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Book Notes: Don't think of an elephant! by George Lakoff
May 1, 2005, 9:05a - Book Notes

Don't Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff

I read this book while in India, and it has definitely given me a new perspective on American politics and the present divide between progressives and conservatives. I highly recommend it, and it's really short (only about 100 pages). Notes from the book:

- "Thinking differently requires speaking differently" (xv). This is the core message of this book. Lakoff is a linguist/cognitive scientist who views human thinking as a series of "frames" that have been built up over an individual's personal experiences. The conservatives in the US have spent a great deal of effort over the past 40 years building up frames in people's minds and thus greatly influencing public perception on political issues. It is now the responsibility of progressives to invoke new frames that people will become accustomed to that is more in line with their own political goals.

- "Every word, like 'elephant', invokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame." (3) The funny thing is, even if you negate the frame, such as by telling people "Don't think of an elephant!", the frame is evoked: people can't help but think of an elephant, even though you tell them not to.

- "Tax relief" is an example of a conservative frame that has become mainstream. "Think of the framing for 'relief'. For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief." (3)

- Let's try other applications of compounding 'relief' - "pain relief", "poverty relief", "inequality relief", "discrimination relief"

- "Bush said, 'We do not need a permission slip to defend America.'" Who needs a 'permission slip'? Children do. And we're not children, we're adults, so let's do as we wish and go to war.

- We have a strong metaphor for the nation as a family - Founding Fathers, Daughters of the American Revolution, we "send our sons" to war.

- One of the most interesting parts of the book was Lakoff's description of two different models of the family: the strict father family and the nurturant parent family. He believes that conservatives

1) The Strict Father Family model is based on the following:
- A view of the world as
  - a dangerous place
   - filled with evil that makes it dangerous
  - competitive and difficult, and there will always be winners and losers
  - a place with absolute right and an absolute wrong
  - a place where children are born bad and need to be taught to be good and do right
- This type of world needs a strict father who
  - protects the family in this dangerous world
  - supports the family in this difficult world
  - teaches his children right from wrong through punishment
- Punishment is required so that children can develop inner discipline to not do wrong
- If people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest, they will prosper
  - therefore, by implication, those who are poor must be lazy and lack discipline, so therefore they deserve to be poor
  - by the invisible hand of the market, if everyone pursues their self-interest, everyone will benefit. therefore, pursuing your self-interest is the good or right thing to do.
  - "do-gooders" screw up this system by not directly pursuing their self-interest, and are therefore bad because they hurt everyone else who is pursuing their self-interest
- Doing good is the equivalent of giving someone money, and you can see this in our language - we say "how will I ever repay you?"
- When children have reached maturity, if they are good, they will prosper; at that point the strict father is to stop meddling in their lives -> this translates into no government meddling

Implications of the strict father model:
- it is immoral to give people what they haven't "earned", because then they won't develop discipline and become both dependent and immoral - social programs are immoral because they make people dependent
- the "good people", aka wealthy people, deserve a tax cut because they are good, which takes away money from social programs which are bad
- because the US is the most wealthy and powerful country in the world, we must be the most moral country as well

- Development is also used to imply that some countries are adults and others are children: "developed" (aka rich) countries are adults who know right from wrong, and they have every right to tell the "developing" (aka poor) countries what to do, since the poor countries have not yet matured and are still children that need to be disciplined
  -> Use "unindustrialized" instead of "developing" or "3rd world"

2) The Nurturant Parent Family model is based on the following:
- A view of the world as
  - a place where children are born good and can be made better
  - a place that can be made better, which is our primary job
- Values of
  - nurturance
  - empathy, which means you want to 1) protect your child (e.g. seat belts, speeding laws, health care) and 2) want your child to have a fulfilling, happy life.
  - so your child can be happy and fulfilled, they need
    - freedom
    - opportunity
    - prosperity
    - fairness
  - to nurture your child, they need
    - open, two-way communication
    - community building, service, and cooperation
    - trust
    - honesty

- People have both of these world views inside of them, and the question is which when gets triggered to make a person believe something or vote in a certain way on specific issues
- I think we need a 3rd world view that unites these 2 world views

