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Jul. 10 2010 - 8:06 am | 529 views | 2 recommendations | 11 comments

Can this language change American politics?

Pop!Tech 2008 - The Body Politic - Question & ...

George Lakoff. Image by Pop!Tech via Flickr

Berkeley linguist to Democrats: talk to America like it’s a 5-year-old.

That’s not what George Lakoff says, exactly, but it’s what he does in a sample editorial he wrote to teach progressives how to convey their message more effectively to the American public.

In a sample editorial on Arizona’s immigration law–reprinted in full below–he doesn’t want to use the term “undocumented worker” because that sounds like something Karl Marx would say, and he doesn’t want to use the term “illegal immigrant” because that sounds like something Karl Rove would say.

So in Lakoff’s words, immigrants become “guys.” Are you reading this at a tiny schooldesk? Because you should be. Turns out there are good guys, and there are bad guys:

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come [to] America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are 12 million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and thieves.

As a progressive, Lakoff is skating on thin ice, using a term that generally refers to men. For many years the U.S. treated female immigrants as mere attachments to male immigrants,. For many years, immigration researchers only studied or interviewed male immigrants. It’s still a bit of a sore spot among people who value gender equity. And today, U.S. immigrants are more likely to be women. That is, more women than men enter the U.S. legally (no one can be sure what the percentages look like among undocumented immigrants).

A groundbreaking scholar of language and mind, Lakoff may be risking language that could be called sexist in pursuit of some benefit. Perhaps he means to evoke stereotypes, for he considers stereotypes vital to the conceptual frame in which language operates:

“An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision making.”

Good guys vs. bad guys, white hats vs. black hats, Underdog vs. Simon Bar Sinister.

Not all of Lakoff’s language is that simple. His topic requires terms like immigration, deportation, and arbitrary implementation, and those bring the register to about the tenth-grade level. But Lakoff tries to displace prevailing conservative values with a conceptual frame that even a 5-year-old could appreciate.

Arizona’s immigration law is a bad law, Lakoff tells us, not a good law.

In recent decades, Democrats uncertain whether to sound like Karl Marx or Karl Rove have opted to sound like Rove, spurred by pollsters who found conservative language popular in the mainstream. They believed it would move them toward the center and appeal to centrist and Republican voters.

Lakoff calls this “disaster messaging.” Facing disaster, Democrats adopt Republican language.

Here’s Obama speaking about immigration on Cinco de Mayo:

The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. That means responsibility from government to secure our borders, something we have done and will continue to do. It means responsibility from businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers – they’ve got to be held accountable. It means responsibility from people who are living here illegally. They’ve got to admit that they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty and learn English and get right before the law – and then get in line and earn their citizenship.”

And Lakoff’s analysis:

Use force against the illegals (“secure our borders”); get tough (“held accountable”); personal, not social, “responsibility”; criminals (“living here illegally”); be punitive (“admit they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty”); English only (“learn English”); they’re getting free handouts (“earn their citizenship.”).

Put aside for a moment the substance of the policy and notice that these are conservative Republican themes that fit a conservative Republican view of the world. Democrats, starting with the president, are using the language that activates the conservative Republican view of the world.

Whenever Democrats employ conservative language, even to progressive ends, it reinforces the conservative conceptual frame, according to Lakoff.

“When the Democrats use conservative language, they activate more than the conservative framing on the given issue. They also activate and strengthen the high-level, deep, conservative, moral frames. This tends to make voters more conservative overall – and leads them to choose the real conservative position on the given issue, rather than the sort of conservative version provided by the democrats.”

And this, Lakoff believes, is how conservatives continue to rule even when voted out of power, and how a conservative minority in Congress can hold progress hostage on a whole array of issues: health care, climate change, immigration….

But that doesn’t mean Democrats need to sound like Marx. There’s a third choice.

Lakoff’s alternative language is remarkable only in its banality. There are good guys and bad guys, good laws and bad laws. There’s honesty, decency, and immorality. No workers of the world uniting, but many mentions of work. Here’s the full text of Lakoff’s sample editorial:

End a Bad Law: 287(g)

Bad laws, laws that hurt far more than they help, should be eliminated. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a bad law. Here’s why.

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come the America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are 12 million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and thieves. They need to be captured and convicted.

