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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: February 4, 2006
Latest Update: February 5, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Setting the Context for Linguistic Appeal to Values

We've been discussing how the rising tide of frustration amongst the half of the U.S. who voted for the oppostion is forcing politicians, folks, and scholars to question how the administration has been able to consistently sell an agenda that is so unpopular with many of us. That's a valid question. It illustrates how we need our theory and application from research to guide us more effectively through the social system. It also seems to represent a much stronger division in the U.S. than most of us think really exists. We've come to think of red states and blue states, as though these were not social constructions that demand a much more thorough investigation than they've been given yet, except for politicians trying to figure out how to win an election.

George Lakoff, who identifies himself as a progressive, explains this reframing as part of cognitive linguistics, a new field he teaches at Berkeley. He reports research in his field that suggests that facts (like evidence in court) are only processed when they fit a frame the listener is used to and accepts. For example, in choosing a jury for a criminal trial, lawyers want to know that the juror hasn't got any pre-formed opinions about guilt or innocence. So when a juror says "Well, he must be guilty because he's here in court and the police arrested him," the juror is dismissed because he/she is already biased against the defendant. And the judge may remind that juror that in the United States one is innocent until "proven" guilty.

Why dismiss the juror, and not just explain that to him/her? Because the juror has indicated that he/she is receiving information or facts in a frame that includes a belief that "good people don't get arrested." The frame continues to operate, even when the juror is told that that is an unacceptable bias. If the juror believes it, he/she is going to interpret facts through that perspective. So he/she must be dismissed in the interest of a fair trial.

What triggers a frame? Words or actions ("sound bites") that have been associated with values or key concepts the juror has learned that suggest the frame. Lakoff says those words or actions make the frame active. In this case, the defendant is in a court room as a defendant. He must have done something wrong. Frame activated. Bias will block the processing of what is said that conflicts with that bias.

Lakoff has been trying to teach this to progressive groups. The Repulicans went a different route. Frank Luntz is a business consultant who teaches coporations how to effectively sell a product, using an appeal to values, and politicians how to sell themselves in an election, using an appeal to values.

Lakoff is a professor. His work is found in his books. Luntz is a consultant. His manuals are proprietary, and they are not available for sale.

Examples of Frames

From National Review's Window on the Week:

"Radical Islam," he said, is "an ideology of terror and death," and if we bow to it "the violent [will] inherit the earth." Rather than repeat the platitudes of multiculturalism and appeasement, Bush used the language of leaders: He spoke with conviction and truth."

  • "terror" evokes the war on terrorism, invokes fear of attack, activates a fear frame. That frame will dismiss facts that suggest the fear is unreasonable.

  • "terror and death" just makes the frame for frightening; he's talking about death to Americans!

  • "radical Islam" evokes an image of disobedient discontents - radical goes with gangs, people that can't control their emotions, etc.

  • "the violent [will] inherit the earth." Paraphrase of the "meek shall inherit the earth." This triggers a frame that most of us maintain actively, that those who are weak will not be trampled by the violent. Here, Islam has been paired with violence, while the U.S., who started the war, is paired with the "meek." Remember, we're not talking about reasoned argument. We're talking about emotional, knee-jerk "sound bite" responses.

  • "the language of leaders" - triggers "the strict father frame," identified with conservatives. So Bush has been paired with a good leader because he doesn't mince words when castigating "radical Islam."

  • "multiculturalism" is paired with "platitudes." I'll bet a lot of people don't even know what they are, but you can't be persuaded if you're not sure what they are.

    Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives for platitude:

    • : the quality or state of being dull or insipid
    • : a banal, trite, or stale remark

    so either you don't know what it means, or you know it means something dull, stale, not good.

  • "He spoke with conviction and truth." This evokes the frame of "knowingness." "I know I'm right, and you're wrong, on all things. And I'm not gonna let you win." So if you believe that right and wrong or carved in stone, and handed down by God, you're going to respond to this as confirming that he's right. If you understand that the frame is about "knowingness," and you understand the variance of interpretations depending on perspective and difference, you will hopefull become defensive about such arrogance.

    What I responded to on this was that truth is not about conviction. It's about what we can know, what the facts and evidence support. Conviction is about an attitude. One of certainty, that leads to a closed mind and to arrogance. But here is where our sophisticated acceptance of nurturing and caring conflicts with our worship of the strong protective father frame. These are the deep issues we need to address.

Related Lectures:

Radical Right Framing of No Child Left Behind Program

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