Saturday, January 09, 2021

Review: The All New Don't Think of an Elephant!

 [George Lakoff. The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.]

Second edition from 2014 of a classic of US liberalism first released in the early George W. Bush years. The author is a cognitive scientist who has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of experimental neuroscience to politics. He has published a bunch of scholarly work along these lines too, but this book was how he brought his insights into the liberal end of the popular political
conversation south of the border. He argues that framing is central to how we make knowledge, particularly to what we take up and what we dismiss, and that framing has a biological basis. He argues that in the United States at least, there are two overarching frames under which all politics happen, the ‘strict father’ family and the ‘nurturant parent’ family, and everything else can be explained by how those frames operate and how political actors relate to them. He then explores in considerable detail how the insights that one can derive from this approach would enable progressives to reframe key issues in ways that would make them more winnable.

Not gonna lie, I found this a pretty agonizing read. Not because there’s no value in it – I think it does actually contain some insight into the practicalities of political communication that can be extracted for use by the grassroots movement-ish left, including outside of the US. But the useful stuff is so embedded in things that for me ranged from distracting to odious that I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Frankly, I think folks on the movement-ish left are better off learning lessons in this area by listening to the advice of movement-based people who are committed to approaches to change grounded in organizing – and here I mean “organizing” not in the more common usage where it gets applied to pretty much anything that is vaguely activisty or that involves putting on events of whatever sort, but rather in the more specific sense of an approach to change grounded in one-on-one conversations and engagement across difference with other people in the same workplace, building, or community to build an organization or some other form of collective power.

Anyway, the book. On the level of craft, it was annoying because it’s very repetitive. Maybe that’s deliberate and based in some other lesson from the author’s background in neuroscience – repetition to hammer the point home, or something like that – but it didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable read.

I was also uneasy about how it talks about the relationship between biology, as understood via experimental science, and the social and political world. Not that I deny that connection or dismiss the experimental findings. But in my experience, the ways in which many scientists theorize the social world is weak (or worse) which in turn means that how they conceptualize the relationship between biological knowledge produced through experimentation and the social world also often tends to be weak (or worse). I don’t know enough about the science in this case to even hazard a guess about how I might critique how this book does it – and because it is lay oriented, the book itself does not provide anywhere close to enough of a basis for a reader who doesn’t already know the science well to figure that out – but based on past experience in other areas, I’m sure I would differ from the author. Among many other things, the fact that the biology as characterized by the author maps so incredibly neatly onto the two-party system in the US makes me think there may well be more to say on the subject.

And the book’s take on politics and on the social world is just, from my perspective, not great in a number of ways. A big part of the book is suggesting how liberals and progressive might frame issues differently, so of course to do that it has to describe the issues it then goes on to frame for us. And...yeah. So many problems.

Some permeate the whole framework. So, for instance, he has very little to say about how any of this intersects with how race and racism operate in the United States. Like, how can you present a framework that you claim explains how people orient towards political choices, especially when your political imagination begins and ends with the electoral mainstream, without even a nod towards one of the most consistent electoral patterns in US political life over the last fifty years: African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. I have no way to know this for sure, but I wonder if perhaps this wasn’t mentioned because it doesn’t map onto his overarching ‘strict father vs. nurturant parent’ frame in a simple way. And then there are specific examples where it seems a glaringly obvious omission, like when he’s talking about the debates over health care during Obama’s first term. And I think what he has to say about how framing played into those debates is worth paying attention to, particularly again if you’re approaching it from a standpoint within mainstream US electoral politics. But how can you talk about the Republican success in mobilizing against the itself-pretty-terrible Democratic plan without at least a nod to the ways in which anti-Blackness energized and surrounded every aspect of the right's opposition to Obama?

And, just, all of how it talks about political issues is firmly within what you would expect for US-based liberalism, though perhaps towards the more progressive end, so from a left perspective it omits and distorts a great deal. For example, the book talks about the better and worse ways that you can make use of these insights into framing. Ideally, it means finding more resonant ways to articulate your genuine beliefs, but some people will use it to claim to be doing one thing and then do the opposite in practice. He gives lots of examples of Republicans doing the latter, but his example of a Democrat doing it was Clinton’s so-called welfare reform in the ‘90s – that is, he framed this as Clinton stealing language from the right but then doing the opposite of what the right would do. Which, I don’t know, maybe that is from the talking points that James Carville gave to operatives for use when talking to progressive audiences in those years, but even from up here in Canada I know that is nonsense. Clinton was not just stealing right-wing language; he was implementing right-wing policies and engaging in a terrible assault on poor people. And don’t get me started on how the book talks about foreign policy – exactly the sort of erasure of liberal complicity in war and empire that is almost always present in liberal sources. Then in multiple places, the book talks about environmental problems in part in terms of overpopulation, which is a terrible and dangerous way of framing them. And beyond troubling accounts of specific issues, there is overall an inadequate engagement with questions of power and how change happens – not none, for sure, but a fundamentally liberal engagement that is inadequate in itself and that shapes the rest of the book in less-than-helpful ways.

So as I said at the start, I think the idea of framing and some of the core insights of this book could be potentially be useful to radicals of various stripes trying to build grassroots power. And I definitely think that many of us who understand our politics in movement-ish ways desperately need to re-think how we engage with people who do not already agree with us. But while I think it is possible to learn useful things from this book, we might be better served by learning from experienced grassroots organizers instead.

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