Dr. George Lakoff answers your questions
"Don't Think of An Elephant" Q&A with FrameLab readers
Thank you to all who submitted questions about the first two chapters of “Don’t Think of An Elephant.” Below you will find the full Q&A from Dr. Lakoff.
Many of the submitted questions were more general in scope rather than specific to the first to chapters of the book, and that’s fine. We want to make these Q&A features a regular part of the newsletter (and make the newsletter a more regular part of your reading).
So, for next week, please feel free to submit questions about sections 3-5 of “Don’t Think of An Elephant.” Or, you can ask any question and, if George is game and has relevant knowledge on the topic, he will answer it.
Question: You've said not to use the language of the Right. Is that "ever"? For a long time, I have felt that the Pro-Choice mantra of "MY body, MY choice!" sounds cold, especially to those who feel genuine compassion for the fetus/potential child. I've thought we should "FLIP the Script" and declare that it's liberals and progressives who are the ones who are Pro-Life since we do all that we can to protect children and other humans after they are born, and right-wingers are generally fighting policies to protect the health and lives of people AFTER birth. Your thoughts on the occasional use of 'flipping" their language? Thank you.
— Veronica Adams
Dr. Lakoff responds: You are right that “choice” is a terrible framing of the abortion issue. A more sensible — and real — framing is whether a woman has control over her body, especially during the period what a fetus can’t survive outside of the womb and is part of a woman’s body. You are also right that “Right-wingers are generally fighting policies to protect the health and lives of people AFTER birth.” Progressives are Pro-life-health-and-care — all of what a child needs.
Question: Do you have suggestions on how to create new frames? I realize it is necessary and helpful with research institutes and larger frame labs but is this something grassroots can experiment with on a smaller scale? If so, suggestions on how to do that?
Dr. Lakoff responds: The study of framing was created by my late colleague at UC Berkeley, Charles Fillmore, who noticed that every word is implicitly and almost always unconsciously defined relative to a “frame,” a structure of concepts that makes sense of common activities. For example, the word “breakfast” can be understood (1) as a morning meal shortly after one normally wakes up, or (2) the elements of that meal, e.g., coffee, eggs, cereal, toast, etc. For example, a sign reading “Breakfast served all day” refers to frame (2), while “In Texas, many people have steak for breakfast” refers to frame (1).
New frames have such a structure of concepts, but apply to different activities and the concepts relevant to those activities. Frame structure may exist unconsciously in the minds of many people, but frames have to be pointed out to be made conscious. This often requires being discussed in the media, with the frame being spelled out consciously, for example, the idea that Russia is a violent aggressor in Ukraine and that the Russian military is controlled by Putin.
Question: One of the challenges in Australia, as in the US, is the rise of conservative voting among the blue collar working people. There's a gender overlay here as working class jobs are often highly segregated and, in Australia, blue collar unions are often male-dominated at membership and leadership levels and have a distinctly "Disciplinary Father" culture. How might reframing impact on these political and workplace cultures effectively?
— Phil O’Donoghue
Dr. Lakoff responds: You’ve given real-world facts that come with implicit framings central to the common understanding of those facts: (implicitly framed fact 1) Blue collar unions in Australia with mostly male members, and (implicitly framed fact 2) union leaders with strict father morality. You can’t simply impose new frames on facts that are already implicitly framed in the minds of most of the relevant populations. The conditions for “reframing” have to be favorable. In this case they are not.
Question: Are Strict Father Morality and Nurturant Parent Morality worldviews unique to American politics, or are they also common in other cultures around the world? The two contrasting notions of family parenting styles seem like they might have been around for a long time, perhaps since the dawn of humanity?
—Tom P. in Lansing
Dr. Lakoff responds: You are right. Those parenting styles have been around a long time and have a lot to do with human biology and roles of mothers and fathers.
Question: Although you refer to the religions of the Puritans and/or Pilgrims in the Q&A section at the end of the book (noting that it was the Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists who offered a kinder theology), I don't think you use the word "Calvinism" anywhere in the book. As I see it, the Strict Father model is an embodiment of Calvinism. That brand of theology also had the view that if one was born rich, it was a sign of God's favor, and of those who were poor, widowed, orphaned, etc., that God just didn't love them and they were going to hell (the destination of the majority of people), so they didn't even bother with any sort of charities, just poorhouses. And they believed there was nothing a person could do about their predetermined fate, no matter how she/he lives their life. A "saved" person would be known by the upright way s/he appeared and conducted themselves, and even if they did bad things, they were still saved. And a saint of a damned person would still spend eternity in hell.