Categories of progressives:
- Socioeconomic progressives - focused on money and class (I am one of these)
- Identity politics progressives - focused on ridding oppression
- Environmentalists - focused on sustainability of the earth and natives
- Civil liberties progressives - focused on maintaining freedom (I am one of these)
- Spiritual progressives - focused on spiritual and religious experience
- Anti-authoritarians - focused on fighting illegitimate authority

Categories of conservatives:
- Financial conservatives - focused on fiscal responsibility (e.g. balanced budget) (I am one of these)
- Social conservatives - focused on not increasing dependence by poor or oppressed peoples
- Libertarians - focused on maintaining their freedom, even at the expense of social issues and programs
- Neocons - focused on perpetuating American government and corporate world domination
- Religious conservatives - focused on enforcing religious doctrine in all walks of life

- Letter that helped unite these conservatives in the 70s
  - "Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations."

- conservatives are focused on maintaining the "free enterprise system"

- in 2002 4x as much money was spent on research by the right than by the left, and they also received 4x as much media time

- Myth: "The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they'll all reach the right conclusions." (17)

- 99% of conservatives vote their conservative values, against their self interest, and it is said that 35% of the populace thinks that they will someday be in the top 1%

- "People don't necessarily vote their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with."

- Of the 2 models described above, the goal in politics is to "activate" your model in the group of undecided voters, the people in the middle. According to Lakoff, "You do that by talking to people using frames based on your worldview." (21)

- Some more language examples: "welfare reform", "the age of big government is over" (Clinton) - "compassionate conservatism", "clear skies initiative", "healthy forests", "no child left behind" -> this is Orwellian language that means the opposite of what it says and is meant to attract the middle while pumping up the conservative base

- The right's language man is Frank Luntz, according to Lakoff

- Ideas come first.

- hypocognition - the lack of the ideas you need, the lack of a relatively simple fixed frame that can be evoked by a word or two. In other words, not having a word for a concept can be disastrous (e.g. Tahitians committed a lot of suicides because they didn't have a word for grief, even though they all felt it)

- Another line between the left and the right: for the right, the highest moral value is defending and preserving the moral system itself; for the left, the highest value is helping individuals who need help.

Strategic Initiatives - a plan where a change in one area leads to changes in many other areas
- Tax cuts - gives more money to the rich and cuts money available for social services, all in one fell swoop
- Tort reform (putting limits on awards in lawsuits) - gets rid of environmental, consumer and work protection as well as well as reduce funding for the Democratic party, as much of their funding comes from lawyers. Should be framed instead as "public protection", open courts, the right for juries to decide, and the last line of defense against negligent or unscrupulous corporations
- the left doesn't think as strategically as the right, except for the New Apollo Initiative for funding alternative energy

Key points:
- Recognize that conservatives has successfully framed the key issues
- Remember the power of frames
- The truth alone will not set you free
- You need to speak from your moral perspective at all times
- Understand where conservatives are coming from
- Think strategically across issue areas
- Think about the consequences of proposals (slippery slopes)
- Voters vote their identities and their values, which may not align with their self-interest
- Unite and cooperate
- Be proactive, not reactive
- Speak to the progressive base in order to activate the "nurturant model" in swing voters - don't move to the right

How the Schwarzenegger election to governor in CA was framed:
1) Voter revolt
2) Davis was the great non-communicator
3) Kooky Californians
4) The People Beat the Politicians - very clever frame. Casts Arnold and the Republicans as "the people" and the Democratic legislature as the "politics as usual"
5) Just a Celebrity
6) Up By his Bootstraps

- "If there's going to be a news story, there's going to be a frame, and each frame will have different inferences." (36)

- Fear triggers the strict father model - the frame "War on Terror" presupposes that the populace should be terrified (by orange alerts)

- "By presenting a laundry list of issues, Davis and other Democrats failed to present a moral vision - a coherent identity with a powerful cultural stereotype - that defines the very identity of the voters they are trying to reach." (43)

- a frame that the Democrats didn't successfully publicize with Arnold was the "Right Wing Power Grab frame"

