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Clear Skies, Healthy Forests: Why Language Matters
By Jim Motavalli
If you don't trust the environmentalists, you may want to listen to the doctors. Mount Sinai Medical School has just released a study that, in its scientific way, indicts the Bush administration's mercury policy as not only harming children but (conservatives take note) damages the economy. The report calculates that the U.S. loses $8.7 billion annually in productivity, of which $1.3 billion is directly attributable to mercury emissions from U.S. power plants.
"Failing to clean up mercury pollution sentences our children to a life of lost opportunities," says Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who analyzed the report. "President Bush says he wants to leave no child behind, but his administration's policy on mercury leaves hundreds of thousands of our children behind."
The Mt. Sinai study was based not on wild conjecture but on mercury exposure data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It reports that from 300,000 to 600,000 American children are born every year with mercury levels associated with IQ loss. According to the report, "The resulting loss of intelligence causes diminished economic productivity that persists over the entire lifetime of these children. This lost productivity is the major cost of methylmercury toxicity‚?¶"
Now it's important to know that the Bush plan that will allow coal plants to emit more pollution and mercury emissions than the Clean Air Act would have required is called the "Clear Skies Initiative." (The clearcutting bill is known as "Healthy Forests.")
According to the NRDC, the Bush plan did not arrive out of some Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) white paper, but sprung directly from the minds of coal industry lobbyists. We know this, in part, because a coal industry lobbyist described the plan's genesis with some of his colleagues, and the session was taped without his knowledge. NRDC reports, "The utility industry lobbyist first warned his coal industry audience that EPA had been planning to use the agency's existing Clean Air Act authority to require significant and prompt reductions in air pollution from coal-burning power plants. He then assured them that he and his friends in the White House had a plan that would be much more to industry's liking. The lobbyist promised that the weaker, slower cleanup requirements in the new legislation would be something 'that we can all live with and that someone else can't undo.'"
Further, says NRDC, "The White House bill would delay and dilute cuts in power plants' sulfur, nitrogen and mercury pollution that are required by the Clean Air Act. The plan also would weaken the Clean Air Act's public health safeguards protecting local air quality, curbing pollution from upwind states and restoring visibility in our national parks. The President's proposed bill would not curb power plant carbon dioxide emissions, which is a major cause of global warming and is not regulated. Rather, the lobbyist promised, the administration would develop a voluntary program for carbon pollution from utilities rather than regulation because, he said, 'the President needs a fig leaf.'"
Electric power plants, The Nation reports in the March 14, 2005 issue, spew soot and cause 554,000 asthma attacks and 38,200 heart attacks annually. If the EPA exercised its full authority, the magazine added, "the vast majority of these deaths could be avoided."
OK, let's go back to the report being called "Clear Skies." If a truth-in-labeling act referred to legislation, it would actually be called the "Mercury Polluters' Relief Act." But I could throw statistics about mercury levels at Bush voters all day and not make a dent in their thinking. In preparation for next issue's cover story, I've been reading George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant! It's a great book that should be, as Brandeis University professor Robert B. Reich puts it, "Essential reading in this neo-Orwellian age of Bush-speak." Lakoff tells us that the right has learned to craft information to fit the "frames," or set of assumptions, that people carry around. Indeed, it helps fashion the frames in the first place.
The whole idea of "compassionate conservatism" is, Lakoff writes, an Orwellian construct masking the true intent of the policies. The key craftsman of this strategy is "the right's language man, Frank Luntz," who notes that conservatives can gain the upper hand--even when science is against them--by using language strategically. "People who support environmentalist positions like certain words," Lakoff writes in Elephant. "They like the words healthy, clean and safe because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, Luntz says, use the words healthy, clean and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal plants or nuclear power plants. It is this kind of Orwellian weakness that causes a piece of legislation that actually increases pollution to be called the Clear Skies Act."
