Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review: “Thinking Points” by George Lakoff and The Rockridge Institute

When I first received Thinking Points in the mail my first thought was that it was a pretty slim volume for “a progressive’s handbook communicating our American values and vision”. Wow, I thought, all that in just 156 paperback pages? I was frankly skeptical.

But oh boy was I wrong. Lakoff and Co. manage, in those 156 pages, to set out a clear and consistent framework that explains exactly how to communicate effectively - with particular emphasis on American progressive politics but it is applicable to any attempt to communicate ideas, values and concepts. The book doesn’t set out long lists of progressive policies or the facts and figures to back them up. Instead it concentrates on what makes political arguments work - appeals to values and to deep moral structures keyed by very specific language patterns.

The central concept of the book is taken from cognitive science, that of “deep frames” - think of these as kinds of mental maps of reality - which form a framework by which we all understand our world. If you don’t use language that keys someone’s deep frames then whatever you say just bounces off, they cannot assimilate your argument because it doesn’t come in a form understandable to them. Like trying to program in the wrong language with no compiler. (I will admit right here that my academic background is in cognitive philosophy so I was already familiar with the general idea of deep frames. Thereby comes my only quibble with the book. Lakoff appears to be claiming credit for the concept but it is simply a relabelling of ideas which have evolved in sources as far apart as Robert Anton Wilson’s “ Prometheus Rising” and John Searle’s “Intentionality”.) One of Lakoff’s tasks is to provide a compiler which enables conservatives to comprehend what progressives are saying (and vice versa) thus allowing arguments to be constructed which will be convincing to someone using a conservative deep frame while still speaking about progressive values.

Let’s take a for-instance - the “war on terror” frame. The important word here is “war”. It defines the frame and, if left alone, defines the issue because it activates deep frames - that America only fights good wars and that those who disagree with doing good are themselves evil.

This frame has very real implications, especially considering the commonplace theory that America fights only the good fight. If what is happening is seen as a “war”, it has to be a just war, despite how and why we got into it. [How and why will just “bounce off - C] It has to be a war against evil, or we wouldn’t be in it. {Thus everyone who disagrees becomes evil too - C] And we have to fight to the finish, however difficult it may be…The “war” frame not only defines what’s happening in Iraq but also constrains the solutions. In a war, it is cowardly and immoral to “cut and run”.
Moreover, slogans or statements that reinforce the deep frame while arguing against the issue-defining frame are doomed to failure. Every time a progressive repeats something like “the war on Terra” or “stay and pay” or “lie and die” it simply reinforces the deep framing imposed on the debate and backfires.
Each one of these is a self-interest, save-our-skins frame that accepts the “war” frame and says it is in our interest to get out….it accepts that frame and takes the saving-our-skin position, which in the frame is cowardly and immoral. The advocates of removing our troops fell right into the trap.
But consider what happens if instead of using a conservative-imposed “war” frame, we argue instead from an alternative and truthful frame - that the “war” ended with “mission accomplished” and what is now happening is an occupation.
Notice how the “occupation” frame - an issue defining frame - restructures the terms of the debate to illuminate more honest concerns. In an occupation, there are pragmatic issues: Are we welcome? Are we doing the Iraqis more harm than good? How badly are we being hurt? The question is not whether to withdraw but when. In an occupation, the problem is not an evil enemy. The problem is when to leave…Our troops were trained to fight a war, not to occupy a country where they don’t know the language and culture, where they don’t have enough troops, where they face an anti-occupation insurgency by the Iraqis themselves, where there is a civil war going on, and where most Iraqis want them out.
Not to mention that “Occupation President” has a very different ring to it - far more authoritarian and with no constitution-given right to usurp the powers of the other branches of government.

Lakoff’s book is full of such gems, all stemming from his basic understanding of these reality-mapping "frames".

He discusses biconceptualism (being conservative on some issues and progressive on others) and identifies biconceptuals as the true moderates rather than some arbitary and non-existant central person on a scale who’s political views we need to “move towards”. He shows how to speak to biconceptuals in ways that remind them of their progressiveness and in ways that remind them of America’s fondness for the progressive values of fairness, helping others, freedom and responsibility. Speaking effectively to moderates means being authentic about your progressive values in a way that reminds them that they share those values.

That’s yet another key insight - authenticity.
The authentic pragmatist sticks to his or her values and works to satisfy them maximally. The inauthentic pragmatist, on the other hand, is willing to depart from his or her true values for the sake of political gain…authenticity matters in politics. When you surrender authenticity, you surrender your values, and you surrender trust.
Which explains why Democrat attempts to “move towards the center” have been such unmitigated failures. You don’t vote for someone you don’t trust.

There’s more - far more - including a discussion of the defining difference between conservatives and progressives - the “father frame” where your primary political outlook is determined by whether you feel a father should be primarily nurturing or strict. Those who hold a “strict father” deep frame tend to need strong authority figures who provide an absolute moral direction and believe that punishment teaches self-discipline, which is the primary “good” because only possession of self-discipline enables one to be a good “strict father” oneself. Those who hold this frame tend to be conservatives.

Lakoff and the Institute take their reader through just about every major political debate, explaining how deep framing affects surface framing on each and how both progressive and conservative frames understand the deeper issues behind the policy debates - issues like self-reliance, common good and the morality of property ownership. They then show how to frame progressive arguments in ways that conservatives and biconceptuals (moderates) can easily access and in ways that they can relate to and agree with, while still remaining authentically progressive. He then makes one final point - that framing has to be repeated, time and again and across the board, until it becomes as pervasive and automatic as the conservative narrative has been, and then more so.

In 156 easily accessible pages, Lakoff sets the standard upon which all future discussion of the deep cognitive nature of political debate - the meta-politics - will be based. As such, I heartily recommend that you go buy this book. It is a must read.