Reframing the debate



Have you been wondering what ‘family values’‚ or ‘healthy forests’‚ are? Welcome to the neo-Orwellian age of the conservative frame. When you think of family values, what frame or collection thereof are you looking through?

My expectations of this book were based on more than mere interest in how a book on values and framing national debate could become a New York Times best seller. As a member of the left I was looking for the answer to a very simple question: where has the left gone wrong?

George Lakoff provides a response and a way forward for the left or the progressives. It’s a response that is challenging and enlightening in its simplicity. This will not be an entirely comfortable read for either the politically left or right.

His response is twofold. First, the left needs to understand the conservatives—who they are, what they stand for, how they work and how they have communicated to the voting public. Second, the left needs to reframe the debate.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’ structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access but know by their consequences, through the way we reason and what counts as common sense. When you hear a word—‘elephant’ or ‘tax relief’, for example—its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. For example, when responding to the taxation debate, rather than reactively playing into the conservative frame of tax as relief‚ the left can reframe the debate by talking of tax as an ‘investment for our future’‚ or as a ‘contribution to the nation’s infrastructure’. Lakoff explains that once the left has its values clear and unified it simply has to reframe the debate and to consistently communicate its frame, its values and principles.

There is one other aspect that the left needs to understand before beginning to reframe the debate. Based on Lakoff’s research, individuals do not vote on the basis of self-interest. People ‘vote their identity and their values. They vote for who they identify with. It’s not that people don’t care about their self-interest. But that they will vote what they perceive is their identity.’

Perhaps it is this last aspect that the left must face so as to act more effectively. Lakoff’s challenge is that progressives who choose to ignore this do so at their own peril. The left can choose to whinge about the fact that it doesn’t get enough media time or resources. Or it can be strategic, invest in people and real ideas and reframe the debate in its workplaces, families, friendship groups, communities and political parties. The future of a progressive society, says Lakoff, relies on it.

In parts Lakoff is self-indulgent and repetitive, sharing his views on the bombing of the twin towers and the corruption of Bush and his supporters. However, for all those who consider themselves politically left or centre-left, this work is an optimistic how-to book that has not been seen on the political landscape. As Lakoff states, ‘Don’t think of an elephant! Be the change you want.’  

Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate‚ George Lakoff. Scribe, 2005. ISBN 1 920 76945 5, RRP $22

Selena Reynolds is a Melbourne educator and long-term member of the Australian Greens.



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