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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
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When Aliens Attack
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Interview: Ecologist Gretchen Daily
The Green Old Party
Winning Words
Ways & Means
One Small Step
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Winning Words
George Lakoff says environmentalists need to watch their language.
by Katy Butler

George Lakoff

As the presidential election approaches, two insulated, polarized, and evenly divided Americas–one conservative, one liberal–face each other with mutual incomprehension. On almost every issue, from abortion to the war in Iraq, each side can reliably be expected to vehemently oppose the other.

Environmental protection, which, at least in general terms, more than 75 percent of Americans say they support, is one policy matter that doesn’t obviously bisect voters along conventional political lines. Even so–and despite a river of facts about everything from melting ice floes to declining air quality–anti-environmental legislation with Orwellian titles like the Healthy Forests Restoration Act and Clear Skies Initiative has made headway in a conservative Congress.

It’s not for want of solid facts and rational arguments that the environment has lost ground, says cognitive scientist George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, which has become a handbook for embattled progressive strategists. First published in 1996 and recently updated and reissued by the University of Chicago Press, the book argues that our political decisions are not rational, but filtered through unconscious metaphors that shape our thinking about everything from how children should be raised to how nature should be regarded to how the government should be run.

Lakoff, who teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is a specialist in "framing": the way that language shapes how we think. Most of our political thought, Lakoff argues, is formed by the metaphor of the nation as a family. Progressives, including many environmentalists, value an egalitarian "Nurturant Parent" family that stresses empathy, mutual cooperation, and a sense of interconnectedness.

Conservatives, on the other hand, idealize a traditional "Strict Father" family organized by rules, clear hierarchy, obedience, and discipline. Liberals and conservatives are not so much quibbling over facts, says Lakoff, but fighting a war of opposing visions rooted in these divergent images of ideal family life.

Over the past five years, Lakoff has advised dozens of environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, on how to effectively present issues to the public. Sierra interviewed him recently in the offices of the Rockridge Institute, a small progressive think tank in Berkeley that he helped found. Wearing dark slacks and a black turtleneck sweater, Lakoff comes across as professorial, rumpled, and kind–an embodiment of the nurturing parent "family values" he unapologetically favors.

Sierra: What is "framing"?

George Lakoff: Take "tax relief," a phrase used by the current White House. The word "relief" evokes a conceptual frame of some affliction–an afflicted party, and a reliever who performs the action of relieving. So taxes are an affliction, a reliever is a hero, and anyone who wants to stop him from the relief is a villain. You have just two words, yet all of that is embedded. If you oppose reducing taxes and you use that phrase–"tax relief"–you’ve already lost.

Sierra: How about "protecting the environment"? Is there a frame embedded there too?

Lakoff: The image you get is of the environment as something separate from you. It sounds as if there were this helpless environment out there and you were the big protector. There’s no notion that we owe our very existence to the environment, and that we are threatening what gives us life. It assumes that there’s an external threat. It doesn’t say that the threat is us.

Environmentalists have adopted a set of frames that doesn’t reflect the vital importance of the environment to everything on Earth. The term "the environment" suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times. Wilderness: a place for those in Birkenstocks to go hiking.

Sierra: What’s the alternative?

Lakoff: When environmental issues are cast in terms of health and security, which people already accept as vital and necessary, then the environment becomes important. It’s a health issue–clean air and clean water have to do with childhood asthma and with dysentery. Energy that is renewable and sustainable and doesn’t pollute–that is a crucial environmental issue, but it’s not just environmentalism. A crash program to develop alternative energy is a health issue. It’s a foreign policy issue. It’s a Third World development issue.

If we developed the technology for alternative energy, we wouldn’t be dependent on Middle East oil. We could then sell or give the technology to countries around the world, and no country would have to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund to buy oil and then owe interest. This would turn Third World countries into energy producers instead of consumers. And it’s a jobs issue because it would create millions of good jobs in this country. So thinking and talking about environmentalism in limited terms like preservation of wilderness is shooting yourself in the foot.

That’s why the frame is so important. Most environmentalists believe that the truth will make you free. So they tell people the raw facts. But frames trump the facts. Raw facts won’t help, except to further persuade the people who already agree with you.

Sierra: A raw fact like the disappearance of an entire species won’t help?

Lakoff: It won’t help with people who are not thinking in terms of species. Most conservatives aren’t.

Sierra: How does this connect with visions of the ideal family? It seems like a stretch.

Lakoff: Bear with me. We all think metaphorically without knowing it. We have a basic, unconscious metaphor of the nation as a family. We send our "sons and daughters to war." We have "founding fathers." It’s such a natural metaphor that you don’t even notice it’s there. And in our culture we also have two opposite models of how the family should be run: a Strict Father model and a Nurturant Parent model. The metaphor of the nation as family maps the values from those models onto our politics, creating conservative and liberal wings.

The Strict Father family metaphor–the conservative model–assumes that the world is a dangerous and difficult place. That is why you need a strict father who protects the family in the dangerous world, supports the family in a difficult world, and teaches his kids right from wrong by punishment. President Bush, for example, began his Meet the Press interview last spring by saying the world is a dangerous place and invoking the need for a strong authority. In this worldview, morality and power are supposed to go together.

Sierra: And now Strict Father values are ascendant politically. Does this have anything to do with September 11?

Lakoff: September 11 had a major effect. Fear activates the Strict Father model, because the world is seen as a dangerous place. But there’s more. One of the key organizing principles of this model–and this impacts environmentalism–is hierarchy: God above man, man above nature, adults above children, America above other countries, and Western culture above non-Western culture. When most conservatives talk about natural resources, they mean resources for human use. Simply giving them the facts about species destruction won’t change anything. The facts will not overwhelm the frame.

Sierra: And the liberal frame?

