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April 13, 2005


First Noam Chomsky, now George Lakoff: What is it about liberals and linguists? There's a crude joke somewhere, but I won't go there.

I think you seriously misunderstand the intent of George Lakoff's proposals. I agree Lakoff makes for a poor politician. His specific proposals are often misguided, but calling him a swami seriously downplays the usefulness of Frame Theory.

Framing is not the manipulation of language for nefarious ends. The theory is an attempt to explain the entirety of our conceptual structure. It is a scientific project beyond mere rhetoric. Traditionally, Lakoff and his cohorts have used frames to do things like analyze how we conceive of time as space or develop better computional language processors.

Lately, Lakoff's research has been an analysis of the operative political frames. He theorizes that by better understanding our and other's political frames we can more successful engage voters. If understanding how we think about politics is unnecessary, then you are welcome to your ignorance. I welcome knowledge.

Of course I welcome knowledge. That's just silly -- I'm a political scientist who studies framing professionally. It's possible that Lakoff may have something to contribute to that debate as a scientist (though what I've seen so far is weak and qualitative at best). But the goal of his Rockridge Institute and the book is to change the terms of the debate. He's quite explicit about it (read our book), though he frames (yes, frames) his work as countering more advanced conservative efforts and therefore necessary for "balance." If he was worried about engaging voters, rather than just churning out buzzwords, why does he spend time coming up with crap like calling trial lawyers "public protection attorneys"?

Lakoff's framing theory sounds a lot like George Orwell's analysis in "Politics and the English Language," written in 1946. The difference was that Orwell urged political communicators to oppose this kind of distortion rather than participate in it:

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