Most helpful critical review
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 20 July 2008
George Lakoff is a big hitter in the world of linguistics and cognitive science and has been for somne years. Latterly he has tried to apply his academic knowledge to political discourse.
This short book was as I understand it produced in the wake of Bush's re-election as a guide for Democrats and other progressives on how to talk politics, and was quite a big thing in US politico circles when released. It is based around the interesting idea that the split in American politics is fundamentally a different conceptual understanding of America as a family. Republicans and the Right subscribe to what Lakoff describes as a 'strict father' model, whereas Democrats and progressives believe in a 'nurturant parent' model.
Lakoff argues that we principally think in terms of frames, and that different political visions also seek to present ideas within different frames. So, in his big example, Republicans talk about 'tax relief' rather than 'tax cuts', because the former suggests that tax is an affliction, that whoever brings relief is a hero, and whoever tries to stop the hero is a villain. Lakoff argues that there is no point fighting your opponent on their own ground. Once a frame - like tax relief - is in place it is effectively part of the wiring of the brain, and very hard to shift. We will ignore or seek to undermine information that doesn't fit the frame (known as confirmation bias in other areas). Therefore what you have to do instead is establish alternative frames that get across your view of the world.
It's an interesting idea, and personally I think there is some merit in the central ideas. However when it comes to applying these insights in practice the advice seems a bit more speculative. Lakoff is obviously a smart guy, so I am torn between thinking he has just left out all the reasoning behind his suggestions in order to produce a short guide for campaigners, and thinking perhaps a bit more theorising needs to be done. For example, the section at the end on how to debate with Conservatives, whilst a useful list of pointers on how to conduct yourself could have been written by anyone. Maybe people need to hear such guidance from an experts in order to accept it?
A couple of final points. First, I went for the version of the book that come swith a free DVD. This is worth a look (it is only 25 mins long) because, to my knowledge, you just don't get this kind of thing in the UK. Also it does serve to remind you of that old line about being divided by a common language - the presentation is very cheesy by British standards. Secondly, if you find Lakoff's ideas interesting I would strongly recommend Metaphors We Live By. This is a non-political book, but a really fascinating look at how we use metaphors to understand. If he could apply that level of insight to politics he really would be onto something.