The conservative right study cognitive science and work in advertising, they understand the role of emotion in generating values. The progressive left study political science and are stuck in a phony enlightenment form of reasoning.
That’s the view of George Lakoff, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics at Berkeley and the go-to US expert on framing theory.
In the course of a 90-minute session about framing hosted by Counterpoint recently, Lakoff made this assertion repeatedly.
He is ‘framing’. He knows progressives and conservatives don’t really fall into neat categories. He is using the metaphor of education to frame what differentiates right and left political discourse about values. Framing is a theory with practical implications for how think tanks should communicate their ideas and has its roots in linguistics and cognitive psychology.
Frame theory is everywhere right now. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation challenges us to devise ways of ‘re-framing’ the narrative of ‘Austerity’, a report by Compass analysed the values (aka ‘deep frames’) at the root of Ed Miliband’s Newham dockside speech in June. Counterpoint is in the middle of a programme of work exploring the influence of framing.
Policy metaphors help frame political issues, enabling even the most politically disengaged citizens to understand policy. Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that political framing be considered ‘applied cognitive science,’ so convinced is he of the technique’s empirical foundations.
‘War’, ‘struggle’, ‘motion’ and ‘direction’ are among the most common policy metaphors in use (for a list of political metaphors check Safire’s Political Dictionary). George W Bush used the metaphor ‘Axis of Evil’ to describe states that were against the ‘war on terror’. Franklin D Roosevelt implemented a ‘New Deal’ to combat economic depression.
Much political blood was spilt in 2007 and 2008 over whether to describe a $700 billion package to save Wall Street (TARP) as a ‘bail-out’ (BAD) or a ‘rescue’ (less contentious). Recently European Central Bank (ECB) policy on sovereign debt has been re-framed, the term ‘bail-in’ being deployed to describe the removal of Cypriot cash deposits.
But what gives these metaphors the agency to actually change minds? Lakoff talks of the importance of ‘deep frames’ and the norms and values that underpin the way policies are framed in public discourse.
For example, the metaphor of ‘bail-out’, appeals to deeply ingrained value content (deep frames) implying the immorality, recklessness or irresponsibility of getting into debt. A ‘bail-in’, by contrast, draws on the same value content, but re-frames it in favour of personal neoliberal values of responsibility.
This touches on something that is contentious in Lakoff’s approach. His golden rule of framing is ‘never work with a frame set by your opponent’. On this logic, should the ECB have looked for an alternative to the ‘bailing’ metaphor? Just because an opponent has embedded an effective frame in the public consciousness, does that make it immune from hijack? Is it practical to ignore well-established frames like ‘austerity’?
An observation by philosopher Raymond Geuss questions the reliability of the assumption that values can be mobilized towards political action. He argues that people’s values are ‘usually half-baked, are almost certain to be both indeterminate and, to the extent to which they are determinate, grossly inconsistent in any but the most local contexts, and are constantly changing.’
There’s clearly something to the theory of framing, and think tanks that are committed to a clear set of values would do well to think about how those values can be framed in order to influence and lead public opinion.