- in arguing against same-sex marriage, conservatives are using definition and sanctity - Democrats should respond with the sanctity of marriage as the sanctity of love and commitment, regardless of gender

- the more the terms "gay marriage" or "same-sex marriage" are used, the more normal the idea becomes (even better terms than "marriage equality" though less mollifying and more divisive)

- progressives view gay marriage as 1) an issue of personal freedom (i.e. the state should not dictate whom can and cannot marry - "the freedom to marry"), 2) equality (i.e. fairness and human dignity), and 3) sanctity of love and commitment

- response to 'do you think gays should be able to marry: "I believe in equal rights, period. I don't think the state should be in the business of telling people who they can and cannot marry. Marriage is about love and commitment, and denying lovers the right to marry is a violation of human dignity." (50)

Symbolism of the 9/11 attacks:
- Toppling of towers meant loss of control, power - when you're in control, you're "on top of things"
- Strong phallic imagery
- WTC was symbolic of society - when it toppled, society could also topple
- Meant to last 10K years, but no longer standing - metaphor of "standing" to mean to last over time, e.g. "we won't stand for this" meaning we won't let this continue
- Temple of capitalist commerce was destroyed
- Skyline is now unbalanced
- Fiery hell

- 9/11 changed from a frame of crime, implying law, courts, lawyers, trials, sentencing, appeals, etc., to a frame of war, implying casualties, enemies, military action, war powers, etc.
  - see how powerfully a frame can set expectations and what's right vs. wrong?

Justification of war goes something like this:
- Rumsfeld spoke of "smoking them out of their holes" - since moral people "take the high ground", this statement implies that the Afghan is are immoral people (because they're low) and not even human (since they live in holes) but animal - dehumanization
- evil exists in the world
- if our enemy is evil, which we know him to be, then we must be good
- our superior strength can defeat evil, which must be destroyed else it will perpetuate; therefore, it is immoral to not show strength and destroy evil; therefore, the anti-war protesters are immoral
- performing lesser evils in the name of good is justified - the ends justify the means - curtailing individual liberties, promoting political assassinations, torturing prisoners, overthrowing governments, hiring criminals, and creating "collateral damage" are all OK because it's temporary and for the greater good.

3 Kinds of Causes of Radical Islamic Terrorism:
1) Worldview: the religious rationale - all of these items run in conflict with Western/American society
   a) Women are to hide their bodies, but in Western culture that is not true, and this is promoted worldwide via popular American TV, music, and movies
   b) Theocracy: governments should be run according to strict Islamic law
   c) Holy sites, like Jerusalem, should be under Islamic control
   d) Western incursions on Islamic soil (crusaders)
   e) Jihad: a holy war to protect and defend the faith
   f) Martyr receives eternal glory
2) Social and Political Conditions: a culture of despair
   - Worldwide commitment to ending these cultures of despair and poverty are required to end terrorism, and it is also the right thing to do
3) Means: the enabling conditions

- The West needs to help organize and support the moderate Islamic community who does not advocate Islamic terrorism

A values-based foreign policy would include
- Women's education, which will reduce overpopulation and promote development
- Renewable energy, which makes the world less oil-dependent
- Food, water, health, ecology, corporate reform
- Rights of women, children, workers, refugees, and political minorities

Potential campaign slogans
- "Get your small town back!"
- "Have you met him?"

Definition of a "just war"
- War as self-defense
  - isn't very persuasive
  - used in Gulf War by elder Bush - Saddam threatening our "oil lifeline" - didn't prove persuasive enough
  - Bush junior is pushing this story with Iraq war, via WMD threat and Hussein and Al Qaeda working together threat (which 40% of Americans believed without any evidence - which makes sense, because it's intuitive to assume that evil tends to hang out with evil)
- War as rescue
  - very persuasive
  - when Bush positioned Gulf War as the "rape" of Kuwait, popular sentiment was persuaded
  - when Bush positioned Iraq war as rescue and liberation of Iraqi people and others in the Middle East, it was again highly persuasive, even to progressives

- Lakoff is a "cognitive activist"

- Bush should be framed as a "Betrayer of trust", not as a liar - subtle yet critical difference
  - the third motive of the war was unabashed self-interest for American capitalism and corporate influence - we trusted that what Bush said was true, but he betrayed our trust because the war was done with false pretenses

