Saturday, 1 February 2014

George Lakoff on the failure of progressives to frame the debate

Here journalist Zoe Williams speaks to the master of ‘moral framing’ George Lakoff – a professor of cognitive science at the University of California.

I was first introduced to Lakoff’s ideas at university when a friend urged me to read ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know your Values and Frame the Debate’ – and it has influenced how I’ve interpreted political debates ever since.

Essentially Lakoff argues that progressives need to frame political and social debates from a fundamentally moral standpoint. Trying to disprove neo-liberal dogma with facts and evidence doesn’t cut it, it merely reinforces another’s framing of the issues; you need to present a better alternative story – a more appealing and inspiring vision for society.

Lakoff said:

Progressives want to follow the polls … Conservatives don’t follow the polls; they want to change them. Political ground is gained not when you successfully inhabit the middle ground, but when you successfully impose your framing as the ‘common-sense’ position.

This anecdote from Williams is also a good example:

One of Lakoff’s engagements in London was at the TUC, where they proudly showed him a video they had made about welfare – restating Cameron’s case in order to dispute it, but in reality falling into the trap of trying to dispel welfare “myths”, instead of talking about a social security system of which we should be proud. He took it apart at the seams.

The New Economics Foundation produced an interesting report last September called ‘Framing the Economy: The Austerity Story’ which applied Lakoff’s theory to current UK politics and offered up some alternative frames to the coalition’s narrative focus on the deficit and debt. I wonder whether the great professor approved?