Down In Frames

Whatever happened to George Lakoff?

This week’s Chronicle Review has an article about cognitive linguist (and Chomsky nemesis) George Lakoff, who has written a new book entitled The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain. A few years back, as CJR’s Todd Gitlin notes in the article, Lakoff “‘was more than the flavor of the week. He was the messianic flavor, the flavor to end all flavors.’” These days, it seems, the linguist has fallen out of flavor.

The article’s definitely worth a read, if only because the brand of thinking that Lakoff so adamantly champions (to the detriment of his academic reputation)—very simply put, that emotionally driven arguments are more effective with voters than reason-driven ones, and that assuming otherwise is stupid—has, for better or for worse, become manna for many a political campaign. From the article:

An unabashed liberal (he insists on the label “progressive”), he says that Republicans have been quick to realize that the way people think calls for placing emotional and moral appeals at the center of campaign strategy. (He suspects that they gleaned their knowledge from marketing, where some of the most innovative work on the science of persuasion is taking place.) Democrats, Lakoff bemoans, have persisted in an old-fashioned assumption that facts, figures, and detailed policy prescriptions win elections. Small wonder that in recent years the cognitive linguist has emerged as one of the most prominent figures demanding that Democrats take heed of the cognitive sciences and abandon their faith in voters’ capacity to reason.

The article, written by Chronicle staff editor Evan Goldstein, goes on to discuss Lakoff’s influences, which include a lecture delivered by Charles J. Fillmore, a linguist who worked with the idea of semantic framing—the idea that “words automatically bring to mind bundles of ideas, narratives, emotions, and images”:

[Fillmore] called those related concepts “frames,” and he posited that they are strengthened when certain words and phrases are repeated.

Wait. This is too good an opportunity to pass up. Let’s take a look at a bit part from the HRC Memos. From a Mark Penn strategy memo that addresses tactics by which to favorably contrast HRC against Barack Obama:

Shows these are just words. Shows he is not ready. Simple frames people relate easily to and are not hyperbolic… These frames of not ready, just words, all will accrue to one central fact that will swing men and superdelegates even further—he cannot win, you can. Once people again believe that, he is done and we are the nominees—the rest is a matter of time.

In the following section, titled “Undoing Obama,” Penn reiterates: “The frames are simple—not ready for president and it’s all just words, not actions.”

It’s funny, because, as Goldstein notes, many linguists—working in a field that is often considered abstruse and recondite even within the academe—have dismissed Lakoff as a joke. (So have intellectuals from other fields, like Harvard’s star psychology prof Steven Pinker.) But political strategists, unsure whether to gratefully utilize what many consider his quick-fix theories or reject them as sales-y garbage that mutes the expression of concrete ideas, haven’t unilaterally embraced him, either.

This “caught in the middle” position, one that Lakoff has intermittently occupied since the mid-90s (when he first started considering how framing could be utilized in the political arena), explains the article’s headline: “Who Framed George Lakoff?” Maybe Lakoff can work on a different framing scenario for himself. Or maybe he needn’t bother, because, though worrisome, it’s clear from Penn’s memo that his terminology has caught on behind the scenes. The cat is out of the bag.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.