Review: Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives

Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives
Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives by George Lakoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very good book on framing; how can progressives defeat the conservative ‘juggernaut’ in public debates and discourse, using the right words for their ideas and beliefs? Book practices what it preaches by employing crisp, clear language and being rhetorically strong.

“Thinking differently requires speaking differently” and “Facts matter enormously, but to be meaningful they must be framed in terms of their moral importance.” and “Just speaking truth to power doesn’t work. You need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective. ”

Lakoff definitely takes a side:

I have been referred to as a “cognitive activist,” and I think the label fits me well. As a professor I do analyses of linguistic and conceptual issues in politics, and I do them as accurately as I can. But that analytic act is a political act. Awareness matters. Being able to articulate what is going on can change what is going on—at least in the long run

And: “Unlike the right, the left does not think strategically. We think issue by issue.”

Don’t step in someone else’s frame
“When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”

Not only does negating a frame activate that frame, but the more it is activated, the stronger it gets. The moral for political discourse is clear: When you argue against someone on the other side using their language and their frames, you are activating their frames, strengthening their frames in those who hear you, and undermining your own views.

self-interest and voting

Democrats are shocked or puzzled when voters do not vote their self-interest. “How,” Democrats keep asking me, “can any poor person vote for Republicans when Republican policies hurt them so badly?” The Democratic response is to try to explain over and over to the conservative poor why voting Democratic would serve their self-interest. Despite all evidence that this is a bad strategy, Democrats keep banging their heads against the wall.

“People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values. They vote for who they identify with.”

Strict father (Rep) vs nurturant parent (Dem)
Democrats and Republicans differ morally: “We’ve seen that the major moral divisions in our politics derive from two opposed models of the family: a progressive (nurturant parent) morality and a conservative (strict father) morality.” and “Whereas progressives believe centrally in empathy (caring about their fellow citizens), both personal and social responsibility, and a commitment toward doing their best toward those ends, conservatives believe only in personal responsibility.”

How is framing different from spin or propaganda?

Framing is normal. Every sentence we say is framed in some way. When we say what we believe, we are using frames that we think are relatively accurate.

Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it—that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good. Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing.

Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.

The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing. I think it is not just morally reprehensible, but also impractical, because deceptive framing usually backfires sooner or later.

“Saying it right—and saying it over and over—is advice that can be applied to issue after issue.”

“Remember, don’t just negate the other person’s claims; reframe. The facts unframed will not set you free. You cannot win just by stating the true facts and showing that they contradict your opponent’s claims. Frames trump facts. His frames will stay and the facts will bounce off. Always reframe and fit the facts to your frame.”

“Never answer a question framed from your opponent’s point of view. Always reframe the question to fit your values and your frames. This may make you uncomfortable, since normal discourse styles require you to directly answer questions posed. That is a trap. Practice changing frames. • Be sincere. Use frames you really believe in, based on values you really hold.”


Those are a lot of guidelines. But there are only four really important ones:
1. Show respect
2. Respond by reframing
3. Think and talk at the level of values
4. Say what you believe

View all my reviews


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