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Political Notes from the Center and Elsewhere

Religion: Many Voices

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I recently started writing Lakoff's book, Moral Politics, and to a certain extent I have the same misgivings. "Framing" an issue feels too much like "spin".

However, perhaps we are missing the point of Lakoff's work. Is the perception of spin just the result of a contrary world or moral view? And furthermore, it seems that "framing" does not necessarily require conscious effort. When progressives speak, they subconciously frame issues in a way consistent with what they believe. Conservatives frame too, using their own language.

If I were a conservative reading your piece, and I see "To draw on the best that everyone has to offer. To exclude no one. To recognize that government isn't an enemy of the people, it's the expression of the people. To find the right way for government to participate in the lives of the people..."

Well, doesn't that sound down right liberal? After all, as a conservative, I don't want big government interfering in my life, so why is this guy emphasizing how the government should participate in my life? What I want to hear is how you're going to secure my freedom.

Now, you obviously tried to be honest and clear in your comment in a way that you think is appealing to everyone... But I think Lakoff would say that you've still subconciously made your message appeal primarily to liberals.

You ask why values are important to values voters, and then answer that it's because of "security". That's not Lakoff's answer. He believes (see 'Moral Politics') that values voters, both conservative and liberal, vote based on the use of a 'Nation as Family' metaphor: the nation is a family writ large. Conservatives fill the 'Nation as Family' metaphor with what Lakoff calls a 'Strict Father' moral system (to my ears, it sounds pretty much like an Old Testament morality). Liberals fill it with a 'Nurturant Parent' moral system (to me, sounds more like a New Testament morality). The two systems are incompatible, which is way liberals and conservatives never understand each other, and why we're at war culturally and politically. You do Lakoff an injustice to typify his work as merely manipulative. He is a liberal, and writes to promote the liberal cause, but he's trying to be honest about it. His real point is that liberals/progressives are well-meaning but semi-conscious and inarticulate. He's suggesting they wake up and realize they have to know what they believe in, why they believe it, and how to communicate it. That's not 'manipulative'. Being conscious of and using 'framing' well is just another way to say you have to be conscious of context, of the big picture that makes sense of the world, and you have to be able to frame your beliefs with conviction and authority if you expect to have people take you seriously. Whether you do that honestly or not is another question. The trouble with liberals, in Lakoff's view, is they hardly do it at all, so the conservatives have 'stolen' the language. All liberals do now is react to the conservative frame -- and so of course they lose the game before they even get on the field. Reaction won't cut it. Vision, including moral vision, has to be proactive. Lakoff is asking liberls to do the hard work of putting aside the past and re-thinking their deepest moral beliefs from the ground up -- and then finding the language and the metaphoric 'frames' to express their vision. In fact, I would say he's actually asking liberals to give up manipulation (the cliches of the past) and enter into an honest dialog with themselves and then the world. I will agree however, that he is not the best word-smith himself. He's got a tin ear. Nevertheless, don't sell him short. You might find it intersting to check out his website at

Good comments, both.

Rushed -- a good insight to equate framing with spin. My quarrel with framing -- and for that matter with spin -- isn't really a moral one, it's a professional one. I agree with you -- and with Lakoff -- that none of us can help framing. We think and speak that way. Also, I'm completely comfortable with the thought that we live in a marketplace of ideas. I don't think people are trying to manipulate me, I think they're trying to persuade me of stuff. That's their job. It's my job to be a good consumer of information, and decide on my own whether I'm persuaded or not. Caveat Emptor.

My problem with framing, and with spin, is that they don't work. Both models assume a one-time, one-way, transactional exchange -- all I have to do is spin this, or frame this, and you'll come to your conclusion and my job is over. Except that it isn't. I don't believe -- speaking as a professional -- that people were ever persuadable in that simple a way. And they're certainly not now, when every claim -- every framing and every element of spin -- is open to testing and scutiny right here on the Web, among other places. This is an age of transparency. People are going to see right through your spin, and worse, take you to task for trying to spin them. It's not a good game to play.

Over the years I've had many corporate clients come to me and ask me to "spin" this or that, and I've always told them that I don't spin, for exactly those reasons. They want spin because it seems easy. I tell them that unfortunately there's no substitute for the hard work of actually getting to know your audience, engaging in dialogue with it, and building a relationship with it. It's a long-term process, and if you're doing it right, you're going to be changed by the interaction as much as the audience will. And part of the change comes from the fact that you understand and respond to their real concerns.

My quarrel with Lakoff - and with his framing examples -- is similar. He operates too quickly, too much on the surface, and doesn't dig deep enough.

You're right that my alternative example is liberal. I wasn't actually trying to be centrist -- this was a riff on a Democratic strategy. It assumes a future in which things have gone slightly sour for the Republicans, and it assumes a core Democratic viewpoint, which is that government needs to play at least some role in the protection of the community. I think we already know the Republican alternative, which we say play out in the last election.

The Dean -- I take your points, and many of Lakoff's. And I don't want to sell him short -- at least not totally. "Metaphors We Live By" is really a landmark piece of thinking. But I think his models -- the ones you mention -- are much too rigid. If you like that kind of model, you're better off with Spiral Dynamics, where at least there's more interplay among the factions (but believe me, I have major reservations about that system, too). My take is that the country is less polarized than the red-state, blue-state, "values voter" construct suggests. The media like that angle because they like contrasts and oppositions. I think there's a greater community of shared concerns (therefore my interest in security as the more basic driver), and I think -- to your point and Lakoff's -- that the Republicans are doing a much better job of speaking to that sensibility. The Republicans are working with myth; the Democrats are still a party of white papers. But to quote a mentor of mine, "you can't win an emotional argument with facts."

I admire what Lakoff is trying to do -- I'd just like to see him getting past the rival-parents model, and pushing a few layers below language, to get where he wants to go.

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