If this kind of blatant labeling seems transparent and too dumb to work, consider that a significant number of Americans still believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and documentation including the widely reported 9/11 Commission report, that there's a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. "It is not that they are stupid," reports Lakoff. "They have a frame and they only accept facts that fit that frame."
Framing is also the key to understanding what are known as "urban legends," untrue stories that get passed through the culture through the oral tradition. How do these crazy stories about cars with 200-mile-per-gallon carburetors or Elvis faking his own death gain so many true believers? They fit into common frames and reinforce people's core beliefs.
Consider this tale, reproduced here from www.snopes.com, an urban legend website:
"Geologists working somewhere in remote Siberia had drilled a hole some 14.4 kilometers deep (about nine miles) when the drill bit suddenly began to rotate wildly. A Mr. Azzacov (identified as the project's manager) was quoted as saying they decided that the center of the earth was hollow. Supposedly, the geologists measured temperatures of over 2,000 degrees in the deep hole. They lowered super-sensitive microphones to the bottom of the well, and to their astonishment they heard the sounds of thousands, perhaps millions, of suffering souls screaming."
According to site co-host Barbara Mikkelson, "This story is quite popular among Christian groups as it 'proves' Hell (and therefore Heaven) exist." But, alas, she concludes, "If there is a Hell under Siberia, scientists have yet to discover it." Try telling that to true believers, however. The story fits their frame, and it won't easily be pried loose. We received an e-mail about the Siberian hell hole not long ago.
Lakoff concludes that the environmental movement has to understand framing and use the tactics itself if it wants to communicate with the American people about clean skies and healthy forests. He makes a compelling case. Perhaps we should be heartened that the introduction to his book was written by Howard Dean, who now heads the Democratic Party. "Lakoff has written down, in language liberals can understand, what Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz intuitively realized a long time ago," writes Dean. "Language matters."
For the Mt. Sinai mercury study, go to http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2005/7743/7743.pdf
For the NRDC press release about the "Clear Skies Initiative" being crafted by polluters, go to www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/050201.asp
For a rich trove of urban legends, go to http://www.snopes.com
To learn more about George Lakoff's ideas, visit the Rockridge Institute at
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Dean, Lakoff, and the Elephant
By Edward LeClaire
February 24, 2005
When Howard Dean came to town last week and debated Richard Perle at the twenty-third annual Pacific University Tom McCall forum, Dean said that his job as the new chair(man) of the Democratic National Committee was to stop debating conservatives within their ideological frames. In doing so, Dean was clearly referencing the work of George Lakoff, and his popular book Don't Think of an Elephant for which Dean wrote the foreword.
Dean's reference to frames gives us the perfect way to measure his recent debate. To understand frames, Lakoff gives the example of the phrase 'tax relief,' which combines two otherwise benign words to create a catch-phrase rife with ideological underpinnings. 'Tax relief' necessarily assumes that taxes are an evil affliction from which we need relief. After all, how could anybody be in favor of taxes while using the term 'tax relief'? This exemplifies a basic principle of framing: avoid using the other side's language while debating them. Lakoff challenges us as progressives to come up with our own catch-phrases that frame the debate from our ideological perspective.
Dean clearly had frames on his mind. When asked by a panel member about whether the last election gave Bush a mandate on his war on terror, Dean replied that the real lesson was about not letting them set the terms of debate. Dean was clearly working hard to overcome the conservative frame which paints liberals as peace loving wussies who don't have the courage to wage a war. Dean stated several times that, 'Democrats are not weak on defense.' Ouch. This made me think of Nixon saying 'I am not a crook,' which only served to convince everyone that he was, indeed, a crook. Why not just state it without the negative? 'Democrats are strong on defense.' I believe it.
Dean's framing needs work. He had a few great lines, like when he talked about security being more than just swaggering around saying you are going to kick Saddam's butt. Yet when Perle trotted out the tired line from the last election that liberals had a weak record on defense as exemplified by years of voting against it, Dean still had no stock response.
He was forced to say something about how just voting for every Pentagon appropriation request does not equate with strength on defense. The saddest part was that this was a perfect time for Dean to shine, to start framing by twisting the conservative's established phrasing to point out their internal inconsistencies. Writing a blank check to the likes of Haliburton is not security; it is fiscally irresponsible corporate welfare.
When Dean talked about security starting from fiscal discipline and he invoked the dangers of allowing the Saudis and the Chinese to hold our debt(s), Perle responded by mocking Dean and changing the topic to discuss how in a trading situation partners naturally end up holding each other's currency. Before answering his next question, Dean said that Perle had twisted his words on the previous question and this was what he wasn't going to let them do anymore. As I eagerly waited for Dean to deliver a rhetorical bomb, explaining the real differences between holding our paper currency and holding our paper debt (like treasury notes), Dean instead repeated, 'Democrats are not weak on security.' Ouch. It just reminds me how Nixon was not a crook.
The framing of debates on a national scale has dire repercussions at the local level. Here in Oregon, the national framing has left us victim to national groups that target Oregon and its initiative process. We are left in a strange situation where a popular democratic governor has admitted defeat on the tax front and plans to balance the budget with only current funding. That's what not paying attention to frames gets us. Although I really like Dean and tend to agree with him, his leadership on framing shows me that we must lead him from the ground up, framing the debate for ourselves as we go.
Edward LeClaire of Portland, Oregon describes himself as "a Montana liberal living in Oregon."
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Bush puts his own spin on 'freedom'
Left's mainstay word recast in economic terms, analyst says
San Francisco Chronicle
January 21, 2005
While progressives were turning their backs during George W. Bush's inaugural
address Thursday, the president laid claim to one of their metaphorical mainstays:
the meaning of "freedom," a word he mentioned 26 times in his 21-minute
In Bush's parlance, "freedom" has been recast largely as "economic
freedom," a political shift that could damage liberals already searching
for a cohesive message, analysts said.
"What he's done is take over the old progressive language of 'freedom'
and redefined it without explicitly saying it -- only with code words -- in
terms of a conservative worldview," said UC Berkeley linguistics Professor
George Lakoff. "Those people who've got that worldview will understand
the code words."
In Lakoff's decoding of Thursday's address, "freedom" meant "unfettered
economic markets." Same goes for phrases such as "ownership society"
and "the governing of the self." They're conservative shorthand for
believing that the government should not be regulating business."Conservatives
have been masterful at this, but they've been working on it for 35 years, while
progressives have just been standing by," Lakoff said.
Outflanked liberals have tapped Lakoff for his skill at deconstructing how
conservatives use language to dominate the political landscape. Democratic congressional
leaders distributed copies of his most recent book, Don't Think of an Elephant,
to their membership.
The conservative notion of "freedom" isn't the one held by the progressives
who are trying to pick Lakoff's brain. "For progressives, yes, there is
economic freedom," he said. "But freedom for them extends to other
aspects of life."
When Bush is talking "freedom," Lakoff said, he isn't talking about
"freedom to marry." Or "freedom of a woman to control her own
body and reproduction." Or freedom to "unfurl a banner protesting
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, agreed that
Bush's speech had transferred the concept of freedom "from the foreign
policy world to the domestic policy world."
When Bush said, "By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny,
we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear, "
Whalen said, he was espousing the conservative ideal of the self-made person
who doesn't need a government handout.
"He's essentially using it to say the days of New Deal policies (of government
assistance) are over," said Whalen, who worked on George H.W. Bush's unsuccessful
1992 presidential campaign.
Even when Bush used "freedom" in political terms Thursday ("The
best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world"),
Lakoff interpreted it as the desire for individuals to benefit from free markets
-- not just personal liberties -- across the globe.
"Yes, (he means) freedom to pursue democracy," Lakoff said. "But
what constitutes democracy? He's saying, 'This is freedom to pursue money.'
Claiming the language of the other party isn't new, and it's often done by successful
politicians of all stripes, Whalen said.
