Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Communication according to Lakoff

I started reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (originally published in 1996) this weekend. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who wrote the book to help explain the Republican gains following Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The edition I have was updated in 2001, with a new subtitle, and additional observations and new material tied to the 2000 presidential election. The book also happens to be the first full-scale application of cognitive science to politics

Lakoff spends a great deal of time working through the differing worldviews of both ideologies, contrasting two family metaphors; the “strict father mode” of conservatives, with the “nurturant parent model” that liberals hold in framing their issues.

I’m always interested in theories and concepts on communication because I think the ability to communicate might be one of the key skills and abilities of the 21st century. The reason that I think this is true is because of the sheer volume of, as well as the speed that our modern communication whizzes by at. It takes some level of sophistication to cut through so much of the white noise of spin, and surface level analysis. Unfortunately, not enough Americans make much of an effort to move beyond a superficial and sophomoric understanding of the issues, in my opinion. Hence, the political pap slingers continue to multiply.

I found the section on metaphors, particularly metaphors tied to moral questions and framing those issues well, worth the time spent reading the rest of the material. In fact, I think this was the strongest section of the book.

Lakoff’s explanation of his metaphorical concept about how the moral books are kept was particularly fascinating. He walks the reader through what he refers to as a “moral accounting,” emphasizing several moral schemes: reciprocation, retribution, restitution, revenge, altruism, to name some of them.

Take for instance, retribution. If someone does something to harm you, you might say, “I’ll pay you back!” (often, with interest)

Where I think Lakoff’s work, and in particular, this book fits into the post-election fade, is in the way that president-elect Obama was able to grasp many of Lakoff’s points, in framing his own campaign, first against Hillary Clinton, and then, John McCain.

In all of the bitterness and blather coming from elements of the right, the similarities between Obama and Reagan are (and were) often missed.

Both candidates had a way of swaying voters to vote for them, even if they didn’t agree with them on the issues. I heard Lakoff tell a story recently, on C-Span’s Book TV, about meeting Dick Wirthlin, back in 1980. Who is Dick Wirthlin? He was Reagan’s chief strategist. According to Lakoff, the two men hit it off, even though they had very differing political views.

According to Wirthlin (as told by Lakoff), he recognized early on that people don't vote on policy, they vote for leaders—for people whose values seem American to them. Basically, they vote for people they feel they can trust.

While McCain and Sarah Palin did their best to frame the campaign around issues, attempting to paint Obama as a “socialist” and a “tax and spend liberal,” Obama met that challenge by figuring out how to say what the majority of Americans believed.

One example of this is in the story about the neighbor’s house.

If your neighbor's house caught on fire and is in danger of burning down, you wouldn’t lecture him on how incompetent he is. You would get out your fire hose and do everything you can do to help until your taxpayer-funded local fire department showed up to put out the fire.

In 2000, when conservatives were able to frame Al Gore as a “fabricator,” and in 2004, when John Kerry got pegged as a “flip-flopper,” the right was successful in their framing of the campaign narrative about their opponent. They weren’t able to in 2008, at least a frame that stuck, so Obama ultimately triumphed.

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