Dispatches from the Creation Wars

George Lakoff on Political Language

A lot of attention lately has been paid to Lakoff, a fairly obscure Berkeley linguistics professor, for a book he wrote suggesting that Democrats learn to use language to frame the debate as well as the Republicans have. Since I don’t have much preference for either of those parties, I’m not really interested in the electoral results of it, but I do think that Lakoff is dead on in his analysis of how well the right has used language. When I’ve said in the past that the Republicans simply play the game better than the Democrats, this is largely what I’m referring to.

What the right has mastered is the art of public relations, particularly the use of catchphrases. They have used phrases like “family values” so much that you’d think that only Christians have families. For that matter, what better example could you find than the ID cry of “teach the controversy”. Catchphrases and buzzwords are the lifeblood of politics because they allow the speaker to convey a large set of assumptions and images (whether accurate or not) in a single soundbite. Catchphrases are probably the most aggressive and survivable memes in the world, and until those who counter the right’s agenda learn to use them as effectively as they do, we’ll continue to lose the battle for the agreement of the public.

Comments

  1. #1 LiteraryTech
    December 23, 2004

    Thank you for the cogent article. It seems quite clear that the Republicans have mastered a certain type of rhetoric and coupled it with the politics of fear. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

  2. #2 Dan
    December 23, 2004

    Ed, you must be psychic. I’ve been thinking recently of Lakoff’s work (yes, I know, a sad commentary on my interests) and I’ve meant to double back and do some more study of it. This post prompts me to do just that. I truly believe that one of the biggest reasons why the socons have been so successful is that they’ve managed to dominate the rhetorical battles. This isn’t something that happened overnight; they’ve been developing the themes and arguments for decades, and honing them through trial and error and good, old fashioned market testing. What we’re seeing today is the payoff for all that hard work. Progressives have been asleep at the wheel almost the entire time. The only folks who could play the game as effectively were Clinton and his team. They understood the critical importance of rhetoric and the role that it plays in shaping public discourse.

    I teach a variant of this in my Program — legal rhetoric and argumentation. I’ve been heavily influenced here by Paul, Kennedy, and Balkin. If anyone is interested, I’d be glad to point you to a couple of great articles by Balkin that do a good job of identifying and explaining the rhetorical argument forms that dominate legal discourse. Of course, these argument forms are not unique to the law — many of them are present in all types of discourse, whether legal, political, philosophical or ethical. The moral of the story is a simple one: understanding rhetoric is critical to effective communication, regardless of the doctrine involved.

    Thanks for reminding me that I need to have another look at Lakoff’s work.

  3. #3 Lorri T.
    December 23, 2004

    Wasn’t rhetoric once taught in schools? And critical thinking? In high school, I took classes in political science, and in grade school we called it social studies. Can we honestly expect our children to take over the complicated process of democracy without the skills to comprehend what they are doing? No wonder reality tv is so popular; we’re too freaking stupid (literally) to follow a plot line.

  4. #4 GeneralZod
    December 23, 2004

    Let’s not forget these gems:
    “Activist judges” and
    “the religion of Atheism/Secularism”

  5. #5 ACW
    December 23, 2004

    Semantic Compositions (http://semanticcompositions.typepad.com/index/) has provided an in-depth skeptical analysis of Lakoff. Though my political sympathies lie with Lakoff, SC’s criticisms seem compelling. For fairness, read them as well as Lakoff.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    December 23, 2004

    Ed, you must be psychic. I’ve been thinking recently of Lakoff’s work (yes, I know, a sad commentary on my interests) and I’ve meant to double back and do some more study of it. This post prompts me to do just that. I truly believe that one of the biggest reasons why the socons have been so successful is that they’ve managed to dominate the rhetorical battles. This isn’t something that happened overnight; they’ve been developing the themes and arguments for decades, and honing them through trial and error and good, old fashioned market testing. What we’re seeing today is the payoff for all that hard work. Progressives have been asleep at the wheel almost the entire time. The only folks who could play the game as effectively were Clinton and his team. They understood the critical importance of rhetoric and the role that it plays in shaping public discourse.

    As I recall, you and I had a conversation about this at dinner a while back. My particular interest here isn’t in the battle between the two parties, which I regard as little more than carbon copies of each other in many ways, but in the various culture war issues it is very important. I cringe every time I hear the phrase “family values” because, while I recognize the hypocrisy that often lies behind it, I also see the power that it has as a catchphrase. The same is true of “teach the controversy”. These are part of the toolbox of public relations – control the rhetoric and you control the agenda. And it’s something that the so-cons have mastered very, very well. And one of the difficulties that we in the pro-science side have is that scientists tend to be extremely poor at this sort of thing, which many of them view as a distraction at best. The battle over evolution is not, in reality, a scientific one. Phillip Johnson, the primary architect of the Wedge strategy, recognized that over a decade ago.

  7. #7 Grumpy
    December 23, 2004

    That explains why Rush Limbaugh was scoffing at the “Berkeley linguist” the other day. Because Democrats must really be on the brink of death if they have to resort to semantic tricks to get elected.

    Like the way Gingrich & Luntz taught Republicans to do.

  8. #8 Lynn
    December 24, 2004

    I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very HAPPY HOLIDAY this season. I would also like to thank those who have been faithfully reading Ed’s blog. This blog is a labor of love for him.

    http://www1.americangreetings.com/display.pd?path=32178&bfrom=1&prodnum=2002153&mc=crescendo.mid&

  9. #9 Ed Darrell
    December 24, 2004

    1. So, someone please start using the catchphrase that adequately responds to “teach the controversy.” “Tell the truth instead,” or “Teach the facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts” might be contenders. I’m also partial to “It’s a sin to lie to children when there is no controversy.”

    2. Dan, I’d be greatly interested in what you teach in a law and rhetoric course. May I steal it for my law and ethics courses (should I be so fortunate as to teach them again)?

    3. Confession time: Years ago I was called to tell conservatives how to manipulate media for policy and electoral gain. (It was even noble for a while — getting them to tell the truth was fun.) The biggest problem was getting them to stop rerunning the 1964 election. Goldwater’s aging and death helped a lot.

    Now, it seems to me, a big problem is getting Democrats to stop rerunning the Watergate stuff. It’s history, it’s gone. No one will win running against Nixon, now.

    The next problem is getting a core of people who are dedicated to making change happen. Congressional offices are great places for rhetoricians to hang out and make change, if the congressfolk will hire them. Is there anyone doing that anymore?

  10. #10 Ed Brayton
    December 24, 2004

    Lynn wrote:

    I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very HAPPY HOLIDAY this season. I would also like to thank those who have been faithfully reading Ed’s blog. This blog is a labor of love for him.

    Thank you honey, and of course this goes for me as well. We sincerely wish everyone here a Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa and Happy Festivus. Whatever it is you celebrate, as long as you are surrounded by your friends and family, your celebrations will have meaning.

  11. #11 Dan
    December 24, 2004

    Let me echo Lynn and Ed by simply saying Happy Holidays to all. If you’re traveling, take your time and be safe.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    December 24, 2004

    Dan-

    And to you and Kim as well. Meeting and getting to know both of you has been a wonderful gift to me this year and I look forward to many years of friendship.

  13. #13 Dan
    December 25, 2004

    Ed Darrell: Professor Balkin has a terrific online bibliography (I’ve linked directly to the portion where he has collected his writings on legal semiotics). In particular, check out “A Night in the Topics,” “The Crystalline Structure of Legal Thought,” and “The Promise of Legal Semiotics.” He has written much more on the subject, but I think these are three good articles to use to introduce students to the topic.

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