Sunday, April 03, 2005

Lakoff - XV: the movement hesitates

[Preamble: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

Since my last Lakoff post the utility of his framing ideas has been discussed on Ezra Klein's blog and The Grist; and a new piece specifically on public health has appeared on Lakoff's Rockridge Institute site.

Klein first. In an acerbic post, Let Go of the Lakoff, Klein makes the point, also made in a slightly different way in my first post on Lakoff, that Lakoff himself is good at talking about framing but not so good at doing it (Klein: "atrociously fucking bad at it"). In particular, Klein rejects the "nurturant parent" idea as playing directly into the hands of conservatives:
Frames, for instance, bring to mind a host of contexts and other information. So the strict father frame the Republicans use immediately paints Democrats as mommy. And while mom is awesome, it's dad you call when you hear noises downstairs late at night. That's how Republicans win elections, they basically mount the stage and say "did you hear that, America? I think I heard someone jiggling the door downstairs! Now would you rather have George Bush and his bat go check it out, or should we send John Kerry and his baguette?" So Lakoff responds to this by suggesting that Democrats become a gender neutral nurturing parent, which simply doesn't exist, and would actually just mean mom.

. . . He recognizes that you can boil the Republican agenda down to 10 words, forming five simple programs and principles. Great. But his counter-suggestion for the Democrats is the worst, most meaningless boilerplate I've ever heard.

Unfortunately, I think this is pretty accurate and says somewhat differently what I said in my last post on the subject. Klein acknowledges, however, that Lakoff has recognized something important that shouldn't be dismissed (see also my post here which is more explicit about this).
It's one weapon in the political arsenal, and we should make sure we know how to use it. Just because some Democrats are too overzealous in pursuing it, doesn't mean you should marginalize the whole pursuit.
The environmental movement was one of the first to sign on to Lakoff's idea. In the spring of 2004 a coalition of environmental groups was persuaded to hire his consulting group to help "recontextualize" the debate. The initial planning phase of an ambitious multi-year $350,000 project is set to finish in a few months, but depending upon whom you ask, it is either being reassessed or floundering (see Amanda Griscom Little in The Grists's Muckraker column).

This prompted an extended comment from Dave Roberts at The Grist. Echoing Klein, Roberts agrees Lakoff is much better at talking about framing than doing it. Roberts goes further, however, and recognizes that framing isn't just "spin" or "marketing" but the product of a serious theoretical structure (for a fuller, but still brief explication, see the series of posts that start here, and follow them through the links on the left sidebar, below the "Bird Flu" list):
Lakoff's key insight is that understanding is inherently metaphorical. There is nothing -- certainly nothing in the complex realms of society and politics -- that we understand "literally." Rather, we process these phenomena in terms of other, simpler, more primal experiences (spatial and tactile sensations, basic family relations). What we think of as a "literal truth" is just a metaphor fossilized from common use. This isn't simply a matter of habit -- it's built into our brains. Our neural pathways are shaped by formative experiences, and those pathways determine how we process more complex phenomena later on in life. (See public dialogue on foreign policy for particularly naked and ubiquitous use of metaphors based on personal relationships.)

A "frame" is not just a buzzword. It's a foundational metaphor, a complex web of associations, memories, and feelings, instantiated at the neural level. Changing these frames is a difficult, extended, and intensely personal undertaking, not something a politician can do casually, with well-chosen terminology. (Roberts comment, here)
Roberts's conclusion is, like Klein's, that "framing" is not a panacea (who thought it was?) but another arrow in our quiver. While I agree, I believe Roberts is mistaken about this:
All you need to be "great at framing" is some empathy and a willingness to listen. (Try it at home!) It's great that he's brought some conceptual clarity to the area, but let's not lose our knickers over the whole thing.
His prescription? Do some polling and listen to people:
An astute, empathetic observer of culture, backed by extensive poll data and personal experience interacting with those outside her immediate social/ideological circle, already knows how to frame the issues. The thing now is just doing it.
If it were this easy, John Kerry would be President now (or maybe Al Gore would be into his second term).

But our objective in this series of posts on Lakoff, stretching back many months now, is not to appropriate his prescriptions for the Democratic Party, but to see how they might shed light on a major problem of public health (and for progressives in general): how we articulate our central problems and our approach to their solutions in a way that it resonates with core values of society. This assumes there is a way to do this, that is, that the core values of public health are not divorced and separated from existing core values of society. Interestingly, Lawrence Wallack and Regina Lawrence at Lakoff's Rockridge Institute have addressed this issue head on for public health. We will examine it in the next post.

[see links to previous Lakoff posts in the sidebar at left, below Bird Flu links]