FIT 101 – George Lakoff on framing, metaphors, and political language
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:
- Consider how conservative media often include “Hussein” or “II” in Barack Obama’s name.
- From yesterday’s New York Times, “New Leaders Hold Detroit’s Prospects in Their Hands” — of course these prospects are not literally held in the new leaders’ hands. It invokes a frame of control, ownership, and power, and Detroit’s lack thereof.
- “Goldman Loses, but Hold the Pity” is similar to “I am not a crook!” and “Don’t think of an elephant” — the negation of a frame invokes the frame. More specifically, it begs the question or is a circular argument: it demonstrates a conclusion by means of premises that include the conclusion — an assumption that there is pity to be held.
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.
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: