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George Lakoff: Don't Think Of An Elephant
Book Review

This book is not only timely, it is timeless. Lakoff provides much more than a road map for effective communications--his matchless insights into the basic mechanics employed so effectively by the Republican party beginning in Nixon's time. Thanks to Lakoff, the political playing field can now be leveled--if we take his advice. The challenge for progressives will be to not misuse the power of Framing.

Lakoff has provided yet another avenue on the road to peace.
  • He shows the importance of style in discourse and how it can be used to deceive as well as illuminate. Most importantly, he shows us how to tell the difference and how to hold our own in fast company.
  • His strategy is simple enough.
    • Do your homework so you can articulate your position.
    • Show respect for the other side, for they do have points--and they may just be right. Listen, in other words.
    • Respond with your frame of reference accurately and articulate clearly.
    • On moral or ethical issues, think and talk on the level of values--which may well depend on the situation.
    • Say what you know to be true and also what you believe.
  • His thesis has consilience in that it is Dialogic, the highest level of interpersonal communication. It also has consilience in that it is consistent with the psychology of discourse. Ana Freud was first to study how defense mechanisms affect both our behavior and how we view the world. Her concept of Projection includes framing in the sense that Lakoff uses the word. In effect, projecting people have narrow views of the world and society. Narrow does not mean wrong, but when it includes wrong, it can lead to troubles. Moreover, his view that the father figure metaphor influences society in several ways is consistent with the Authoritarian Personality as first defined by Theodor Adorno, quickly verified by Stanley Milgram and recently re-affirmed by Jerry Burger. Consilience is the unity of knowledge, testable knowledge. A tenet lacking consilience cannot be trusted.
  • Finally, his method works. Not only does he show convincingly how a minority political party used framing to achieve political ascendancy, he shows equally well how framing can be used to counter false claims. It is all in how the issue is framed. If you can use dialogue with integrity, in your own words, not the other guy's, you are half way there. The other half is knowing what you are talking about, what you really stand for, and doing so with full integrity. When both sides arrive at that level, a win-win situation develops. The business of governance deserves no less.

Lakoff's focus is on politics. He is a genius at interpreting how pervasive and destructive framing can be out-and-out propaganda, Orwellian. Framing can be positive if it is based on provable truth. When uses to deceive, it is mere propaganda. Propagandists re-frame reality as being something it is not and by using words that appeal to the target audience. Deceptive framing is a tool of the despot; it not only lacks integrity, it is sign of weakness in that its only intent is to deceive and seduce to the detriment of those deceived.

The recent forty-year history has been Lakoff's primary research interest. During that period, American society became increasingly conservative in its voting. He explains the political evolution during that period in the most fundamental terms with more accuracy than any other we have seen. The Republicans realized, better than the Democrats did, that using words that implied values accepted by the middle of the body politic.

The most recent Republican leadership did it up brown with their "Compassionate Conservatism." This is an oxymoron if there ever was one. The two words do not even fit together. But their framers realized that people who think with their gut, or who do not think at all, would buy in. And they were right--for awhile. When over-reaching in Iraq, reckless spending, careless talk and behavior evolved into high-profile scandals, the American electorate realized it had been had and began doing something about it in 2006.

Both Johnson (body count) and Clinton (occupying the political center) seemed to sense the importance of framing. Obama seems to be following the Clinton mold, lif it can be called that. It is much too early to label Obama. We can hope that he has the integrity to stand behind where his mouth is. On the Palestine issue, he seems to be doing exactly what he said he would. Alone among presidents of the last half century, he has the political courage to stand up to the Israelis on the Palestine issue--at least so far. He needs equivalent courage in facing up to the bankers and Plutocrats who have deeply damaged what America is and what it can honorably do. Lakoff quite properly pulls his punches. His arguments and writing style can only be respected by all. The biggest danger now is that the Democrats will emulate their opposition and ultimately destroy the good work they have set themselves out to do.

To make best use of framing, one must first figure out what one stands for and why. The next step is to find metaphors that accurately frame what one believes that are also acceptable to all. INTEGRITY is the keyword in moral framing. Used morally, framing by both sides can lead to true togetherness.

Societies that pull together because their people want them to at all levels reach parity in the winner's circle.
Societies that polarize by political infighting deserve the "also ran" legacy they earn.

This book belongs on the bookshelf of conservative and progressive alike. Used with integrity, it can change the tenor of discourse. Lakoff's little book is highly readable; it fully deserves its best-seller listing. It is as timely now as it was when first printed. Having already a wide distribution, and with its theses well proven, we can adopt its methods with assurance that discourse can be moved toward increased dialogue. Reducing the use of propaganda on all sides seems to be a necessary element toward achieving peace on earth. The Enlightenment was an awakening to the power of science to explain and technology to execute. It had immense consequences. Politics has yet to begin a general and similar awakening. Given the genetically polarized temperaments each of us inherits at least to some degree, that will take awhile.

Lakoff's final words might be:

Moral: The moral truth alone will not set you free.
It has to be framed with integrity.

This book deserves its best-seller ranking; we give it five stars.


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