Sunday, June 24, 2012

George Lakoff: language, logic, and politics


 George Lakoff is an MIT-educated Berkeley professor of cognitive linguistics with a leftist-progressive bent. On the one hand, it is unfortunate that Lakoff's cogent arguments may be seen as one more example of the left beating up on itself, which it does so much and the right does not (beat up on itself, that is: it's great at beating up on the left). But what Lakoff has to say is so practical that it's essential for leftists or progressives in America to listen to him and act accordingly.

Language trumps "logic"

What Lakoff says is that the way the left thinks and frames its arguments is self-destructive. The prime example he has used lately is the left's adoption of the term "Obamacare" for the "Affordable Care Act," which turns the focus on Obama and his failed policies and is the kiss of death. "Obamacare" is the creation of the right. Lakoff sees political thinking rightly in terms of how the mind works. Judgments (and votes) are framed not logically but morally, and people have in their brains two moral universes, which can function concurrently. Thus the American public can be in favor of most of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, while simultaneously condemning it as an invasion of personal freedoms. The right understands propaganda and advertising; the left relies on "logical argument" principles that were fine in the time of Descartes when logic was beginning to win out over religion but now are outmoded. The right has invented phrases like "Death Panels" to literally bestow the kiss of death on the Affordable Care Act. The left and the Obama administration never created any set of simple counter slogans. They "promoted" the Act uselessly in terms of 24 points, which nobody could remember, so the promotion of the Act rather than its individual measures has faltered. The left keeps on wasting time refuting the arguments or attacks of the right on all kinds of progressive policies, which simply promotes these attacks by mentioning them and using the language of the opposition, like "Obamacare." 


The private depends on the public

Given that all people think morally rather than logically, the pivotal moral point that would give progressive positions the lead if it were remembered and repeated is "the private depends on the public," Lakoff points out. This is easy enough to understand. The corporations can't function without roads and railways, which are maintained at public expense. People are aware that the general public has paid to bail out the banks and left out of work masses foundering, but they fail to see how false and hypocritical the right's critique of government is. But they forget to point out that education, research, and legal protections -- and for that matter, affordable health care, insofar as Americans have it -- are also essential to private profit and the sound economy that will create a strong market.

The fundamental contrast in moral principles between left and right is in the meaning of "democracy." To the right, "democracy" means protecting self-interest. To the left, it means cooperation for the good of the many. The way the right tricks the public is in making it think its interests are those of the "1%." The Occupy movement points out that the one percent's interests are directly opposed to the "99%." Of course these are not the exact percentages, but at least in this respect the left has framed something that can be readily understood and can convince the public to see a progressive point of view as valid. Thus logically Lakoff has described "OWS," the Occupy movement (he might "frame" the movement better there) in a December 2011 "memo" to "OWS" as "primarily a moral movement." And with this 99% vs. 1% slogan it has framed itself as essential and right, unless you are a member of the tiny oligarchy of the super-rich, or are deluded into thinking that your interests are the same as its interests. Indeed the Occupy movement has reframed the debate for the presidential campaign in terms of unfairness, so Obama is daring to speak of the way the public is exploited by the few. 


Lakoff's focus on thinking and language as related to politics is valuable. He is not always on target in political analysis. For example, in this "memo," he says "I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed." Again, by the way, he ought to have said "the Occupy movement," not "the occupation movement," and though this may seem a small point, the whole point is that language matters and is a matter of a vast accumulation of small points. While Lakoff is right that the Occupy movement isn't and shouldn't be about a set of specific policy demands, it is not true that the movement will fail because of the "failure" of specific demands to be met. Occupy should be seen as a nationwide and global movement to re-empower the people ("the 99%"), as opposed to the oligarchy of the rich, the corporations, or government, above and beyond any specific projects or demands. But it can and does make specific demands, and they do not "fail" but simply will take a long time to succeed. The solidarity of the Occupy movement should give its supporters faith that it will prevail, above and beyond any individual demands. But it must focus on individual local or national or global demands. 