My understanding is that ~70% of those living in New England in 1776 were Calvinists. 250 years isn't that Widespread belief systems like that don't just disappear, although they can morph some.
The only difference I see with those who currently live by the Strict Father model is that it doesn't seem they live entirely in predestination. One can be saved by accepting Jesus (and doing as the church tells them). And in their thinking, even if born poor or "lowly," it is possible to become rich, and therefore upright, moral, and worthy.
I'm curious if you noted the parallels, and if so, why you didn't mention Calvinism.
Dr. Lakoff responds: Calvinism is a very special case, and not widespread these days. I’ve met only one person who was brought up with Calvinism. She never accepted it and managed to create a life outside of it. I live in Northern California and haven’t encountered any widespread Calvinism I can remember.
Question: Thank you for identifying how the term “hypocognition” identifies a huge and ongoing progressive deficiency. I don't know if this is jumping ahead, but I'll be writing on the abortion issue where conservative "pro-life" and "partial-birth abortion" framing has drastically affected the abortion debate for many years. I recently read where a progressive group used the term "forced birth," I assume to counter progressive hypocognition in this area. I was thinking of adding "state-mandated forced birth" when describing pregnant women now devoid of legal abortions as an realistic health choice. Any thoughts?
— L. James Johnston
Dr. Lakoff responds: You are right that “forced birth” would be applicable to conditions in many states and is well worth being seriously introduced to current discourse. “State-mandated” is too general; progressive governments don’t mandate it. The terminology should reflect conservative control in states that mandate it.
Question: It took me a long time to process the concept of "people vote their identity/values," but I finally got it. It was hard to give up that "facts won't set you free"! I certainly still struggle with it. I've recently read “The Status Game” by Will Storr. He suggests we all are consisted of a variety of identities and there is a status game associated with each. As long as we recognize and play a multitude of different identities, we stay healthy and maintain relationships. When we focus in on one/few - the game starts to tighten and close up — leading to ridiculous levels of fealty and to the point where insulting and breaking the norms and values of other identities is not just ok, but vital. Sounds a bit familiar to me.
I'm wondering if you have read that and what insights/comments/connections you have/see?
Dr. Lakoff responds: I haven’t read the Storr book.
Question: Could you give an example of a progressive issue framed with and without values and principles... So examples of the same issue but with different framing.
Dr. Lakoff responds: A progressive issue could only become a progressive issue if framed (perhaps unconsciously) with progressive values.
The study of framing was created by my late colleague at UC Berkeley, Charles Fillmore, who noticed that every word is implicitly and almost always unconsciously defined relative to a “frame,” a structure of concepts that makes sense of common activities. For example, the word “breakfast” can be understood (1) as a morning meal shortly after one normally wakes up, or (2) the elements of that meal, e.g., coffee, eggs, cereal, toast, etc. For example, a sign reading “Breakfast served all day” refers to frame (2), while “In Texas, many people have steak for breakfast” refers to frame (1).
New frames have such a structure of concepts, but apply to different activities and the concepts relevant to those activities. Frame structure may exist unconsciously in the minds of many people, but frames have to be pointed out to be made conscious. This often requires being discussed in the media, with the frame being spelled out consciously. For example, consider the idea that Russia is a violent aggressor in Ukraine and that the Russian military is controlled by Putin.
Question: Don't Think of an Elephant" makes the point about how even negating a frame reinforces it but is there ever a point where the necessity of refuting something might outweigh that? For example, would it hurt Democrats more to simply say "I do not support or agree with defunding police" or would reframing look like trying to avoid the issue at this stage vs a blunt refutation?
Dr. Lakoff responds: They would need to say more. For example, “Police are necessary to protect our communities and to catch and prosecute criminals. We have police review boards in our communities to ensure that the police act lawfully. Defunding the police would work against protecting our communities. ”