The Great British Lakoff question

As George Lakoff tours Britain, progressives have difficult questions to ask about how to communicate their messages: is it all about fairness? about freedom? about standing up to bullies..? It's time to choose a frame.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
9 October 2013

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has been a busy man. Before he arrived in Britain, I had emails telling me he was speaking at events organised by the TUC and the New Economics Foundation. When he left the later of these, he went straight to a group of environmentalists and, as I sit down to write this a few hours later, I am reading tweets from another event recounting the advice he is giving at yet another lecture. I hear that he will finish his tour with a talk in Parliament to Labour MPs and those around them.

It's no wonder. For some reason, the British left seems all of a sudden to have come alive with discussion of framing. And it is Lakoff's famous books - “Don't Think of an Elephant” and “The Political Mind” which are the set texts on this issue. The only political equivalent I can think of would be if Saul Alinsky came to do a rapid speaker tour of the UK. But he died forty years ago. Given how often senior American politicians ring him for advice, it's reasonable to assume that what he says to Labour will influence their strategy in the months leading up to the election.

I spent much of the last four years training student activists. In that time, if someone asked me for follow up reading – and often they did – one of the main authors I would recommend was Lakoff. So I am rather surprised to find myself saying this, but I disagreed with him. But I'll come to that later. Because the broader question his talk raised will be key to shaping much of British politics.

His basic case is, of course, quite right. He told us that people think in frames. When you go into a restaurant, he explained, you have a certain set script – mapped out in neuron pathways - that you expect will be followed. Someone brings you the menu. You choose from it. You know the rest. No event which fits within the usual story of visiting a restaurant would surprise you. You don't expect on the other hand, there to be surgery taking place on your table. When you go into a restaurant, therefore, your brain interprets events through this basic frame.

And most of the frames people use to understand political events are ethical ones. Each political fact fits into a morality tale, with a predefined ending. We all decide where we stand on issues through these frames, not through a fencing match of logic and facts. And the moral frame we use to interpret each issue is defined by the language we use, the metaphors we use. Repeating your opponents' language is strengthening their broader story about the world. And once you've done that, you've lost. If you accept that an interaction is like a restaurant, you'll never persuade people that there shouldn't be a bill at the end. This, incidentally, is one reason why mainstream journalism tends to inadvertently side with the powerful – it adopts the metaphors of the status quo in which they are already powerful.

The underlying metaphor, Lakoff argues, used to understand politics is that of family. Conservatives, he tells us, believe in a strong father model. Progressives believe in nurturing parents. These two different moral codes, Lakoff says, explain most disagreements in American politics: should the state care for people, or defend them and tell them what to do? about a third of people are on either side on every issue, and the rest alternate between each model depending on the issue (no one, he argues, is simply 'in the middle').

Now, all of the above is core Lakoff. It's a set of theory which has been used by the most effective left leaning political communicators on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of years now. Whether you know it or not, it's probably shaped campaigns which changed how you see the world in some way. The conversation during his visit to the UK wasn't so much about the core argument, but about its application in our patch of politics.

At the event I attended, some proposed that British progressives ought to appeal to ideas of security in our political messaging. But this is something Lakoff argues against in his writing – if people feel unsafe, or afraid, they run for strong fathers. Conservatives always do better in this context. Left leaning climate campaigners, in particular, ought to remember this.

Lakoff suggested that 'The wealth of England lies in its people' is a key message we ought to repeat frequently, a frame through which many of the key policies we might support should be argued for. He also argued that we should talk about 'freedom'. And it is here that I think things become difficult.

Of course, freedom is important. But if progressives make it the political playing field on which the left and right challenge each other, then conservatives have lots of ways to attack. It was Beveridge's argument for freedom from the five Giant Evils which led to the foundation of the welfare state, but it's arguments for freedom to choose which are used most effectively to dismantle it. It is an argument for freedom from interference which is used to combat surveillance, but an argument for freedom from red tape which is used to dismantle the regulation of corporations. Freedom is crucial. We must defend our freedom. But choosing it as the playing field on which we try to tackle the powerful is tricky.

The same issue arose when it came to another proposed frame: fairness. Because just as freedom has been co-opted by the right, so has this frame. For a while now, talking about fairness has been one of the key ways the Conservatives have chosen to win support. Since the decision to use this frame, a huge amount of their legislation, their rhetoric and their time has gone into communicating one message: it's not fair that someone less deserving than you gets an easier ride than you do.

There are, on the other hand, frames in which it is much more difficult for the right to compete: standing up for the underdog, standing up to bullies. This was the story I proposed for Greens a few weeks ago, and it is the one which Ed Miliband chose when he delivered his speech in Brighton and when he went into battle with the Daily Mail.

All of this leaves those activists in this country who are, to use Lakoff's language, progressive, with a dilemma. Do they lay out a political playing field on which the competition is about who is more in favour of freedom? Do they defend the turf of what it means to support fairness? Or do they try to shape the political debate to be a referendum on something else – such as standing up to the powerful?

This leaves us with a broader political dilemma. On the one hand, you have the tactic adopted by the Conservatives – claim the language of your opponents, turn it against them. This is made most explicit in the mantra of Bush's spin-doctor Karl Rove: “Turn your opponent's greatest asset into their greatest liability”. In the short term, this was most visible in his “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” treatment of John Kerry: take his military record and turn it against him (adeptly copied by Democrats in the case of Mitt Romney's business background in 2012). But in the long term, the principle applies to framing too. They are aiming to do to fairness what they did to Kerry's military record.

In this context, how to respond? Should the left defend a frame? Are progressives better off fighting on turf we know we can own, or is sacrificing basic values like 'fairness' and 'freedom' to the right a big long term mistake? As the busy man finishes a stream of talks here, political hacks will settle down to this - the Great British Lakoff question. The answer they come to could shape much of what we end up talking about for the next couple of years.

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