Lakoff: Liberal politics is based on a nurturant view of the family. In this view, both parents are responsible. Their job is to make the world a better place, and the assumption is that it can become a better place. Children are born good and can be made better. The parents’ job is to nurture their children through empathy and responsibility. From those two values all the other progressive values follow. If you empathize with your child, you want your child to have a happy, fulfilled life.

Protection follows from this, so you get consumer protection, worker protection–and environmental protection. Fairness. Fulfillment in life. In this model, there is a moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Cooperation is a value, as is open, two-way communication in the family, and in government.

What does all this say about your relationship to nature? The parent is a nurturer, and so is nature. That means that you have a responsibility to nature, a moral responsibility.

Sierra: What if you’re having Thanksgiving dinner with your Aunt Mabel, and she says, "What’s more important, people or owls?"

Lakoff: If someone is willing to listen to you, you can speak from a moral perspective, shifting the frame your turf: "Here’s how I look at it. The issue really is the sacredness of species and of these wondrous parts of the earth. It would be immoral to destroy anything this remarkable and glorious." That’s very different from saying that the poor owls are dying.

Change the discussion to your frame. The old-growth forest is just one part of a general understanding of how you should live in the world as a moral being. You’ll get more respect with a moral worldview than by throwing facts and figures at people and trying to contradict them and show them that their figures are wrong. Environmentalism has tended to go scientific. The science is wonderful, but the sacred gets lost.

Sierra: Does conventional religion offer any openings?

Lakoff: It’s important to understand the theology behind liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity is based on a nurturant morality. Its central concept is that of grace. You can be filled with grace, it protects you, heals you, you have to be close to God to get grace. You can’t earn grace, you must accept it. It’s metaphorical nurturance. And there are many more liberal Christians than conservative Christians.

Sierra: So, for example, this forest is a gift from God?

Lakoff: It’s not merely a gift from God. The forest is sacred. God in His grace provided this for us to take care of and protect and pass on to our children.

Sierra: Won’t they just make fun of us, as a bunch of tree huggers?

Lakoff: They might, because we still lack crucial concepts. When conservatives lost badly in 1964, they realized that they needed to flesh out the notion of conservatism. They set up think tanks and paid billions of dollars. Over 30 or 40 years they have pretty much fleshed out their concepts and gotten language for them. Nice simple language. Liberals have not done this.

Conservatives will say, "People not owls." And liberals will have to give four sentences in response. There isn’t a fixed frame in people’s brains that they can evoke. But once the concepts are repeated over and over again and get into the synapses of other people’s brains, conservatives can’t make fun of them anymore.

Sierra: How does the White House get away with anti-environmental legislation with names like Healthy Forests and Clear Skies?

Lakoff: This use of language infuriates liberals. But what they really ought to ask is, When do conservatives need to use Orwellian language and why? They use Orwellian language when their positions are weak.

Frank Luntz is a conservative pollster. He is the Republicans’ language man, and he trains influential conservatives to use what he calls the right words–like "tax relief" or "partial-birth abortion." They fit in with the rest of the conservative worldview.

In his discussion of global warming, Luntz says that Republicans are losing on the science. The science is coming out, showing that there really is global warming. But, he says, we can reclaim victory through language. He says that when you are talking to environmentalists, use the words environmentalists like. Healthy, clean, and safe. Even if you are talking about coal or nuclear power plants. That’s Orwellian language, the opposite of what it says. It is a sign of weakness. And that weakness can be a matter of public discussion.

Sierra: Let me throw some environmentalist terms at you. What about "body burden"?

Lakoff: That term is opaque. About a year ago, two groups–Health Care Without Harm and Commonweal–got a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and found a shocking number of toxic substances in healthy people’s bodies. They put out the facts about the "body burden" and they were forgotten in a day. No one understands what a body burden is. They needed to talk instead about poisons, and to have a campaign for poison-free bodies, poison-free communities, poison-free rivers, poison-free cosmetics.

They have to name the poisoners, and build up the frame that there are corporations who deliberately poison people. There is a book coming out about Dow Chemical Company, and it’s going to be called something like Toxic Trespass. If it were called Poison Incorporated: How Dow Gets Under Your Skin–that’s my title!–then people would have an image.

Sierra: That would get people’s attention. What else should we keep in mind?

Lakoff: It’s important to use basic terms. The death tax. The marriage tax. Partial-birth abortion. "Global warming" is the wrong term: "Warm" seems nice. So people think, "Gee, I like global warming, Pittsburgh will be warmer." "Climate change" is the attempt to be scientific and neutral. "Climate crisis" would be a more effective term. Climate collapse. Carbon dioxide strangulation. Suffocation of the earth. But it’s not easy to change these things once they get into the vocabulary.

Sierra: I’d like to get your reaction to some terms the Sierra Club is using. It refers to the "Arctic Refuge" rather than "ANWR" [pronounced "anwar"] since it conveys the sacred rather than the bureaucratic. The Club’s "End Commercial Logging" campaign has morphed into the "Forest Protection and Restoration" campaign.

Lakoff: Hooray! Notice why it works. Arguing directly against something is always a disaster. Take "End Logging." That doesn’t say what you are for.

It’s like saying, "Don’t think of an elephant." You can’t not think of an elephant. Logging is a masculine activity, and the assumption is that the logs are going to go into your house–that they are being logged for you–when the reality is that they mostly go to other countries.

Sierra: Is this a war between two types of propaganda?

Lakoff: No. Framing can be used for propaganda. But honest framing effectively expresses what you honestly believe.

Sierra: What’s the most important thing we should keep in mind?

Lakoff: Words matter. It is extremely important that people use language in a powerful way.

Katy Butler, a San Francisco Bay Area journalist, has written for the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Photograph by Anne Hamersky; used with permission.

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