On the other hand Lakoff makes sense when he stresses "OWS's" use of "the Public" (or just "the public") as the body that should have priority in the political world, and this supports the principle that "the private depends on the public" and that while the "private" is not inherently evil, and includes small businesses as well as large corporations, its interests should not trump those of "the public," the people, the 99%. 

Mastering language

I might add my own point in this discussion, which is that one reason why the left and the public aren't winning the battle for hearts and minds is that people don't know how to think and that cognitively the ability to handle language adeptly and fluently is degenerating. Americans often seem not to know very well how to speak and write. This in itself, apart from the right's skillful twisting of terms, severely impairs the public's ability to understand, analyze or express anything written or said. It makes a difference whether people know how to frame a question, form a sentence, use pronouns, and handle sophisticated terminology (which may only mean high school or freshman college level). It may sound old fashioned, but Americans, partly through a decline in education, do not master the use of language in public discourse. When radio or TV discourse is full of garbled sentences and confused terms, it's obvious those wielding their clumsy sentences for public consumption don't know how to think, because, as Lakoff emphasizes, language frames thought. A badly framed sentence is a sign of a confused thought.

Egypt and Arabic

Egypt since the January 25 revolution is a place where language is used clearly, despite the country's poor literacy rate (66%, 97th in the world). Everywhere there are clear, emphatic slogans, shouted by men held on the shoulders of demonstrators, on placards, written on walls. This might be the material of demagoguery, but there is an artisanal quality about it that is democratic and free. The Arabs have a rich oral tradition. Their culture includes expressing oneself emphatically, and believe me, they do, men and women. One has only to watch Al Jazeera Arabic for a few hours to experience the eloquence of the man and woman on the street, and ladies in hijab can be just as outspoken as anybody else. "THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME" is pretty clear, isn't it? So is "We are all Khalid Said," another rallying cry against the Mubarak government's repression. It may help that while Egyptians have a tradition of wit and vivid colloquial language, they also belong to an international community that requires all Arabs to learn a standard literary language to be able to communicate in public debate in government, in the press, and among nations. It works well, since on Al Jazeera it makes possible live panel discussions between people from countries as wide apart as Morocco, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon with instant understanding and no need of a translator. Needless to say there is plenty of room for deceit in the Middle East, but Arabs do have a tradition of mastering a clear common language.


Perhaps what Lakoff is asking for is more propagandists on the left. He is asking progressives to use marketing methods effectively, as the right does, to have a promotional program -- which, for instance, they didn't for Affordable Health Care. But he is also asking the left to acquire tools for deflecting propaganda, which can be countered not only by counter-slogans, by re-framing issues, but also by deft use of language, to stimulate different moral centers of the brain, the ones focused on the value of public good rather than that of private self-interest.

George Lakoff is right to advise the Occupy movement to emphasize the "positive and moral." He provides guidelines it's good to be aware of and calls for an awareness of language that is essential for the left to martial its forces in the 99%. Of course there are a lot more problems than language, and the Egyptian people's clear framing of their desires hasn't been enough to liberate them from the control of a military oligarchy called SCAF, The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But this awareness of language and how it frames thought and emotion may help progressives to combat the right, whose clarity and sureness about what they think and whose canniness about marketing strategy for their candidates and projects have put them ahead repeatedly up to now, especially in the wake of two ideologically soft and over-compromising democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, who drifted toward the center and made it possible for the whole USA to move dramatically toward the right. 


For more details see Lakoff and Elizabeth Wehling:  "Why Conservatives Sell Their Wildly Destructive Ideology Better Than Democrats" on AlterNet.  Lakoff and Wehling have authored a recent handbook on combatting conservative rhetoric called The Little Blue Book.

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  1. Great piece.

    I have always suspected that here in Britain, one way of maintaining the class system - that is keeping the proles down - has been by depriving them of language. The difference between the fluent, effortless speech of the elite which runs the country, and the gagging inarticulacy of the underclass is striking. The basic structure of language is not taught as part of the "national curriculum". But possibly more damaging has been 50 years of passive entertainment.