Former President Bill Clinton used "personal responsibility" to talk
about welfare reform, a longtime Republican ideal, Whalen said. And, he said,
John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech borrowed hawkish phrases such as "pay
any price, bear any burden" that would sound more familiar coming from
Bush used the word "freedom" Thursday six more times than Martin Luther
King did in his seminal "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
Recapturing the metaphorical war will be difficult for progressives in Bush's
second term, Lakoff said. Their first battle is expected to be over the president's
plans for partial privatization of Social Security, and winning won't be as
simple as tweaking their sound bites.
Democrats must come up with a set of values to explain why they feel that, say,
Americans shouldn't be able to invest their Social Security funds in the stock
market, Lakoff said. And the rhetorical battle will probably come back to the
concept of "freedom."
"When Republicans talk about Social Security, they talk about freedom,"
Lakoff said. " 'You can invest your money better than the government can.'
"The Democrats respond by giving all the facts and figures," he said.
"None of them say, 'This is an issue about whether we're going to have
a guaranteed annuity for everyone in our family, the American family, or whether
you're on your own, buddy.'
"Rather, they argue the details," Lakoff said. "As soon as progressives
argue the details, conservatives come back and argue their own details, and
nobody knows the difference. And as soon as you get into the technical details,
the liberals lose. Because the other guys are arguing values."
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Chelsea Green Hits Big Time With 'Elephant'
By Tom Hill
Valley News Staff Writer
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'Words matter in politics: the term "poll tax" was a winner for the left,"nanny state" is a winner for the right'
January 24, 2005
What's in a word? In politics, everything, argues Richard Reeves. Get the language right and you can win arguments before they begin. US Republicans know this, but new Labour still has much to learn.
Words get a bad press. On both sides of the principal divide in British politics - the one between the media and politicians - the use of language is a familiar target. Journalists accuse politicians of spouting mere "rhetoric"; MPs on the Today programme suggest that their interlocutor is playing at "semantics". Politicians are said to be all spin and no substance, hacks to be interested in the juiciest, rather than most apposite, quotations. Yet rhetoric and semantics are not the froth of politics, but its most important ingredients. There can be no politics without words. And the precise meaning of words - for example, in the phrase "a representative House of Lords" - is hardly a trivial matter. Labour - sorry, new Labour - is all too aware of the significance of words.
"Language," Aristotle wrote in the Politics, "serves to declare what is advantageous and what is the reverse . . . It is the peculiarity of man . . . that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and unjust." In other words, what makes a political community ("a city", as Aristotle called it) is the shared concepts of good and evil, right and wrong - and only through language can this sharing take place. This insight is as valuable in the modern world as in antiquity. Those who worry about a United States of Europe can stop fretting: the absence of a common language prevents a commonly articulated vision of Europe. The gap extends even to musical pitch. The note "A" is different in France, Germany and Britain, so musicians squabble when they play together - a clear-cut case, surely, for EU harmonisation.
By contrast, the US, which is a more diverse social, economic and cultural region than Europe, has a sense of Americanness that depends vitally on linguistic unity. (Note that John Kerry's ability to speak French counted against him in last year's election.) If a nation is defined, in the Cornell University professor Benedict Anderson's terms, as a shared "imagined community", the role of a shared language in filling the imagination becomes clear.
If language shapes who we are, it also helps to determine where we are going. As Norman Fairclough, author of New Labour, New Language? says, words "do political work". Words do not simply express an already perfectly formed idea; they often help to test, refine and develop an idea. Ideas and words are like a chicken and an egg. Labour's search for the right language is a good example of the way language can determine political action.
Early in 1996, for example, it looked as if "stakeholding" would be Labour's big idea. Popularised by Will Hutton in his book The State We're In the previous year, it was at the heart of a speech by Tony Blair in Singapore. But, after a brief moment in the sun, it was replaced by "rights and responsibilities" and then "the Third Way". Philip Gould, Blair's disciple and polling guru, argues that while "the language of stakeholding has withered, the new approach underpinning it has prospered". But he underestimates the power of language. If Labour had stuck with stakeholding, some of its policies would almost certainly have been different.
