The Power of Framing

Editor's Note: This is the introduction to George Lakoff's new book, 'Don't Think of an Elephant!'

Not too long ago, George Lakoff was relatively unknown. He was famous in academic circles and favored by a small group of progressive and media insiders who grasped the implications of his genius. But Lakoff was clearly a rarified taste, like a great reserve of pinot noir that few people drank.

But not anymore. George Lakoff is on the road to fame and renown, read and listened to by presidential and congressional candidates, leaders of major national groups, and increasingly, the average American. This book is the next big step in presenting Lakoff and the science and art of framing.

Lakoff's growing influence and acceptance has happened for several reasons. First, in 2000, we progressives and independents suddenly found ourselves in a nightmare. After the Supreme Court gave the election to George W. Bush, Republicans were in charge of virtually everything. But in our hearts we knew that their ideas were far out of the mainstream and things were totally out of whack. We found ourselves living in a country where what was considered extreme just a decade ago was now national policy. How could this have happened?

When we tried to figure out what had occurred, the one person who had the best explanation, who knew all along that the radical right-wing transformation was underway, was George Lakoff. Lakoff provided the narrative that made the most sense, and the research to back up his analysis. He reminded us how, over a period of forty years, the radical right and its rich patrons had invested many hundreds of millions of dollars in think tanks, young talent, spokespeople, and communications capacity that had essentially transformed the language of American politics. And when you control the language, you control the message, and the corporate media does the rest.

Lakoff knew better than anyone else how and why this transformation had happened, and more importantly, what could be done about it. He took it upon himself to become the pied piper of media framing — how we have to be cognizant about how we communicate, the words we choose and the framing we evoke, at all times. Progressives have been under the illusion that if only people understood the facts, we'd be fine. Wrong. The facts alone will not set us free. People make decisions about politics and candidates based on their value systems, and the language and frames that invoke those values.

And that may answer the question of why many people seem to be voting against their own interests. Their values — strict authoritarian values in the conservatives' case — are what motivate them to enter the voting booth.

Early adopters like Peter Teague at the Nathan Cummings Foundation helped George Lakoff travel the country in 2002 and 2003, talking with thousands of activists and leaders and turning them on to the importance of framing. Lakoff started working with and with major environmental groups. The SPIN Project was using framing in its trainings; media outlets like (where I am the executive editor), The American Prospect, and BuzzFlash showcased Lakoff's ideas. Before long, a tipping point was reached. Suddenly Lakoff was hot, but more importantly, thousands of people were thinking differently about communications and language.

We now understood how terms like “tax relief,” “partial-birth abortion,” and “death tax” were invented by the right to invoke frames and dominate debates. Even our allies were using language invented by the conservatives, shooting themselves in the foot every time. An important element of understanding framing is that you can learn a valuable aspect in thirty seconds. If nothing else, if we all can understand the lesson of "Don't think of an elephant" — that attacking our opponents' frame reinforces their message — we will have taken a giant step forward. Our job is to frame our own values, vision, and mission, and to avoid attacking theirs because if we do, it only keeps their ideas in the forefront.

So with this book in your hands, you are part of a growing community of people who better understand how to move forward and communicate more effectively. But the book is just the first step. Language and framing is all about metaphor, and while the basic precepts are easy to grasp, reclaiming the language requires some serious thinking and lots of practice. But now you own the field guide. So get out there and start framing our messages and vision for the future.

And, dear reader, if you care about social change, part of your job is to be a "viral marketer" and help spread the ideas in this book. Buy ten more copies and give them out to friends, family, and allies in working for change. If we are serious about changing our country, if we are going to take it back from the right-wing fundamentalists, then this book is a great place to start. For no matter who is president in 2005, the struggle will go on. The right has a long head start, but we can catch up fast. And if we do it right, our lives will never be the same.

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