  2. Indeed England does seem a prime example of how class is maintained by language -- accent, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. And this linguistic difference must maintain the sense that the social order is right. Good point -- thanks for your comment.

  3. The present Coalition Government in Britain has a right wing Education Secretary (Michael Gove) who is beating the drum very hard for the raising of literacy standards in Schools, emphasising the need, inter alia, to spell well. Some argue that, over the years, the so called progressive education policies of the left led to a decline in literacy standards, to the point where teachers coming into the profession didn't understand the basics of good grammar and even dismissed it as unimportant. You were encouraged to express yourself, but it didn't matter how badly. Good to have a bit of rigour from the right!

  4. Permissive education has been a majority decision, however unfortunate. I do not think intellectual rigor is a monopoly of the right, and In fact Lakoff's analysis points to the opposite: progressives' feebly emphasizing the power of "logic" which fails in political campaigns. It was pointed out long ago by E.D. Hirsh that precise, elegant language has often been effectively used by the radical left. See his book, 'Cultural Literacy,' Chapter One, 'The Decline of Literate Knowledge,' where he talks about a Black Panther newspaper. I'll jut quote the opening of Hirsh's discussion. You can find the rest here:

    'The claim that universal cultural literacy would have the effect of preserving the political and social status quo is paradoxical because in fact the traditional forms of literate culture are precisely the most effective instruments for political and social change. All political discourse at the national level must use the stable forms of the national language and its associated culture, Take the example of The Black Panther, a radical and revolutionary newspaper if ever this country hat one. Yet the Panther was highly conservative in its language and cultural assumptions, as it had to be in order to communicate effectively. What could be more radical in sentiment but more conservative in language and assumed knowledge than the following passages from that paper?'

    Hirsh later adds, 'I have not found a single misspelled word in the many pages of radical sentiment I have examined in that [Black Panther] newspaper.'

    If Christina is correct, then it's hard to imagine the British right favoring schools that would raise up the lower classes by teaching them to use proper language. If anybody wants to improve schools and lessen the laxness, bravo. But linking loose education with the left seems dubious.

  5. "Permissive education has been a majority decision". Okay, I'll change my last sentence to, simply, "Good to have a bit of rigour." But I would hazard, as a matter of opinion, that there are more educationalists to the left than the right.
    In a colourful and engaging article in The Independent:the writer Howard Jacobson responds to the revulsion in some quarters that children should once again be expected to learn poetry by heart.

    I quote a small part:
    ‘As for the belief that "a cultural inclination" should decide what you read and commit to memory and what you don't, it is the very opposite of education: it is social engineering, a wickedly self-defeating egalitarianism whose only consequence is deprivation.’

    It is Christina’s opinion that “the proles” are being kept down by being deprived of language. The present right wing education secretary is not only passionate about addressing inadequacies in the “national curriculum” but also the very real problem of social mobility, well explained in this article by John Humphries, one of our most prominent radio journalists.

  6. I love poetry, and I've memorized plenty of it. But I call your attention again to E.D. Hirsch: his concern is with what people know and their ability to use standard, correct language, not with what poetry they con recite. It would be more a source of power for "the proles" to know who Hamlet is than to be able to recite his soliloquies.

    It would be paradoxical if a right wing education minister's reforms were to undermine the British class system. But Michael Gove I see is an adopted child from Aberdeen whose father ran a fish-processing business, a kind of self-made man who was a scholarship student at Robert Gordon's College, a school started for poor boys. He may want to extend his good fortune to others. His policies may have more to do with his personal history than with his political orientation. Perhaps he should now sever his ties with Rupert Murdoch. . "Educationalist" is a colorful British I'd never heard before. If it's taken to mean someone with views on what children should be taught, there's no majority of them on one end or the other of the political spectrum.

    George Lakoff's advice is for people on the left -- already educated -- who want to wrest power over public opinion and elections away from the right. The relationship between language and class is an interesting side issue but not my concern in this blog entry. I would agree though that the ability to think, speak, and write well is enhanced partly through the study of literature, the reading of books.