, which adopts the work of Clare Graves and Don Beck in Spiral Dynamics and incorporates that model into the wider Integral Theory established by Ken Wilber. Perhaps because this is a book intended more of a handbook, Lakoff provides answers elsewhere. (He’s also the author of weighty and significant academic works.)
  2. Lakoff emphasizes that many of the phenomena he discusses are hard-wired in the brain. Again, I don't want to be too harsh because this is a book intended as a political handbook for progressives, not an academic tome, but much of what he says necessarily raise some of the most challenging and fundamental issues about the relation between the material world and consciousness. In Lakoff’s model, the mind arises out of the body (I’ve no problem with that contention), but it's unclear how a change of consciousness comes into this. His emphasis on neural circuitry shared by many of his colleagues in cognitive sciences provide some interesting insights and accounts, but I sometimes  think it is oversold and may have the effect of wedding us to perspectives that are not justified
  3.  Lakoff argues that there is no third position between the strict father family conception and the nurturant family conception. Those who are moderate or in the middle of the road politically he labels biconceptuals. These individuals hold both metaphors in their minds, with one or the other of the two dominant in particular situations. Lakoff’s scheme seems accurate in some sense, but it serves to beg the question. Is it simply the linguistic environment—more conservative or more progressive talk—that tilts the mind one way or the other?  Lakoff classifies conservatives according to different demographics and interests, and he does the same for progressives. His family metaphor doesn't explain those interests or how they are developed and refined within individual contexts or larger political classifications. As someone who migrated from being a young Republican to Democrat, this issue intrigues me. And there are some conservatives (more and more rare) with whom I have some sympathy. Lakoff seems a little too eager to suggest that any conservative position is simply a failure to migrate all the way into one dominant metaphor. For instance, the issue of trade. Trade is a political issue about which I’m conflicted. The basic economics of trade suggest that overall, society can become better off with trade. However, I know that when trade is liberalized and expanded, there are going to be winners and losers. American manufacturing jobs have migrated overseas, and the cost of this migration to many individuals and communities has been devastating. My position on the trade, thus, has shifted from a free trade position to one of very skeptical of further trade agreements that could ship jobs overseas. I don't think I arrived at this the because my family metaphor flipped at some particular moment, but because of my increasing awareness of the evidence that the immediate and local costs of trade begin to outweigh the benefits to the nation as a whole and to posterity. In other words, what may be a progressive position may not be the best view when viewed from a different perspective. In other words, there a lot of facts and nuances and taking a position on something like trade that does family metaphor doesn't account for. It seems that Lakoff with the family model dichotomy creates a Manichean worldview that doesn’t rest comfortably with me. There are more nuanced theories with better explanatory power out there, perhaps some that provide a scale instead of a such a stark dichotomy.
  4. Lakoff argues that voters vote values and not interests. True, mostly, but I think that this oversimplifies the topic. Of course, we have the “what’s the matter with Kansas” phenomena to account for, but voters’ motives are complex, an amalgamation of values, beliefs, perceptions, and downright ignorance or faulty logic. So, values, yes, but interests and beliefs (quite dependent on values), too, play more a role greater than what Lakoff suggests.


As the reader can discern from the length of my review, Lakoff’s book has prompted me to think a great deal. By my measure, that always suggests that book was worthwhile. Progressives shouldn’t ignore Lakoff’s  practical political suggestions. Meanwhile, I'll be off trying to explore Lakoff’s understanding of biconceptuals and the role of the family metaphor more closely. But whether further exploration of these issues brings me to a closer agreement with Lakoff or to a greater disagreement with him, Lakoff has performed a valuable service by his work on these crucial and fascinating topics.

For a good introduction introductory summary of Lakoff work and the one that led me to read this book (and that is quite timely in light the politics we’re experiencing right now, read this by Lakoff from Evonomics online magazine (an excellent resource itself).