Personal outsourcing

Smoke ‘em out

Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lying eyes?

I’m coming to this late, but a week ago Matt Bai wrote a superb piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he profiled the linguist George Lakoff — a man whose analysis of political speech is having a huge impact on the Democrats. Lakoff recently wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he argues that the Republicans have been spectacularly successful in the last 10 years because they have set the language — the “frames” — by which political issues in Washington are discussed.

An example? “Tax relief”. As Lakoff points out, the phrase presumes that taxes — any taxes — are inherently so oppressive that one necessarily craves relief from them. Crafting the perfect phrase has been so important to Republican victories that in 1994, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote a memo called “The 14 Words Never to Use”: He urged Republicans to say “exploring for energy” (a positive, upbeat phrase) rather than “drilling for oil” (which sounds dirty and ugly); rather than attack “government”, he told them to criticize “Washington”.

As Bai reports:

In Lakoff’s view, not only does Luntz’s language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff’s vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don’t fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be “activated” by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.

Yikes. In the end, Bai argues that Lakoff is incorrect. The Democrats, Bai says, are grasping at Lakoff’s theories because it allows them to simply write off Bush supporters as “deluded”: If only these foolish voters could somehow be persuaded to see the truth of Bush’s dismal record, why then, they’d vote for Democrats! And of course, since the Democrats are already right about everything, they don’t need to come up with new ideas; they just need only wait for the idiotic public to see things their way.

I think Bai’s right about the Democrats. But unfortunately, I think Lakoff’s analysis is depressingly correct too. Right now, the problem with politics in America is not that people cannot agree on ideological points: They can’t even agree on what the basic facts of reality are. While I think both the left and right in the US bend the truth to make their points, the level of blatant canards that have come out of pro-Republican media and pundits have been absolutely breathtaking in recent years.

One lovely example occurred in January when Ann Coulter was being interviewed on The Fifth Estate — Canada’s main investigative TV show — and, in the course of criticizing Canada for not sending troops to Iraq, noted that Canada sent troops to Vietnam. Of course, Canada didn’t send troops to Vietnam: As with Iraq, Canadian politicians did not buy the justification for the war. But even after the host of The Fifth Estate pointed this out, Coulter refused to believe him. She literally argued about it back and forth. There’s a transcript here, and you can watch the video here. It’s weirdly fascinating, because Coulter — at first — does not actually appear to be lying. Indeed, she looks a bit baffled; she seems to be so deeply committed to her political framework that she genuinely can’t imagine there would ever be facts that would contradict her. Then suddenly she seems rather pissed off, because the journalist doesn’t let her off the hook.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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