There’s been some discussion about the flareup between Lakoff and Pinker. I’m not even going to comment on the cognitive science issues: we have bonafide experts around these parts to do that. But I have had considerable experience debating conservatives, and I have personally found most of what Lakoff writes to be pretty useless in any practical, working sense. Why?
Because the best debating technique is relying on ethos (either yours or someone you’re quoting). For example, Rep. Harold Ford did that to innoculate himself against charges that he frolicked with Playboy bunnies. His retort was that the party of the Foley coverup has no business lecturing anyone about morality. See how that works: he attacked his opponents’ character. You’ll also note that he didn’t address the charges. This is not reframing, but simple rhetorical technique.
(an aside: that Harold Ford is black, the bunnies are mostly white, the election is in Tennessee, and that the Republicans have nicknamed him “Fancy Ford”–using ‘Southernisms’ to refer to him as a pimp–has nothing to do with racist appeals. I’m sure it’s all about protecting the children.)
The reason focusing on ethos works is most people are too busy to follow politics in any detail–people like me are, well, unusual (in so many ways…). So most people use shorthand rules-of-thumb: Krugman says, Dobson says, and so on. The Republicans have had great success with this method politically, which is why they can win elections even though they suck at governing. The instinctive dislike of liberals by many Americans isn’t about anything subtle like framing, it resulted from an unsubtle, flat-out character assault against liberals (and if we’re going to call this framing, then anything constitutes framing). When I saw the movie Red State, I was astonishing to hear what supposed horrors red state conservatives attributed to blue staters (for example, you would think that blue staters simply do not marry. Ever.)
Again, this is not framing. Framing is ultimately an appeal to logic–you’re repositioning the ground on which an argument is conducted. But most people don’t pay attention to the substance of arguments, or else lack the necessary information to rigorously judge them.
Mind you, I’m not calling most people stupid. It’s simply that most people don’t focus on the ins and outs of governance and government. And even those who follow politics in excrutiating detail sometimes make these same shortcuts–no one is immune from this. For example, Robert Kennedy Jr. has another article about voting irregularities, which unlike his previous article, seems pretty accurate (basically, the electronic machines and all the patches are so fubar, the results can’t be viewed as legitimate). But after getting burned by his last Rolling Stone article, I’m far less inclined to trust the portions I can’t independently verify.
As I just described, most people first assess the perceived authority of the speaker. When faced with complex issues that require some technical understanding (e.g., economics), often assessing ethos all they do because that’s all they can do (Like I’m going to really understand if string theory is ridiculous or not). This is why Foleygate is so damaging: it’s easy to understand, and because it is easy to understand, it shortens the distance between action and consequence, even for those who don’t follow politics closely. Character assessments are easy to make.
I’ll admit that I’m not professionally qualified to determine whether or not Lakoff is right about his cognitive theories. But he really doesn’t appear to live in the same political universe I do.