Welcome George Lakoff (UC Berkeley) (GeorgeLakoff.com) and Host Spocko (Spocko’sBrain) (Twitter)

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

The subtitle of the book is “Know your Values and Frame the Debate.” The sub-subtitle is, “The essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future: climate, inequality, immigration, healthcare. and more.”

Just reading the cover overwhelmed me. I stopped thinking about that Elephant and moved to, “Those conservative Republican bastards are making the world worse! How could people vote for them! Why did those jerks in the Democratic party blow the mid-terms! Who do I punish?”

And then, “Why is my life not getting better? Who do I blame? What can I do? Why can’t I do it? Why am I wasting my time on climate or inequality issues when I have no power to change them since the big money and the conservative media will drown out my voice anyway?” And then finally, “Do I have any Dove dark chocolate left in my bag? I’m getting depressed just thinking about this stuff.”

So I stop and bring myself back to what I consider the essential part of the book, Values and Framing.

I read the first edition of George Lakoff’s book when it came out in 2004. Since I train and prepare people to communicate better with different audiences, it tied into what I teach. If my clients understand how the person they are talking to sees the world, what their values are and what they want, they can better satisfy that person’s needs.

Back in 2004 everyone was talking about framing this issue or re-framing that one. But, like a lot of concepts and ideas, it got misunderstood as if it were all about just a clever slogan. Framing isn’t working in an art store, it’s about activating and/or changing the structures of peoples’ brains.

The good news is that some people who read the book did do the hard work of looking at the ideas and values that lead to a progressive frame. Then they linked that to a “ground game” where people starting using the frame and the language that activated it. In the new book Lakoff points to some huge successes, specifically in the acceptance of gay marriage. He points out back in 2004 he stressed love and commitment and the generalization to everyone, not just gays. Look at where we are today vs. 2004. Woo hoo! This stuff works people!

He also talks about successes with politicians. In the preface of the book Lakoff writes:

In the 2008 Election, Barack Obama led a Democratic sweep of the White House and Congress, using far superior framing, as well as superior on-the-ground tactics–besides being a far superior candidate. I had hoped that the superior framing would continue.

It didn’t.

In this edition of the book he asks what happened, why the Democrats have gone back to losing framing wars, and what can be done about it. I can’t jam the answers into this short intro, that’s why you should buy the book and read this version now. He points to a few specific reasons, some are structural, some are cultural.

In the updated version, Lakoff discusses mistakes people make when thinking about framing.

The first mistake is believing that framing is a matter of coming up with clever slogans like “death tax” or “partial birth abortions” that resonate with a significant segment of the population.

I was once asked if I could reframe–that is, provide a winning slogan for–a global warming bill “by next Tuesday.” I laughed.
Effective reframing is the changing of millions of brains to be prepared to recognize a reality. That preparation hadn’t been done.

The second mistake is believing that, if only we could present the facts about a certain reality in some effective way, then people would “wake up” to that reality, change their personal opinion and start acting politically to change society.

He points out again and again, frames are ideas, not slogans. There are some ideas in our times that are difficult to frame, like how to talk about the systemic causation of global warming. There are also big realities that are currently unframed, like corporate personhood, runaway wealth to the wealthy, and the massive privatization of public resources. And if we don’t provide these frames that reflect our values, someone else will.

Lakoff notes that reframing involves connecting what we and like-minded others already believe unconsciously, making it conscious, and repeating it until it enters normal public discourse. It requires repetition and focus and dedication.

What about the non like-minded? How do we convert them? Some people think facts are enough, but facts without a compelling frame that links into peoples’ values just bounce right off. One thing that we’ve all seen and been puzzled by is someone who in some areas seems very progressive and then in others conservative. The political consulting class seems to obsess over these people. Who are they and what is their story? It’s in this book I first read the term, biconceptualism.


Not everybody operates from the same view of morality. We understand that, but what is confusing is when people operate on different –and inconsistent– moral systems in different areas of their lives.

How can inconsistent systems function smoothly in the same brain? The answer is two fold: 1) mutual inhibition (when one system is turned on the other is turned off); and 2) neural binding to different issues (when each system operates on different concerns).

The technical term for this is “biconceptualism.” I don’t like the term, but I think it helps explain why progressive issues were successful in this midterm but not the Democratic candidates themselves. People can see why to vote for an environmental issue, but what about voting for a Democrat who has a weak environmental record but a great record on ensuring humans have the freedom to control their own bodies?

One of the topics I’m very interested in that the book covers is corporate personhood, and how that, coupled with the Citizens United decision, has transformed our politics. I’m always interested in understanding how and why things like this happen, but then I’m wondering, “What can we DO about this?”

After reading the book it triggered some ideas in my brain. So if corporations are persons, they have values. But, like some people, these corporate persons exhibit “biconceptualism.” The HR and marketing people have one set of values that might conflict with another set of values coming from the financial people who are talking to Wall Street. How can we use this split to get what we want?

The other reason that he points out we are losing the framing wars is that conservatives take framing and the “ground game” seriously. They talk to everyone 24/7, not just during election years. On the left we don’t and that’s a structural and attitude problem.

To explain that problem Lakoff starts with the Powell Memo and goes all the way up to the millions the right has spent on infrastructure, training, and support for their intellectuals, activists, and operatives.

But why don’t progressive groups spend the money on helping our intellectuals, activists, and operatives? This failure springs from what groups see as their values.

On the left, the highest value is helping individuals who need help.

If you help as many people as you can and spread the money around to the grassroots organizations, you do not have money left for infrastructure or talent development, and certainly not for intellectuals. But we need help too. (This would probably be a good point to plug donating to Firedoglake.)

We are gearing up for some huge challenges ahead with climate change, wealth inequality, immigration, healthcare, and corporate personhood.  Read the book, talk about the ideas here and with others, then start using them as part of your overall process to change the configurations of people’s brains.

To ensure that our values are ascendant, we need both the intellectual tools, the organization, and the ground game to get what we want.  I believe we can do it.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]



A brain in a box.