In Singapore, Blair said: "It is surely time to assess how we shift the emphasis in corporate ethos from the company being a mere vehicle for the capital market - to be traded, bought and sold as a commodity - towards a vision of the company as a community of partnership in which each employee has a stake." It is not possible to square these words - a "community . . . in which each employee has a stake" - with Labour's laissez-faire attitude in government to company law, structure and capital financing.
Another critical intersection between language and politics is the way words "frame" an issue in people's minds - often in ways which virtually predetermine their reaction. George Lakoff, a US linguist and semi-hero in some Democratic circles, shows how brilliantly effective the Republicans have been at using language frames. His latest book is entitled Don't Think of an Elephant!: and the point is, you can't. Once the word has been uttered, the image of a big grey animal is unstoppably in your mind. The frame is in place. The Republicans understand this. Two of their most effective framing devices are the relabelling of tax cuts as "tax relief" and the invention of the term "partial-birth abortion".
The first of these is a powerful metaphor. Once "relief" is added to tax, Lakoff points out, it becomes "an affliction. The person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy." The Republicans use the phrase repeatedly: some right-wing think-tanks have swear-boxes for anyone who says "tax cut". Soon the media followed suit, referring to the Republicans' "tax relief plan". And once the
Democrats were using it, the game was pretty much over. "Should we have tax relief?" is a question that contains its own answer.
Bush has similarly used the metaphor of not needing a "permission slip" to defend America - which frames the issue of multinational talks in such a way as to suggest that anyone taking the UN seriously is clearly a schoolchild asking for teacher's say-so. (Someone in Michael Howard's office has clearly read Lakoff, because he, too, used the term recently. The trouble is that it is American English, and no one knew what he was on about.)
"Partial-birth abortion" refers to a rare procedure where the surgeon partly delivers the baby but leaves the head in the womb while he removes the brain. But if it is so rare - 1 per cent of all abortions - why all the right-wing fuss? "Because," as Lakoff notes, "it is the first step to ending all abortion. It puts out there a frame of abortion as a horrendous procedure, when most operations ending pregnancy are nothing like this." Paul Chilton, in his Analysing Political Discourse, calls these "ready-made moulds for the thinking of thoughts".
So far British politicians - along with most US Democrats - are amateurs at this stuff. Yet perhaps the best reframing in recent UK politics was by the left, in the successful rebadging of the Tory community charge as a poll tax. Who could oppose a simple charge for something as lovely as a community? On the other hand, who could support a tax on such a fundamental democratic right as the vote? When Conservative ministers started to slip up and refer to "the poll tax" in media interviews, you knew the fight was over.
Framing is going on all the time, whether consciously or not. Even apparently banal terms such as "welfare-dependent", "yobs" and (the current favourite) "hard-working families" carry with them a heavy load of assumptions and implications. The political right uses the term "nanny state" very effectively, with the frame carrying associations of bossiness, dependency and childishness. Once a Labour politician defensively says "it's not a question of the nanny state, but of . . .", the rest of the sentence is almost not worth bothering with. The damage has been done.
The choice of even single words can matter. As Chilton points out, the meanings of the words kill, murder, assassinate and execute can be defined "in terms of stored frames in which different types of actor fill the agent and the victim roles, the killing is legal or not legal", and so on. Similarly, the question of whether a person receiving treatment in a hospital is a "patient", "client", "user" or "customer" is a hugely important semantic one. The chosen frame carries a range of implications for where power lies, how doctors should interact with people and how the success of medical institutions is defined.
US progressives are trying to match their opponents in the framing wars. Their HQ, the Rockridge Institute, is working on a "lexicon of progressive values". The institute suggests using postfixes with "tax" so that you have "tax investment" or "tax dividend" - the lameness of which demonstrates how far they have to go. In the UK, we need to get better at using the right frame for the result we are after.
