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Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The… (2004)

by George Lakoff

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1,429209,065 (3.77)14
Author George Lakoff, who has become a key advisor to the Democratic Party, asserts that the Republican Party has enjoyed recent success because of the way it expertly "frames" the issues. Using carefully chosen terminology like "tax relief" and "family values," conservatives have cast themselves in a positive light and convinced many Americans to vote against their true beliefs. Now Lakoff shows how progressives can beat conservatives at their own game.… (more)
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  1. 20
    Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think by George Lakoff (chellerystick)
    chellerystick: Moral Politics is the research based book that Don't Think of an Elephant is based on. This book is longer but it is still accessible, more detailed, and more persuasive than Don't Think of an Elephant.
  2. 43
    What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank (lorax)

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I just finished reading George Lakoff’s don’t think of an elephant: know your values and frame the debate. Published in 2004, it appears to be a collection of essays and thoughts he has pulled together over the years. Frankly, it could have been reduced to about a 30-40 page primer that might get a wider audience. However, at 119 pages, it’s a quick read.

The book is about frames, i.e. how we understand the world, how we know what we know. Frames control how we deal with new facts that are presented to us. If a fact agrees with the frame, it’s accepted. If a fact disagrees with the frame, in more cases than not, the fact will be discarded, regardless of whether it is true or not. According to Lakoff, frames rule our world.

His book is for progressives and goes a long way to de-vilefying conservatives and “red-state voters”. He notes that progressives can’t call people who voted for Bush as stupid or moronic. The frames they have developed, and that have been reinforced by 40 years of conservative communications, simply won’t allow these facts to overwhelm their worldview. Lakoff urges progressives to think in terms of ideas, frames, and moral values. Everyone has these and it’s a matter of framing progressive values and repeating them often to get our message across. It can’t be done overnight, and as he repeats often, “the truth will not set you free”. Facts by themselves are not sufficient. One of his best examples is the frame of “tax relief”. It just sounds good, doesn’t it? Relief. Relief is a good thing. Relief from what? Taxes. If it’s relief, then taxes must be bad. If progressives talk about tax relief and say that it isn’t any good or helps the wrong people, they’re still using the tax relief frame and are simply reinforcing the idea of relief. We need to talk about it differently. We need to talk about how government built the interstate system, how it created the internet, how cures and vaccines have been developed by the national health institutes. Paraphrasing Lakoff, your tax refund can’t pay to build a highway to drive to work.

One thing I’d like to mention is his differentiation of framing from spinning. He sees spin as manipulative use of a frame. However, I would argue that it’s spin, regardless of whether it’s for good or for manipulation. Speaking in frames is an attempt to manipulate, or change, an individual’s world view and how they process facts. We frame it one way in order to counter another frame. He says framing is good if we articulate frames we believe in and that we see as morally good. But, isn’t that what conservatives, and all groups, do? They believe in what they’re saying and use a frame that articulates that belief system. Propaganda, as Lakoff rightly points out, is something entirely different and bad. He defines it well by calling it the use of a frame that is known to be wrong and selling that frame for political or economic benefit of the purveyor.

To end on a high note, his last chapter on how to respond to conservatives is a must read. That chapter along with the introduction of frames and a few examples make this book worth a look, but it really should have been edited down to a few dozen pages. ( )
  drew_asson | Mar 22, 2020 |
I was interested in this book as I was reading it, but looking back, having already read Moral Politics, I wonder if I got much new out of it. I suppose I would recommend this to progressives new to Lakoff's theories, who just want a concentrated primer on why framing matters so much. As for me, I would be more interested in seeing the results of the new think tank to get concrete examples of ho to reframe current political issues. ( )
  greeniezona | Jan 24, 2019 |
Was weirdly my introduction to more mainstream partisan politics. I still think it's mostly correct. ( )
  triphopera | Apr 14, 2018 |
The difference between conservatives and progressives? It's all about morality, specifically family morality or how people subjectively define a 'good' family. That's what George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist from University of California at Berkeley, claims in this book. Conservatives are operating within a framework constructed around a 'strict father morality' that stresses authority and obedience. Progressives, on the other hand, operate within a 'nurturant parent' framework that is founded on cooperation and understanding. These two different moral frameworks lead to fundamental disagreements between people about what is good, what is right, and what should be done in a wide variety of situations.

He may have a point. Let me share a personal anecdote. A few years ago, a nephew and his wife and kids were visiting. They are lovely people, but both parents are politically conservative (which I am not). Their kids were in the backyard and happened to start walking on a narrow, tile covered strip that runs between my concrete patio and some landscaping. It's a drainage system, a buried plastic pipe surrounded by rocks and covered by thin tiles. It is designed to shed water away from the patio and works quite well, but it's not substantial enough to use for a walkway. I began to say something like, "You shouldn't walk on that because—" I had intended to explain what it was and why the kids should use the concrete path instead, when their dad shouted at them, ordering them off. They complied instantly. "That's how you do it," he told me. I said nothing. They were his kids, after all, but I felt that what he had done was fundamentally wrong. His kids obeyed but they didn't understand. I didn't want blind obedience. I felt it important, essential really, for the kids to know why they shouldn't walk there. In my mind, blind obedience to authority is wrong. To my nephew, a child's blind obedience to his father is good.

But, back to the book.... Lakoff claims that these two different understandings of family values, 'strict father' versus 'nurturant parents,' helps explain the deep political divide between conservatives and progressives. It's not quite as simple as my short review makes it sound. If it was, all conservatives would agree on just about everything, as would all progressives. They obviously don't. To explain this, Lakoff identifies several variants within each of these two broad groups, but each, at their core, shares the applicable view of family.

He devotes much of this short book to 'framing,' which is about how people frame their beliefs and arguments about specific topics. Since this book is primarily about political issues, he uses those as examples. His advice is that it is important when discussing your views to present them within the context of your own framework. A conservative, for example, may see the great divide between rich and poor as perfectly legitimate because the rich deserve to be rich. Progressives might see the same issue as an unjust denial of equal rights and equal opportunity, and should speak to it in those terms.
( )
  DLMorrese | Aug 23, 2017 |
This has to be one of my favorite non-fiction books. Now if I can only remember what I read so that I can use it in the inevitable discussions about the upcoming election. ( )
  TheresaCIncinnati | Aug 17, 2015 |
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When I teach the study of framing at Berkeley, in Cognitive Science 101, the first thing I do is I give my students an exercise.
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