But 287(g) mostly harasses, jails, harms and deports the good guys and, in doing so, mostly lets the bad guys escape.

The 287(g) program allows local police and jailers to act as deportation agents with ultimate power over the lives of the good guys, who are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Their very entry into the US without papers constitutes sufficient “guilt” to justify their mistreatment and deportation.

The 287(g) program promotes a form of racial profiling – 287(g) is immoral, an affront to the human rights that define what America is about.

The 287(g) program is also ineffective in getting the bad guys, partly because it uses so many resources on going after the good guys.

As Alex DiBranco reports, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that 287(g) is poorly managed, ineffectively organized and arbitrarily implemented from place to place; ignores or actually provides false information to the public; fails to focus on noncitizens who pose a safety threat; gives shoddy training; lacks oversight; and has not terminated those local partners who have clearly violated the terms of the agreement – local law enforcement officials running amok in hunting down harmless undocumented immigrants. The 287(g) program also deters undocumented immigrants who witness a crime from coming forward and encourages racial profiling in which Latinos are “guilty until proven innocent.”

The 287(g) program should be ended and replaced by a law that protects the good guys and pays serious attention to catching the bad guys. It is not just ineffective; it is downright immoral.

What do you think: Can this language change American politics?

You can find Lakoff’s full reasoning for the content of his sample editorial in his own words at Truthout.com. You can also find a next-day version on Alternet, where the editors saw fit to change Lakoff’s headline, from “Disaster Messaging” to “Why Conservative Lies Spread and What Progressives Can Do to Fight Them.” Lakoff never accuses conservatives of lying. So is Alternet taking his advice and asserting its own conceptual frame?


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ve believed for a long time that Democrats have had a language problem. Their ability to frame an issue simply and to the point is pathetic. The Republicans have used this to their advantage, because the simpler language makes for easily repeated sound bites. And of course, anything repeated often enough becomes truth to most voters who never really do the research.

    As for the “guys” issue–c’mon. I’m a woman and I use that term on a daily basis to refer to the collective “we”, regardless of the genders of the people in the room to whom I’m referring. No one I know has ever taken umbrage at that usage of the word. To me it’s a less formal pronoun, particularly in more casual writing where it gets tedious to continually write “s/he”.

    • collapse expand

      Humble, with the guys issue, I’m just trying to get at why he chose that word, despite its weaknesses, over a word like “people.” He could have chosen “people,” but he I believe he wanted to use “good guys” and “bad guys.”

      Concerning the language problem, Lakoff believes Republicans consciously manipulate the conceptual frames of language, which is a very interesting claim considering that it seems like mostly only cognitive linguists think about them. Here’s Lakoff on Republican Strategy:

      “In the US, conservatives have set up an elaborate messaging system. It starts with an understanding of long-term framing and message experts who know how to use their existing long-term frame systems. Then, there are think tanks, with experts who understand the high-level frame system and how it applies to the full range of issues. There are training institutes that teach tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk using these framing systems and their language and argument forms. There are regular gatherings to consolidate messaging and policy around a contemporary issue that fits the conservative moral system. There are booking agencies that book conservative spokespeople on TV, talk radio etc. There are lecture venues and booking agencies for conservative spokespeople. There are conservative media going on 24/7/365. As a result, conservative language is heard constantly in many parts of the US.”

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    This guy, Lakoff, started off with something worth saying. Now he sounds Orwellian. He isn’t far from saying, “Immigration is doubleplusgood for the economy and people who oppose immigration are guilty of doubleplusungoodthink.” Thanks for being onto him, Jeff.
    The truth is:
    1) Immigration reduces wages for USAmericans by 3-7% according to Harvards George (nee Jorge) Borjas, himself an immigrant.
    2) The costs of absorbing immigrants are staggering, probably in the range of $300 billion a year, $4,000 a year per average USAmerican family of four.
    3) Turning the average human being into an apex-consuming USAmerican increases their footprint by about 5 times. That’s five times more land converted to human use and about 5 times greater carbon footprint.
    4) European nations (except UK) keep their immigration levels on the order of 1 immigrant/1000 persons. The US rate is on the order of 5/1000.

