These two good aspects of the article are overshadowed, however, by much that isn't so good. The popular press simply can't get it right when it comes to science, even when that science is as shitty as Lakoff's. I'm glad that framing itself is still getting attention, even in a non-election year, but I hope that more liberal cognitive scientists who study concepts, metaphor and analogy, rhetoric/communication, and related topics will start to speak up within earshot of politicians and the press (i.e., not on podunk blogs like this one). For now, I'm going to speak up on a podunk blog like this one (identical with it, in fact) about the NYT article.
The article doesn't get to Lakoff until the third page (of the online version), and when it does, it starts off on the wrong foot, calling Lakoff "the father of framing." This will come as a shock to anyone who read Erving Goffman's work on framing in the mid-1970s, or to anyone who wrote on framing between the publication of Goffman's book and Lakoff's work on the topic in the 1990s (or even the 1980s, if we are generous and describe Lakoff's early work on metaphor as work on framing). Lakoff has popularized framing, however, and for that he does deserve recognition. I can't help but think that Matt Bai, the author of the New York Times piece, has been buying into Lakoff's framing of himself, though. He follows the bogus "father of framing" metaphor with this:
A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it.As far as linguistic professors go, Lakoff hasn't been obscure for a long time. After Noam Chomsky, he has probably been the most famous linguistics professor in the U.S. for at least two decades. Metaphors We Live By has been one of the most popular cognitive science books among non-cognitive scientists for 20 years, and I'd wager that Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things has sold more copies that virtually any other cog sci book of similar length as well. This is not because cognitive scientists are reading it (most of the ones I know haven't). Furthermore, among cognitive scientists, Lakoff is certainly not considered one of the great minds of our discipline. He was controversial at one time, though now he's more recalcitrant in the face of overwhelming data against his view than he is controversial. But this article appears to be a sort of myth-building exercise, and "largely ignored by cognitive scientists, Lakoff has begun to gain a great deal of influence in politics" doesn't seem like a good start to a myth.
To Bai's credit, he does try to hint at some of the deeper aspects of framing. He writes:
According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.This could be an OK short description of how framing works. Framing is about changing and utilizing largely unconscious representations. (A terminological note: I call these representations schemas, even though Lakoff calls them frames. I think it's important to call the representations "schemas" because if we call both the language and the conceptual representations that framing analysis deals with "frames," then we might be tempted to treat "framing" as a strictly linguistic phenomenon, which is what many, including most of the politicians the article discusses, appear to do.) The article at least attempts to make it clear that this is about changing how people think about issues, not just changing how we talk about them, and that's a good thing. Still, as Bai himself shows, the use of the word "unconscious" immediately activates common misconceptions of the cognitive unconscious. For example, Bai writes:
This notion of ''activating'' unconscious thought sounded like something out of ''The Manchurian Candidate'' (''Raymond, why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?''), and I asked Lakoff if he was suggesting that Americans voted for conservatives because they had been brainwashed.Lakoff quickly points out how this is wrong, saying:
That's true, but that's different from brainwashing, and it's a very important thing. Brainwashing has to do with physical control, capturing people and giving them messages over and over under conditions of physical deprivation or torture. What conservatives have done is not brainwashing in this way. They've done something that's perfectly legal. What they've done is find ways to set their frames into words over many years and have them repeated over and over again and have everybody say it the same way and get their journalists to repeat them, until they became part of normal English.What Lakoff doesn't really make clear is that framing in politics is not about changing people's entire world-views by talking about things differently. Instead, it's about changing the way we talk about things so that people will represent them within particular schemas that they already have. So, for instance, we might want to reframe abortion so that, instead of being about life and death, it is represented utilizing the schemas we use to represent freedom and choice. This is nothing like brainwashing (it's not, as Lakoff suggests, different simply because it's legal). It involves showing people new relations between domains, and then utilizing the schemas from one domain (e.g., freedom) to represent another domain (abortion). If we want to use framing successfully, we have to realize this. It's important that, instead of going out and conducting surveys and focus groups to figure out which frames work best for each individual issue, we go out and look for the base domains (the schemas that people already have) that work the best, and then develop analogies (Lakoff would call them metaphors, but in order to avoid the appearance of endorsing his bogus cognitive theories, I'm going to call them analogies) from those. Sometimes this will require figuring out which base domains can best be used to represent individual domains, but it will also require developing large-scale narratives (or systems of analogies) from a set of base domains, which is what Lakoff argues Republicans have done so well.
