Saturday, June 24, 2017

Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff

Paperback, First Edition, 144 pages Pub September 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing ISBN13: 9781931498715

This slim handbook subtitled “Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives” was originally published in 2004. It is slightly more than one hundred pages that recaps the large ideas Lakoff had written about in his role as cognitive scientist, in a book called Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, first published in 1996 by the University of Chicago Press. Moral Politics is on it's third edition (ISBN-13: 978-0226411293), published in time for the 2016 election. Last year Lakoff also published an essay on his website called "Understanding Trump" subtitled "How Trump Uses Your Brain Against You." Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

While I read this book published shortly before the 2004 election, I am astonished Lakoff’s brilliant insights are not better utilized by the Democratic Party. Bernie took the lessons to heart and started pounding out a new single-note message so that we couldn’t miss it, but why was he out there alone? Why didn’t the entire liberal left start with reframing—we had a handbook after all—and completely change the way business was done?

One could argue that Hillary did use Lakoff’s cognitive science approach by allowing the ‘Stronger Together’ message to express her values. I vaguely recall hearing also “This is not who we are,” when Trump said or did something particularly egregious. I was paying attention, but it seems to me Hillary’s team could have been A LOT more explicit about the ideas in Lakoff’s book, reframing arguments and changing the discussion. She just couldn't manage to relinquish control and involve us.

Bernie just had one message and he said it loudly and often, and even if we didn’t know what he would do in different situations that arose in foreign affairs, we knew his basic playbook: Man is basically good. Citizens working together unleash the creative potential in the population. Who wants to be rich when people are starving next door? We have some big problems but we’ll get there together.

This book is a series of conclusions and so reading it is a little like mainlining information if you’ve never seen it before. It may take reading it a couple times before the information sticks in your head, and before you are able to apply the techniques he shares with us. Many of these ideas probably seem familiar if you have been thinking about what happened in the last election. I hadn't been able to articulate my own thoughts but the instant I saw what Lakoff wrote about conservatives and the ‘strict father’ way of looking at the world, it sounded so right (see Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land).

One thing Lakoff points out is that when conservatives start using Orwellian language—language that is the opposite of what they mean—they are weak. And just as they are vulnerable on their position on environment and global warming, they are weak on the ‘healthcare’ bill. We should take these issues and run with them, turning every argument into a referendum on what they are not doing to solve these problems. We own the moral arguments here. They have nothing. Be smart. Be smarter. The far right has appropriated the word “freedom” if you can imagine.

The far right uses “freedom” to mean “freedom from coercion from others,” which at first blush sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want that? But then they go on to express the need to "save capitalism from democracy," so that laws won’t constrain their money-making and power consolidation. They object to paying taxes in excess of the amounts one would voluntarily contribute. Why should one pay taxes for schools if one does not have children oneself, is one common argument. They are being coerced to pay for social welfare.

Conservatives are also very big on ‘tort reform,’ or putting limits on awards in lawsuits (like for exploding products, leaking barges, or environmental catastrophe). “If parties who are harmed cannot sue immoral or negligent corporations or professionals for significant sums, the companies are free to harm the public in unlimited ways in the course of making money.”

Liberals look at freedom in a different way: freedom to express one’s creativity, to pursue one’s interests; or freedom from anxiety, from hunger, exploitation, environmental degradation. To achieve these freedoms, we need groups of people working together, doing what they do best.

Last night I briefly watched Charlie Rose interview the president of Princeton University, Christopher L. Eisgruber. He confirmed something I'd noticed but wasn’t sure was a blip or a real, observable phenomenon. Eisgruber said that the students at Princeton gave him enormous hope for the future. They are engaged, and their values are right side up. I only hope they continue to exhibit those values at the ballot box in the years to come, and perhaps even help other people understand the ‘strict father’ (I can’t help but think of a spanking father and all that connotes) model is an unsatisfactory way for adults to engage with their world.

Read this book. It’s important. It’s short.

Tavis Smiley interviews George Lakoff (about 23 min):

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Thanks for this! Shared on Twitter & Facebook. I've used Lakoff's ideas for a long time. He takes the two types of liberty that Isiah Berlin defines as "freedom to" versus "freedom from" in Fox and the Hedgehog and applies it to political psychology.

    1. Actually, the "freedom" thing is not in Lakoff's book. That is me, but the idea about the far right claiming the concept and word "freedom" came to me while reading Nancy MacLean's new book Democracy in Chains.

  2. Thank you. I'd assumed Lakoff had returned here to his ideas in his earlier "Whose Freedom?" where he'd come your conclusion about the trap of what he calls the "freedom frame" in political discourse. I have MacLean's book now and good to know that is part of her argument. Her title is apt, isn't it.

    1. Probably best not to assume too much until you've read this material. MacLean does not make an argument about the word freedom. That's me. She merely mentions how the word is used by the far right. Arlie Hochschild may have used the phrases 'freedom to' and 'freedom from' which I subsequently used in this review. Again, probably best not to assume too much.