Excerpt: Interview with George Lakoff
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NIX: So this is the point we've reached in politics: you must be negative, and you must figure out how the other side will be negative about your candidate and beat them to the pass?
LAKOFF: Yes, we've reached that point in politics. There are no neutral questions or issues anymore. Politics quite simply have caught up with the way the mind works. However -- and this is important -- journalism has not. Journalism has not found the way to deal with what politics has become. I see this with professional journalists, and I see it in the journalism schools. Students do not have the resources. They're shocked and dismayed by what politics has become. They want to deny or ignore it or feel depressed. But it's only depressing if you try in vain to hold on to an old view of what the mind is. The media have to be completely retrained. The notion of framing, how deeply we hold frames, has to be understood. You cannot get beyond frames. Again, there are no neutral questions or issues anymore, and this fundamental lesson has to seep into media coverage of politics. You can't have one side understanding this -- the conservatives -- and the other side -- progressives -- ignoring it, and the media not even understanding what's going on.
NIX: Can you give an example of the media not understanding what's going on?
LAKOFF: A producer from a National Public Radio show "On the Media" called me up recently to tell me that [a style manual] ... many journalists around the country call on when writing their stories is dictating that journalists stop using the word fetus and replace it with the term unborn child. This producer asked me if I thought this was political, and when I said, "Of course it's political," she debated me. We've heard this phrase unborn child so much that it's physically changing our brains. Also, the word fetus has been demonized, even though it is a technical, scientific term. The right is so successfully framing this issue that a term representing a political agenda is becoming the "neutral" or "objective" word that journalists are supposed to use in their stories.
The right has been on this for the last 40 years; they understand and pay attention to the way the mind works. They play the journalists right now. Many times, journalists don't even know that they are promoting the right's language. They see it as neutral and repeat it over and over -- "tax relief, " "partial-birth abortion." The right has come up with a whole list of values and language about those values, so that their spokespeople can use it over and over again and get the media to use their language over and over again, and to ask their questions. Until we hear it all so much, have it reinforced in so many ways, that it physically changes our brains. There is nothing neutral or objective about that. People talk about a "competitive marketplace of ideas." The notion that there are all these equally weighted, neutral ideas floating about out there, from which people will choose their views and opinions. It doesn't exist. The right figured out how to physically change our brains, and the left is only beginning to recognize this very basic fact of cognitive science.
George Lakoff is the author of Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate ' (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.