Don’t think of an elephant

This is the text of the presentation I give to the Broomhill Labour branch meeting last night. It essentially presents the ideas and analysis of George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who has written extensively about language and frames, and has produced an analysis of the frames used in the US political discourse. You’ll find these ideas in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant. elephant

What are frames?

The first thing we need to do is to understand what frames are. Frames are our deeply held ideas or concepts about the world. Language is the lens through which we see the world. Words divide up and classify the world, a word carries meaning or information so you can decide that this object has the label ‘chair’ but this one is labelled ‘table’. Words carry more complex meanings and information too. It’s as if all our ideas come with baggage, if you like, sometimes shared, sometimes individual. For example, most of you have never met my husband, but if I tell you he’s a vicar, that word or concept already sends lots of ideas (prejudice?) running through your head about what he might be like, based on your experience, on shared cultural understanding of what vicars are like and perhaps even TV shoes like Vicar of Dibley or Rev.

We also use metaphor to understand the world and express concepts. For example, when we say things like “the school holidays will be here soon” we are using a metaphor for time as an object which moves towards us. Time doesn’t really move or ‘march on’ but that’s how we think and talk about it. This is what Lakoff means by frames. The metaphors and cognitive concepts by which we understand the world. We use them all the time, most of the time without even realising. In fact, the world would be a more confusing place if we didn’t, because the baggage that comes with a concept helps us to break down, categorise and understand the world.

How do frames shape our (political) world view?

Lakoff goes onto say that political issues can be framed in such a way as to change our political view. He gives an example of tax. He talks about Republicans presenting their tax cutting policies as “tax relief”. This creates a metaphor for tax, and the idea of “relief” brings its own cognitive frame. If you need relief from something, that thing must be an affliction – pain or disease etc. So when we bring this frame to tax, tax is seen as an affliction or burden because it is something we need relief from. And those who bring relief are heroes, people like doctors or rescuers, who are valued greatly in society. So a government which brings relief from the affliction of tax is a hero, a rescuer. But there’s worse. Any party who wants to stop or limit so-called tax relief is seen as wanting to continue to afflict or burden people. These people are bad people, villains, anti-heroes.

This is where the title of the book comes in. If I say to you “don’t think of an elephant” – you can’t help it, it’s the first thing you do! Lakoff also gives the example of President Nixon saying on TV “I am not a crook”. Never mind the “not”, all anyone heard was the word “crook” coming out of Nixon’s mouth.

So if a party wants to argue against tax cuts, it can’t argue against “tax relief”. Every time they use the phrase “tax relief”, they repeat the frame and reinforce the metaphor (tax is a burden, heroes bring relief, these people are bad because they want to stop the heroes from rescuing us and freeing us from our affliction). So the party needs a new metaphor, a new frame, if it is going to win the argument about tax. Not a burden to be avoided at all costs, but an investment in our future as it has been in the past, or our contribution to a society which we all benefit from. (see p22 and p23 in the book)

Why are conservatives winning the debate?

So far we have really only done linguistic analysis. Lakoff also brings in his analysis of US politics. He believes that in the US, the conservatives are winning the political arguments because they are controlling the frames. He maintains that they are organised and deliberate about the language they use, based on research, investment and think tanks. That the phrase “tax relief” was not just a happy sound bite, but a deliberate planned use of language to frame the debate. He says this because cutting taxes is not really the primary policy aim, but rather, the aim is to cut social programmes. This is unpopular. But if they cut taxes (which is popular) then there won’t be enough money for social programmes and so they have to be cut.

The progressives, on the other hand, Lakoff feels, are not organised, and they have not invested in research about how to present their values in appropriate frames or in the media to promote these frames and values. Progressives, he maintains, are labouring under the assumption (or metaphor) that people are essentially rational actors, This is, after all, what our economics is based on. Progressives believe that if they counter the conservative policies with the facts, with the truth about what impact they will have, then people will have their eyes opened and will vote for progressive politics. You can see how the same thing played out in our election, and we all know what happened there. Part of this trust in rationality is the belief that people vote in their own self-interest. But when progressives tell the truth about conservative policies, poor people, who will be worst affected by them, still vote for them. Lakoff is talking about the US, but we see the same thing here. He goes on to say that people don’t vote in their self-interest, they vote for their identity and values. And while the conservatives are controlling the frames – which resonate across the whole of society – they will vote conservative. Meanwhile progressives are stuck with facts – also based on values but not expressed as values – so people can’t identify with them. The facts don’t fit the frame. The frame is wired into our neurology, based on the cognitive concepts of language. And if the facts don’t fit the frame, the frame doesn’t change, but the facts slide or bounce off.

