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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff

Like many other people, I've been stymied by the fact that facts no longer seem to matter: you can have two photographs of crowds side by side, and someone can call the smaller gathering the larger one with impunity; you can claim to have done more than anybody in history and in fact have done next to nothing; there can exist historical footage quoting you as saying one thing . . . and then the opposite, and you can claim to believe whichever film is more convenient according to the moment. As a friend recently said, "What do you do when it's clearly raining outside and it's now perfectly acceptable to look at it and say, 'It's not raining'?"

Here's what I've done: I've begun to learn a new language and a neuroscientific explanation of all of the above.

Although it is only 168 pages and subtitled "The essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future . . .," in Don't Think of an Elephant (revised and re-released in 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing), cognitive scientist George Lakoff has written an opus, not a quick-fix, sound-bite-loaded little guide. Often it suffers from too much detail, but I give it much praise for the sections that explain the brain science of why facts don't matter to many voters and they will vote against their own interests. And the last chapter, "How to Respond to Conservatives," is worth the cost of the book.

I can't possibly summarize, let alone retain the information from this book, but what I've decided to do is share some of the most salient points, along with my contemplations about how to use this material for myself. I hope many readers will do this. Lakoff says that the job of "reframing" the progressive narrative requires experts, but if enough of us learn just a little bit and put it out into public spaces, we will help heal our present cultural divide. [I found italicizing my contemplations to distinguish them from Lakoff's text too messy, so just know that what follows is a mix of my own opinions, riffing on Lakoff's information.]

Politics are based on moral values which are set by our upbringing.

Conservative paradigm: top-down, strict-father hierarchy, kids are born bad and need to learn to be good through discipline and punishment. Only then will they learn self-responsibility, and then they're on their own.

Progressive paradigm: nurturing parents; it is ideal to help everyone; kids are born good and need to be nurtured.

We all have frames according to our paradigms and beliefs. Imagine a picture frame that allows what we see. We choose facts that comport with the frames we already have, which is like choosing the art to match the color and size of the picture frame. Anything that clashes or is the wrong size is somehow rejected. Our unconscious sense of the architecture of who we are depends on this. This is common to all people. Hence, keeping this inner scaffolding intact is a matter of life and death.

Many people are moderates who hold conservative views in some areas and progressive in others. They are "biconceptualists." These are the people that politicians want to speak to most and Republicans currently do a much better job of addressing them according to their frames and values than Dems. Whoever's language is most prevalent will get the other side using it, reinforcing the ideas of the most loquacious side. Case in point: "tax relief"—based on the conservatively framed value that taxes are bad—is now a term used by progressives, reinforcing the notion that taxes are bad and completely ignoring the fact that "private depends on public": To live, we require roads, schools, public services, everything that makes up the system that we live in. In fact there is no private existence without public existence. This can extend to the air we breathe. If it's not clean, we will eventually get sick. Yet through smart P.R. and repetition, the frame of this discourse has become the conservative frame and the common language, and no amount of fact-yelling will make it otherwise. So in short, progressives have to stop mimicking conservative language and say what they mean as it relates to our values. Life and freedom depend on the existence of a public. And the public exists through our common contribution to it.

Systemic movements change things in general. Systems have myriad actions, creating myriad chain reactions, creating everything from global warming to electing a pathological liar to the highest office in the land.

One chain reaction that screams to me is the result of progressives disparaging and demeaning values and morals that they don't hold, which eventually created a tidal wave of hubris that is now fueling an understandable backlash of conservative revenge. (If you doubt this, remember some time in your life where you were shamed and how awful that felt.) It is not that conservatives believe Trump's lies. They simply don't care, or like Paul Ryan recently, they excuse them as due to inexperience. This is a way to wipe facts out of the frame because the strict-father paradigm of punishment is a strongly held value and Trump promises that it will happen under his leadership.

In my opinion, part of the solution—in addition to reframing issues like education, health care, environmental protection, etc. in terms of freedom for all of us because private life depends on public personal protections (not "benefits" or "entitlements"), or using other values we all share such as security, prosperity, and opportunity—is realizing what we progressives have done. I personally feel remorse for all the times I've been intolerant and dismissive of people who, in my estimation, "don't understand what's so obvious to me." I regret that my frame has been so narrow as to exclude the importance of values in my reverence for facts—a product of my deep ignorance about systems and how they work. And I will henceforth try to listen better when somebody is hurting to hear what they really are hurting about. And I will try to express my own hurt and desire for healing in terms of values. Lakoff's final guidelines about communicating differently:
Show respect
Respond by reframing
Think and talk on the level of values
Say what you believe

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