Labour's linguistic scorecard has marks in both the positive and negative columns. On the plus side, some of the party's rhetoric has located political issues in a collective sense of community. The constant use of "we" and "our", and the frequent emphasis on the way individuals can thrive only in a strong "community", have been effective examples of what linguists call "deictic" devices - ones that ground the listener in a particular time or place. Critics of the rhetoric about community and society - who dismiss it as an imprecise use of warm words - miss at least half the point. Framing an issue in a collective, community-based vision of the world is an important step towards persuasively articulating collective solutions. Labour has often not done the latter, but that does not make the first redundant.
Another positive example is the use of "social exclusion" as a frequent substitute for poverty. Launching the Social Exclusion Unit, Blair said the term is "about income, but about something more". It was "about prospects and networks and life chances", suggesting that solutions lie in "not just the redistribution of cash to the poor". All of which is true. Though people's life experiences clearly relate to their income, a centre-left government that restricted its concerns to money would miss the enormous implications and influences of social relationships, skills, family life, learning, mental health and so on.
Many critics on the left accuse the government of using social exclusion as a substitute for poverty, a concern that has been only partly allayed by the announcement of specific targets for reducing child poverty. Fairclough argues that, without redistribution of income, "the project of 'social inclusion' looks more like mere words". As Fairclough knows, however, there are few "mere" words in politics. For a start, Labour has increased the income of the poorest quite substantially, as well as introducing the New Deal, Sure Start, healthy living centres, the minimum wage and a range of neighbourhood "action zones", all of which address the non-material aspects of social exclusion. Social exclusion also positions the issue in a strong visual metaphor, of wanting to "bring people in" rather than leave them as outsiders - a better positive frame than "poverty". Used seriously and properly, the language of social exclusion does good political work.
But there are three areas where Labour's linguistics have had less positive results. First, the centralisation and homogenisation of the party's language has eroded both the attractiveness and diversity of political communication - and possibly political ideas, too. The upsides of being "on-message" are clear. Responding to a journalist's complaint about the repetitive nature of Labour's pronouncements, Alastair Campbell said that only once the reporters were narcoleptic with boredom was there a chance the message had got through to ordinary people. And there is no doubt that greater linguistic discipline - "sticking to the line" - has contributed to electoral success. But the relentless drive to be on-message has come at a price, with politicians turning into what Simon Hoggart described as "speak your manifesto" machines.
This is not a new criticism. Orwell pointed out that "orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style" and that the loyal repeater of the party line "has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself." As Orwell points out, the debasement of political language through slavish repetition of ready-made phrases drains politics of its lifeblood - the contest of competing, vivid ideas. So while linguistic discipline has been good for Labour, it has been bad for politics.
The second problem with Labour's language is the obsession with linking apparent opposites. The parade of dualisms is ceaseless, linked by "and", "but also" or "as well as": social justice and economic dynamism; enterprise as well as fairness; cutting corporation tax and introducing the minimum wage. Most famously, "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". These dualisms are the linguistic heart of the Third Way, which rejects both old left and new right. In this world, there are no difficult choices, no trade-offs; everything is possible. Voters can have their cake and eat it. As a mechanism for persuading people Labour had changed, the language was brilliantly effective. By adding the goals and values of the right to those of the left, Labour successfully offered a smorgasbord of goodies. Why choose between prosperity and social justice when you can have both? The lack of a clear "Third Way" policy framework is not the point. In many cases, Labour was not really stealing the clothes of the right, just cutting out the labels.
Gould loves these antonyms. In his Unfinished Revolution, he describes how studying Hegel persuaded him of the power of such dialectics. But Hegel's point was that the tension between opposites is constantly resolved into something new. Dialectics are about creation, not appropriation. Out of the tension between the claims of social justice and productivity, a new approach is formed.
What Labour has done, however, is balance the two, with each tack to the left followed by a symmetrical shift to the right. I think we can be confident that Hegel would not be attending Third Way seminars.
