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October 18, 2004

If They're "On Message," Make the Message Irrelevant

by Ron Hogan

The Believer talks to George Lakoff about how the lessons of cognitive linguistics can be applied to progressive politics. I recently read Lakoff's latest book, Don't Think of an Elephant, which I think does a more effective job of getting Lakoff's main points across, particularly with regard to the concept of "framing," the articulation of issues from a given perspective in such a way as to control the debate over those issues--a technique at which conservatives have, as we've all noticed, excelled in recent years. Lakoff (and, yes, you've seen him here before) has some sharp ideas about how progressives can reverse the tide by creating a new vocabulary and--I think crucially--insisting that progressives refuse to buy into the discourse of incivility. "Remember that the radical right requires a culture war," he warns, " and shouting is the discourse form of that culture war... They win when they get you to shout... You should have moral outrage. But you can display it with controlled passion. If you lose control, they win."

And as I said recently, insulting the other side is as bad a trap to fall into as shouting. Take a look at Jon Stewart on Crossfire. By staying focused on his gripe against the show, and not letting Tucker Carlson's increasingly frustrated jabs distract him from his criticism, Stewart solidified his image as an incisive political commentator and made Carlson look like, well, a dick--though Mark Evanier offers a less enthusiastic assessment.


An example of this is the debate on extending civil marriage rights to gays and lesbians that was resparked when Bush said that he is not opposed to state-by-state recognition of civil unions. One thing that liberals need to learn from neo-conservatives is how to better frame issues in terms favorable to the desired outcome. A good example is how anti-gay rights advocates have seized the movement for extending civil marriage rights as a way to bolster the religious political base and to oppose civil rights for gays and lesbians. They use message discipline along with discourse framing to get their message across - regardless of how their views are reported.

Posted by: Tom Kertes at October 27, 2004 12:11 AM
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