  3. collapse expand

    Wait. Let me try again.
    1) Costs guys like us about $2,000 a year in lower pay. Can you afford that? I can’t.
    2) Costs guys like us about $2,000 a year in higher taxes. Can you afford that either? I can’t.
    3) Means our children won’t have hardly no rainforest tigers or gorillas to visit and our medicines will cost a lot more than they already do.
    4) Means we’re more socialist than those guys in Europe. My parents didn’t raise guys like us to being OK with socialism. ?

  4. collapse expand

    Mr. McMahon,

    You asked:”What do you think: Can this language change American politics?” or, alternatively, “Why Do Conservative Lies Spread and Why Progressive Lies Don’t.”

    In this country right now, most people who want to believe lies are conservatives and there are a lot of them. The people who believe that Mr. Obama is a cyrpto-Muslim, socialist, and native of Kenya do not because these things because conservatives who tell those lies use the right language but because they *want to believe* these things, irrespective the language – or even evidence. There are a significant number of people out there who see their world collapsing around them, the US economy is contracting at the worst rate since the Great Depression, manufacturing jobs are going and not coming back, government at all levels is bankrupt, & so on. They also see their traditionally privileged position as native born Christian whites eroding away. They then blame non-Christian, non-white, immigrants, like Mr. Obama for their problems, i.e. you have the Tea Party. So long as these people see the world through this prism, no matter what language Progressives use, they will not hear it.

    This is not the say that using the appropriate language is not important in winning political discourse, it is. However it is merely a tool to get people to look at the world through a different prism, one that is more appropriate to their long term interests.

    • collapse expand

      David, I think this shows the problem with Alternet changing Lakoff’s headline. They probably did it to engage their readers (preacher to choir), but it’s a bit misleading.

      As best I can tell, Lakoff isn’t talking about the Muslim/Socialist/Birther nonsense. He’s talking about mainstream political speech, particularly as it is used by Democrats and progressives. He’s arguing that frequency of language use reinforces one of two competing conceptual frames–we might think of them as assumptions, sets of values, or lattices of reasoning–the liberal one or the conservative one. So in Lakoff’s view, when Democrats use Republican language, they don’t steal a chunk of Republican voters as it might seem. Instead, they reinforce Republican concepts, which if anything, leads voters closer to the Republicans.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Mr. McMahon,

        I chose the Tea Party folks as an example but the point is the same irrespective of the audience. Even in a mainstream exchange of idea, while I will agree that that the choice of language is important, it is always a secondary feature to the content of the message and the social reality of the audience. There is nothing any progressive can do to reach Wall Street billionaires, no matter what language progressives use, their interests are entirely served by conservative politics. Conversely, conservative messages have consistently failed to penetrate and resonate with the Black community is any consistent way. Their social reality is not fertile grounds for the conservative philosophy.

        Almost everyone else is somewhere in between. Many Tea Party members are white people (like the Wall Street billionaire) but of very modest means (like most of the Black community). As such, they have shared interests with both groups, one from a racial perspective and the other from a class perspective. Tea Party have entirely embraced their racial interests and are ignoring their class interests. So long as this is so, they will remain immune to the progressive message and fully embrace the conservative program.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          David, you’ve described the battlefield, now note the large mass of voters in the middle. The problem, according to Lakoff, is that those voters have adopted the conservative conceptual frame because both parties use conservative language. It’s certainly not the case that voters vote their interests. The classic example is Ronald Reagan, who won the support of working class Americans, many of them union members, even while he was making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and dismantling the unions. He didn’t do it by representing those people’s interests. He did it by being “The Great Communicator.” Very few of us are wealthy or powerful, so in order for the party of wealth to win, or even to come close to winning, many millions of Americans have to vote against their interests. Lakoff believes language is why.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            That depends on a specific definition of “interest”. Voters don’t vote for candidates who promise to enslave 49% of the population to work for 51%, either, though it serves their interests. Conservatives are interested in seeing measures they think will increase fairness by allowing ‘wealth producers’ to retain more of the wealth they ‘create’. (I put those in scare quotes because they represent a specific point of view, not to imply they’re necessarily wrong or right)

            I know Lakoff doesn’t believe this, but I’m familiar with his work and I don’t think it’s very impressive. He’s closer to a party hack than a thoughtful and disinterested academic.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Let’s try that: since pelosi, reid, frank, biden are voters and r 5 year olds too and so is Obama…when Obama talks to them, he is talking to 5 year old voters….yes, that owrks

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    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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