In fact, for as long as progressive values and policies are not framed and articulated, then the progressives are winning the battle for the conservatives. Every time the argument is conducted in the language of the opposition, their frame is reinforced (think of our own failure to win the argument about benefits – Rachel Reeves springs to mind). If I say don’t think of an elephant, what’s the first thing you do? Every time I argue against tax relief I simply embed the frame deeper in society and it becomes “common sense”.

Family values

One of the key tenets of Lakoff’s analysis is that conservative values resonate across American society. Frames are part of our cognitive make-up. You can’t just invent sound-bites – values are expressed using frames that are already part of our shared culture and language. So conservative values are “American values”, framed in a way that all American’s identify with. But progressive values are “American values” too. Most progressives cannot for the life of them understand how people can possibly agree with conservative policy (is this ringing a bell for the UK too?). If we are going to get anywhere, progressives need to be able to understand why people identify with conservative values, and also need to be able to articulate progressive values in a way which people identify with too. Some people are pretty sold on conservative values, some on progressive, but most are somewhere in the middle, with different values coming into play in different circumstances.

Lakoff wanted to find the frame or metaphor that seemed to be holding all of this together, bringing together some of the seemingly disparate aspects of conservative policy, and yet also accounting for the fact that seemingly opposing progressive values are “American values” too. He realised that the metaphor of a family is frequently used for the American nation. But there are two models of this family in play – the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. Can you guess which is which?? Everyone has both models either actively or passively and may use different models in different parts of their life – family, work, politics, religion etc. But when it comes to politics, conservatives have strict father politics and progressive have nurturant parent politics.

Strict Father family

The strict father model starts with the assumption that the world is a difficult, dangerous place, a place full of competition, and where there is absolute right and wrong. Children do what feels good, not what is right, and must be taught right from wrong. So what is needed is a strict father to protect and support the family and teach children right from wrong. Children must submit to this protection and teaching and what is needed above all to get on in life if discipline. Children must be disciplined to learn what is right and wrong and must learn to develop their own internal discipline. Discipline is key to success in this competitive world, so the disciplined will do well and prosper, and so success becomes linked with being moral (via discipline). The poor must be undisciplined, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor. This is a moral failing, and so they deserve to be poor. And if we keep on giving them hand-outs, they will never learn self-discipline and never be able to stand on their own two feet.

You can see how it plays out, self-reliance, and the idea that if everyone looks to serve their own interests, then everyone will prosper. You can see how it plays out in foreign policy, with the US as the strict father for the rest of the world. It plays out in policies that seek to control women and children, who need to be taught discipline and self-reliance. And so on. But this is all based on moral values of learning right from wrong, learning discipline and equipping people to become independent as they set out in the world. Tough love, if you like.

Nurturant Parent family

The nurturant parent model starts with the assumption that the world can be made a better place, and that the parents’ job is to nurture their children and raise them to be nurturers of others. Nurturant values include empathy, responsibility for yourself and others, and a commitment to do your best for yourself, your family, your community, your country, the world. It involves protecting the family too – from environmental harm, crime and drugs. It means you want your child to grow up happy and fulfilled, so there needs to be freedom to find this fulfilment and there needs to be opportunity and prosperity to be free. Empathy means you want your child to be treated fairly, so fairness is a value, also honesty, trust and community.

So these are the values, but Lakoff maintains that progressive values are not well articulated and not well framed. He talks a lot about the idea that the private depends on the public and the value of freedom. Progressives need to articulate this frame. The private sector is built on public resources, allowing them the freedom to grow and prosper. Workers are wealth creators – no business can make money without workers – and unions protect (nurture!) these wealth creators, but who frames it like this? Pensions are deferred payment for work already carried out, not a supplementary benefit of the job. To withhold or cut pensions is wage theft caused by mismanagement or theft of workers’ money. But no-one says it like this. Global warming is causing catastrophic climate change including extreme cold – we need not be shy of using the word ‘cause’ – we can systematic causation.

What about the UK?

While the theory is the same, the specific frame analysis from Lakoff is focussed on the US. It is not quite the same here. For example the narrative around corporations paying tax is more often to do with them (not) paying their fair contribution. No-one (hardly) in the UK wants to stop free healthcare. But you can see it coming, especially around welfare and the apparent “something for nothing” culture – the strict father model is showing itself.


So I thought we should have a discussion.

What do you think are the key metaphors and frames in the Tory narrative? Do they fit the strict father model?

What are the values of the left? Do they fit the nurturant parent model?

What are the key issues and values at Labour’s heart which we need to frame?


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