The more practical difficulty is that the dualism framework is a lousy one for the business of governing. It is not possible to have everything. Difficult choices do have to be made. There are winners and losers. Inequality is an example; it is now clear, as the work of John Hills of the London School of Economics decisively shows, that Labour can reduce the gap between rich and poor only by making the rich a bit less rich. For this, a different kind of language is required, which makes the case for choosing one direction - a social-democratic, instead of a neoliberal direction - rather than pretending we can go both ways at once.
The last challenge for Labour is to find a language that does not simply reflect the existing values of society, but changes them. Lakoff argues persuasively that people do not vote their interests, they vote their values. The party has successfully persuaded a conservative nation to return Labour governments, in part by using language that appeals to conservative instincts, not least on social welfare, tax, immigration, education. The goal now should be to find frames for political debate which refuse to take conservatism for granted, which seek to move social values leftwards. The need is to start persuading voters to become social democrats rather than convincing them that Labour is not; to build, borrowing a phrase, a "progressive consensus". For these reasons Labour needs to start minding its language.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.
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'S Factor' Still Relevant in Election
by Neal Starkman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
January 17, 2005
In January 2004, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay called "The S Factor," in which I identified an issue that I believed had been overlooked as a strong determinant of the way people vote.
The S factor -- short for the Stupid factor -- describes people who don't understand cause and effect, can't handle more than two sides of an issue and don't seek out multiple sources of information. It was my contention that, although the S factor applies to people across the political spectrum, it went a long way to explaining the apparent popularity of President Bush in the face of facts that indicated he was neither competent nor virtuous.
One year later, is the S factor relevant? A survey found that a significant majority of Bush supporters believed that Iraq had either actual weapons of mass destruction or a major program for producing them, that Iraq was providing "substantial" support to al-Qaida and that "most experts" agreed with those conclusions. The corresponding numbers for Sen. John Kerry supporters were far less.
Let's reduce this to the personal: Shortly before the election, NASCAR celebrity Darrell Waltrip explained his support for Bush by saying that he -- Waltrip -- wasn't "an issues guy" but that he'd been impressed by Bush's handshake.
Listen up, folks: Facts, observations and reason are not the currencies in which many people deal.
We've been conditioned to think that if only we could lay down the facts as we know them and make cogent, logical arguments, others would at least understand us, paving the way to some sort of consensus. But it doesn't always work that way. Millions of people respond exclusively to simple solutions for complex problems, think non-linearly and would rather someone else do the hard work of being "the issues guy." For these Americans, it's more important to feel than to think.
That might work well in church or therapy, but it's dysfunctional in the practical world. And it's a partial answer to why Bush garnered so many votes: Can you argue facts or logic with people who still believe that Saddam Hussein masterminded 9/11? Can you argue facts or logic with people who still believe that Bush has made us safer? And can you argue facts or logic with people who believe that handshakes -- or smiles, or haircuts or wives' offhand comments -- trump policies?
Is it any wonder that those who adhere to ask-no-questions, do-as-you're-told-from-on-high faiths consistently favor conservative candidates? Voltaire said, "Faith begins where reason ends." But many people don't even give reason a chance to start.
Let no one doubt the prominence of the S factor. Whether or not it's patronizing to say that doesn't matter; it exists. "Dumbing down" our arguments is not the answer. We have to slide horizontally into another universe and try to figure out a different way to communicate. At the same time, we need to persevere in teaching young people how to think critically. Maybe it's not too late for the next generation.
George Lakoff ("Moral Politics; Don't Think of an Elephant") promotes reframing issues so that people of reactionary bent will listen to what others are saying. He's right. We have to do a lot of reframing, we have to apply stricter standards of truth and accuracy to mass media, we have to transform the apparatus of communication -- the sender, the receiver and the medium itself.
The real battle ahead of us isn't Democrat versus Republican, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal or even church versus state. It's much more basic than that: The real battle is people who reason versus people who don't.
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