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FIT 101 – George Lakoff on framing, metaphors, and political language

Written By: Youki on March 31, 2009 1 Comment

Let’s take a common term used in politics: “tax relief.” When George W. Bush took office, George Lakoff noticed that press releases started to use the term “tax relief.” He realized that the word relief invoked a frame — that of affliction. There has to be an afflicted party that is harmed, a reliever that is the hero, and anyone who tried to stop him is the bad guy. By adding “tax” to “relief” you get a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction.

Hearing it over and over will produce synaptic connections in your brain, eventually becoming common sense. The metaphor is now a part of how your mind works, and anytime the phrase “tax relief” is used, it invokes the deeper frame of taxation being a form of affliction.

Framing happens throughout all of language in politics:

The more insidious forms of framing tend to occur with names. Instead of naming a policy in accordance to what it actually does, politicians tend to frame more controversial policies as being explicitly “good” and towards a worldview and morality that is ideal. By doing so, opponents of the policy are framed as being against the goodwill of humanity, as opposed to being against the actual policy. Using such titles for policy is an example of Orwellian language: propaganda and manipulation of language to encourage “empty thought” and non-critical thinking. For example:

  • The Clear Skies Initiative” actually reduced air pollution controls. However, everyone should want clear skies!
  • No Child Left Behind” says nothing about the actual policy. May as well have called the policy “babies are cute.”
  • Gay marriage” — marriage is a complex relationship which is understood in many ways: love, lifelong commitment, family, happiness, loyalty, security, and companionship, among many others. By directly associating marriage with sexuality, the term “gay marriage” suppresses all the other ways in which marriage can be conceptualized.

You can also see examples in current politics:

  • Treasury to Unveil Bailout Plan Tuesday” — the term “bailout” implies that the situation is a result of external forces, that the banking industry is a victim that needs to be saved. It’s not the banking industry “you guys messed up and it’s the taxpayers that are going to clean up the mess” plan.
  • Economic stimulus vs. recovery vs. spending — a great post on William Safire’s blog on language goes over the ways in which these three words have been used to frame economic policy. “Stimulus” is Washington talk, “recovery” is how the American people think about it (from a liberal perspective), and “spending” is how conservatives frame it.
  • Bonus or retention payment? The term “bonus” invokes a frame in which an employee is paid in addition to a standard salary. We usually associate bonuses with positive outcomes, a form of reward for good performance. However, with the banking crisis, the term “bonus” becomes contradictory. So, to attempt to mitigate the public backlash, banking institutions are now calling them “retention payments.

Understanding how frames operate goes a long way in deconstructing political language. Language is rarely neutral in politics — each frame is intended to persuade the audience to think in a particular way, to force alignment with a particular ideology, and in many cases, to distort the true intentions of a policy.

George Lakoff: Moral Politics

It’s long but well worth it. If you’re a student here, I suggest taking George Lakoff’s “Language and Politics” course.


Other posts in the “FIT 101” series:

Dan Dennett: Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes


related posts:

Same Sex Marriage and the Internet

Language in Context

À quel moment de la journée?

“FIT 101″ is a Found in Translation video series that highlights a language-related topic or concept, typically talks by experts within a language field. These videos tend to be more in-depth and are intended to encourage our readers to think about language in new ways.

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One Response to “FIT 101 – George Lakoff on framing, metaphors, and political language”

  1. daveski on: 1 April 2009 at 11:28 am

    It’s interesting that the first two installments of FIT 101 (which I LOVE!!) highlight ways in which meanings are made on a vast scale across thousands or millions of speakers/readers/writers/designers, with great social and political ramifications, and often involving (in the examples at least) certain kinds of amplifications and distortions through channels of media, and yet they seem to be quite different things: memes are like viruses (say some) that propagate out of control, perhaps having more to do with the nature of the ‘stuff’ that we use to communicate nowadays and the means we have of distributing it, while frames seem to be a more cognitive entity, predisposing us to understand the ‘stuff’ in certain ways. I’m kind of rambling here but it makes me wonder…how are memes and frames related? similar? different? And is there the same degree/type of intentionality (to further an ideological position, for example) inherent in the use of frames as opposed to memes?

    BTW, have you all seen the PBS documentary The Persuaders? Seems it’s all about framing, and a really cool video.

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