Linguist George Lakoff encourages Democrats to Convey their Moral Message

Linguistic Tiger says, "The environment and the economy are interconnected. Short-term greed is bad for tigers in the jungle and on Wall Street. We need new thinking." Photo Credit: tiger in the morning sun by catlovers on flickr cc

George Lakoff is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He wrote a series of articles in the Huffington Post analyzing how well Democrats are getting their message out to the American people. He urges Democrats to develop a more effective moral message about how government provides necessities to people.

George Lakoff pt6 – Frameworks, Empathy and Sustainability

In the above video George Lakoff talks about how to create new frames in people’s brains. He claims that many people may not yet have frames in their brains to understand the connection between economic collapse and ecological collapse.

Lakoff explains that both economic and ecological collapse are caused by “short-term greed.” By talking about both together, people will be able to better understand the systemic connection and grasp why creating a sustainable economy will also help prevent and reverse the causes and effects of global warming. A by-product of clearly understanding the connection between the economy and the environment would be effective policies and practices that lead to a stable economy and jobs. Lakoff says that effective communicators need to help people connect the dots to see the interrelationship of things that may at first glance appear to be unrelated.

If Democrats could be more unified in their moral message to Americans, would they have won more seats in the House and Senate? Are the election results of November 2010 more about communication of ideas and perception of reality than reality itself?

President Obama achieved more in his first two years of office in helping Americans than many former Presidents did in the same amount of time. Nancy Pelosi passed more landmark legislation through the House in four short years than other Speakers of the House who had more time.

Yet, did Republicans hijack the way Americans understand the good things achieved by Democrats by crafting messages that convinced people differently than the real truth?

It’s all in Our Brains

George Lakoff studies how people perceive and use words to communicate ideas and feelings and how words affect the brain. Why do some messages appeal to people more than others? Does the emotional mind supersede the rational mind?

According to Lakoff, Republicans have been honing their message in ways that actually change the brains of people. They then use Fox News, radio and print media to repeat and repeat their message over and over again. The echo chamber of the media aids in penetrating and altering people’s minds. Many Republicans crafting messages come from advertising and marketing backgrounds. They have made careers examining what words, phrases and images move people to think and feel a particular way.

Democrats may want to review how and what they communicate and see if they could frame their messages more effectively to Americans. Lakoff explains that even using Republican talking points to refute those very talking points stimulates the “conservative” thinking part of people’s brains. He therefore urges Democrats to develop their own unique words to communicate their moral frame of reference about Progressive values and policies.

Lakoff said in his article “Untellable Truths”

“Reason is physical, it does not fit the world directly but only through the brain and body, it uses frames and conceptual metaphors (which are neural circuits grounded in the body), it requires emotion, it serves empathic connections and moral values as well as self-interest, and language fits frames in the brain not the external world in any direct way.

Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans.”

George Lakoff further states in Untellable Truths:

“All politics is moral. Policies are proposed because they are assumed to be right, not wrong. The moral values behind a policy always should be made clear.

Conservatives and progressives have two different conceptions of morality.”

Obama Got It Right in the Beginning

Lakoff encourages Democrats to continue the moral themes President Obama campaigned on. He stated in his article “Untellable Truths”:

Democrats need to unite behind a simple set of moral principles and to create an effective language to express them. President Obama in his campaign expressed those principles simply, as the basis of American democracy.

(1) Empathy — Americans care about each other.

(2) Responsibility, both personal and social. We have to act on that care.

(3) The ethic of excellence. We have to make ourselves better so we can make our families, our communities, our country and the world better. Government has special missions: to protect and empower our citizens to have at least the necessities.”

How could the valuable moral message of Progressives and Democrats be better communicated? What needs to be done differently?

Lakoff tells the untellable truths:

“The conservative message machine has so dominated political discourse that they have changed the meaning of words and made some truths untellable by political leaders in present discourse. It takes a major communication effort to change that.”

“There is a Principle of Conservation of Government: If conservatives succeed in cutting government by the people for the public good, our lives will still be governed, but now by corporations. We will have government by corporations for corporate profit. It will not be a kind government. It will be a cruel government, a government of foreclosures, outsourcing, union busting, outrageous payments for every little thing, and pension eliminations.”

The Moral Mission of Government

George Lakoff explains in his article that conservatives speak about individual responsibility as moral and they neglect the moral importance of social responsibility.

Pundits like Glenn Beck have attempted to make anything with “social” in it sound like a bad word. Democrats and Progressives could reassert the positive value and moral imperative of Americans living up to their social responsibility in society, and the role government can play in supporting that important ethic.

We are social beings. We live in families. We live in communities. We are interdependent. We need each other. Studies show that people who have positive social relationships thrive more. What is “social responsibility?”

According to the wikipedia:

Social responsibility is an ethical ideology or theory that an entity, be it an organization or individual, has an obligation to act to benefit society at large. This responsibility can be passive, by avoiding engaging in socially harmful acts, or active, by performing activities that directly advance social goals.”

Linguist George Lakoff encourages Democrats and Progressives to reframe more clearly their moral message to the American people. Is America having a greed crisis? Is that why so many people are unemployed? Is privatization really government for profit? Are tax breaks for the top 1-2% of Americans really public theft? Can Americans remember that empathy is the basis of true democracy and that we need to take social as well as personal responsibility?

Stay tuned for more commentary on language. For Democrats and Progressives to be successful in winning the hearts and minds of the American people and reinvigorating the Progressive movement, they must create meaningful frames that clearly describe the positive moral value of good government.

International mediator Johan Galtung’s recipe for successful agreements that could bring together Democrats, Republicans and Independents

Johan Galtung, father of peace research, has spent 60 years paring down into 6 words how to precisely describe the ingredients of effective lasting solutions. He recently said that lasting conflict resolution of issues is based on “cooperation for mutual and equal benefit” of people.

Galtung’s message is that there will be conflicts when only certain people benefit from policies or actions or individuals or governments. The key to successful U.S. government policies are those policies, laws, regulations for “mutual and equal benefit” of Americans. Currently in the United States the division between rich and poor is extremely high. Lakoff implores Democrats to rework their communication style so that Americans can clearly understand the value of implementing progressive policies that work for the mutual and equal benefit of all Americans instead of a handful of Americans.

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2 Responses to Linguist George Lakoff encourages Democrats to Convey their Moral Message

  1. Edwin Rutsch says:


    here is more about George Lakoff, – a collection of his speeches, articles etc.

    Also for more about empathy see:
    The Culture of Empathy website is a growing portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    We’re also building an empathy movement.

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