Finally, the article includes the gratuitous "other perspective" (you know, to make it "objective"). There are two versions of this, one from Republicans and one from anti-framing Democrats. The Republican critique comes from Frank Luntz. Here's what Bai writes of his objections:
The problem with Lakoff, Luntz said, is that the professor's ideology seemed to be driving his science. Luntz, after all, has never made for a terribly convincing conservative ideologue. (During our conversation, he volunteered that the man he admired most was the actor Peter Sellers, for his ability to disappear into whatever role he was given.) Luntz sees Lakoff, by contrast, as a doctrinaire liberal who believes viscerally that if Democrats are losing, it has to be because of the words they use rather than the substance of the argument they make. What Lakoff didn't realize, Luntz said, was that poll-tested phrases like ''tax relief'' were successful only because they reflected the values of voters to begin with; no one could sell ideas like higher taxes and more government to the American voter, no matter how they were framed. To prove it, Luntz, as part of his recent polling for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specifically tested some of Lakoff's proposed language on taxation. He said he found that even when voters were reminded of the government's need to invest in education, health care, national security and retirement security, 66 percent of them said the United States overtaxed its citizenry and only 14 percent said we were undertaxed. Luntz presented this data to chamber officials on a slide with the headline ''George Lakoff Is Wrong!!''I'll be damned if I know what Luntz' admiration of Peter Sellers has to do with any of this, but I can say for sure that Luntz' doesn't understand Lakoff's work. First of all, while it is highly likely that Lakoff's politics are guiding his representation of conservatives and liberals (through his descriptions of the STRICT FATHER and NURTURANT PARENT metaphors), that's not science. That's Lakoff's own idiosyncratic informal cognitive linguistic analysis of political discourse. The science, which I will admit isn't very good science, but which makes many of the same points that good science does, was around long before Lakoff got political. In addition, Luntz' data doesn't show that Lakoff's view of framing (or framing analysis itself) is wrong. It does show that Lakoff might be wrong about which frames to use for taxation, but even that's not clear. Lakoff himself notes that simply presenting frames once or twice over a short period of time is not sufficient to change people's deeply-entrenched and largely unconscious (and therefore difficult to consciously change) representations. It takes the extended and consistent use of frames to create large-scale representational change. As Bai puts it, Lakoff "does not suggest in his writing that a few catchy slogans can turn the political order on its head by the next election."
The Democratic criticisms are slightly better, but completely misdirected. Here is how Bai describes it:
Lakoff's detractors say that it is he who resembles the traveling elixir salesman, peddling comforting answers at a time when desperate Democrats should be admitting some hard truths about their failure to generate new ideas. ''Every election defeat has a charlatan, some guy who shows up and says, 'Hey, I marketed the lava lamp, and I can market Democratic politics,''' says Kenneth Baer, a former White House speechwriter who wrote an early article attacking Lakoff's ideas in The Washington Monthly. ''At its most basic, it represents the Democratic desire to find a messiah.''This is simply unfair to Lakoff. He is not a charlatan, even if he's not a good cognitive scientist. His central points, about the importance of morality in political discourse, and the use of what we know about how people think to help communicate our ideas better while counteracting the deceptive use of language by Republicans, are dead on. Yet, it is obviously true that many Democrats have latched onto Lakoff without fully understanding what framing entails. It does not mean that we can call taxation "dues for services rendered," and think that people will immediately vote for our candidates.
It's a shame that the article included either of these criticisms, at least as directed toward Lakoff (the latter is pretty dead on when directed toward Democrats who don't understand framing). It's also a shame that the article doesn't do more to correct the misrepresentations that it itself laments, including the ones that it tries to perpetuate (e.g., with talk of brainwashing). It would be really nice if the article actually mentioned the criticisms of cognitive scientists (you know, the people who actually know what they're talking about), too. But all of that is probably too much to expect from an article in the New York Times, even if it is 12 frickin' pages long.