- for conservatives, God is the original strict father who rewards the good with power - thus, a hierarchical society is a good one

- for conservatives, wealthy people serve society by investing and creating jobs for poorer people, which serves the public good

- for conservatives, government has 3 roles: protect the lives and private property of Americans, to make profit-seeking as easy as possible for disciplined Americans, and to promote conservative, strict-father morality and religion; social programs which don't serve these goals should be eliminated

- I think school vouchers are a good thing because it increases competition between schools. It will cause a drop in students going to public schools, which means a drop in funding, but I think the short-term pain will reap longer term benefit as public schools become better, more productive, and more efficient. However, this is a strategic initiative, as conservatives want to control the content of what's taught in schools

- Conservatives have branded liberals as effete elitists, unpatriotic spendthrifts - limousine liberals, latte liberals, tax-and-spend liberals, Hollywood liberals, East Coast liberals, liberal elite, wishy-washy liberals

- Conservatives have branded themselves as populist - Bush's Bubbaisms appeal to those of rural origin

- Neutralizing the cultural civil war will crush the conservative platform/assault

- Values trump programs, principles trump programs, and policy direction trumps programs - but progressives continue to focus on programs

A United Progressive Platform
- Basic progressive vision is of community
- Core Progressive Values
  - Caring and responsibility, carried out with strength
  - Protection, fulfillment in life, fairness
  - Freedom, opportunity, prosperity
  - Community, service, cooperation
  - Trust, honesty, open communication
- Progressive Principles
  - Equity
  - Equality
  - Democracy, including bringing corps under stakeholder control, not just stockholder control
  - Government for a better future, where govt does what's necessary and that corps won't do effectively, ethically, or at all
  - Ethical business
  - Values-based foreign policy
- Ten-Word Philosophies
  - Conservative: Strong Defense, Free Markets, Lower Taxes, Smaller Government, Family Values
  - Progressive: Stronger America, Broad Prosperity, Better Future, Effective Government, Mutual Responsibility (seems complex - try "Family Care" instead?)

Idea - "humanity sustenance" - progressive tax on all humans to pay for UN
- will give more voice and more power to UN

3 Dimensions of Variation among ideologies
- ideological/pragmatic
- radical/moderate
- means/ends
-> I am a pragmatic, moderate, means person

- Progressive frame for taxation as "investment" and "paying your dues" so that you can have freedom and liberty

"Once your frame is accepted in the public discourse, everything else you say is just common sense." (115)

"Progressive thought is as American as apple pie. Progressives want political equality, good public schools,, healthy children, care for the aged, police protection, family farms, air you can breathe, water you can drink, fish in our streams, forests you can hike in, songbirds and frogs, livable cities, ethical businesses, journalists who tell the truth, music and dance, poetry and art, and jobs that pay a living wage to everyone who works.

Progressive activists - for living wages, women's rights, human rights, the environment, health, voter registration, and so on - are American patriots, working with unselfish dedication to making a better world, a world that fits fundamental American values and principles."

1) Show respect
2) Respond by reframing
3) Think and talk at the level of values
4) Say what you believe

Read comments (4) - Comment

Bill - Nov 29, 2005, 12:18p
I respect Lakoff for his work with Johnson on metaphors and embodied philosophy. That is brilliant work.

Lakoff's little side journey into politics is nothing more than political masturbation for the already convinced--otherwise known as "preaching to the choir." Any writer who is capable of passing high school composition could write a superior work, placing "liberals" in the disadvantageous straw man position in which Lakoff places conservatives.

I passed through the leftist camp years ago, brushed briefly past the US conservative base, landing in the individualist libertarian/anarachist camp. Right now I owe none of those groups any loyalty and feel contempt equally for all political (and religious) persuasions. Lakoff is just another true believer, politically speaking. Trivial, banal, pedestrian.

student - May 16, 2018, 3:41p
helped with homework

Jeff - Jul 8, 2018, 11:12p
Really helpful summary of important work.

Rosie - May 19, 2019, 7:40a
Awesome summary. Thanks a lot

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