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We dwell in language: Lakoff and the politics of the frame

If you haven’t taken the time to listen to Dave Winer’s conversation with George Lakoff, it’s worth your while. If you subscribe to the Morning Coffee Notes RSS feed, it may already be on your iPod. Lakoff is a co-founder of the Rockridge Institute and a practitioner of what’s called cognitive science. He posits that “words matter,” and in politics they matter more than you might realize.

Lakoff investigates the currents of language, rhetoric and influence that swirl below the surface of our everyday language. Political language is by its nature adversarial; by various methods it attempt to persuade and influence. One view of campaigns and elections is that candidates have platforms that can be rationally evaluated. Here are the positions, which candidate holds the ‘right’ ones? The voter is a rational actor.

Can a person step into a frictionless abstract space where “facts” can be evaluated and decisions made outside of time and our mortality? Lakoff says no. Do people always make decisions that serve their best interests? No, they don’t. Lakoff has the political sphere covered, but this thread started much earlier. Look at Daniel Kahneman‘s Nobel Prize winning work in behavioral finance and economics.

While the sciences have only recently weighed in, the poets and philosophers have long understood this idea. How can we make “objective decisions,” when as TS Eliot says in Burnt Norton, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” We dwell in language, it’s where we make our home and compose the stories that we tell each other everyday. And language isn’t neutral.

The idea of the frame is that by controlling the context and lexicon of a conversation, you can shade the outcome. For instance, if I ask you “when did you stop beating your wife?” and if you accept the frame, you will be left with a limited and incriminating set of answers. Political strategists and candidates attempt to do this to gain an advantage. The interesting thing about the idea of the frame is that it’s most effective when it’s hidden from view. When the frame is brought out into the light, and becomes a normal part of political rhetoric, it loses its special power.

Published in culture economics language