I’ve been debating Lakoff again. Lord help me.
Understanding Lakoff’s framing theories involves understanding basic logic. And I don’t feel like giving an academic explanation of all the intricacies of symbolic logic. So, I’ll just use layman’s terms.
We are all familiar with polls. We all know that the result of a poll can be affected by how the question is asked. But to fairly judge the differential effect between two phrasings, the phrasings must be logically equivalent. Otherwise, the respondent may only be reacting to distortion or non sequiturs.
Here is an example:
How important is tax relief to you?
How important are revenue cuts to you?
You will discover that more people want ‘relief’ than want ‘cuts’. The difference in the polls is a ‘framing effect’. It has zero basis in the merits of reducing tax rates, and can only be explained by the differential visceral reaction to how the question was phrased.
That is what political framing is. It can actually be measured. But politicians (especially Republicans) do not stick to equivalent arguments. They distort. So, they might ask:
“Are you sick of spending your hard earned money to support able-bodied people who can’t find a job?”
That question is not synonymous with asking how important tax relief is to you. Still, it is possible to make an equivalent statement while using inflammatory language:
Affirmative Action=reverse discrimination
In this case, a policy of affirmative action (in practice) will mean that white men are at a competitive disadvantage. Since white men are usually at a default advantage and tend to discriminate against non-whites and women, this is a reversal of the norm. Therefore, the two phrases are fairly equivalent, and they are both playing on visceral reactions to make their appeal. ‘Affirmative’ and ‘action’ are generally positive words, while ‘reverse’ and ‘discrimination’ are generally negative words.
Not surprisingly, many more people support affirmative action than support reverse discrimination, even though the two phrases refer to the same policies.
The Republicans are careful to frame their policies negatively when they are against something, and positively when they support something. So, they talk about the ‘death-tax’ because they oppose it. They talk about ‘tax relief’ because they support tax cuts. And if their policies are unsupportable, they call them the opposite of what they are: like ‘healthy forests’.
We can see how important language is. We already knew that you can convince people by lying and distorting. Making people associate policies with something bad will increase people’s opposition to those policies, even if the association is basically dishonest.
The Democrats should frame their policies in a positive light, and they should frame the Republican’s policies in a negative light. But the proper response to Republican dishonesty is not to play their game of obfuscation. The proper response is to stick up for their policies with self-confidence, without apology, and, in doing so, to project conviction and strength. The effort to out-spin, out-package, and out-deceive the Republicans is a mistake.